Property Rights and Sustainability


property rights and sustainability


This article will examine potential conflicts between sustainable development and property rights in light of: (a)  the recent rise of the anti-Agenda 21 campaign that has rapidly gained traction in the United States, (b)  a new book on the subject, and (c) a recent US Supreme Court decision of June 23, 2013.

As we have seen in several recent articles on this website, there is a new, surprisingly successful attack on sustainability in the United States that claims that local and regional planning that includes environmental, energy, transportation, traffic minimization, and land use provisions is the manifestation of a surreptitious United Nations plot to undermine United States sovereignty to impose a Marxist/socialist new world order. See the last in a three part series, Responding To the Anti-Agenda 21 Disinformation Campaign: A Rigorous Look At The Campaign’s Untruthful Claims.

Although the claims that have been made by activists in the Anti-Agenda 21 campaign are so looney, absurd, and woefully ignorant of international law that some who have been aware of this recent development have chosen to ignore it on the basis that it could never achieve traction in a modern democracy in the 21rst Century,  this right wing attack on sustainability has emerged all across the United States. As we have explained in considerable detail in past articles in this series, the anti-Agenda 21 campaign has been remarkably successful in the last two years in preventing local communities from implementing plans necessary to achieve their democratically derived community aspirations to implement local sustainability programs.

The anti-Agenda 21 Campaign has been successful, at least in part, by claiming that sustainable development and Agenda 21 undermines property rights.  They make this claim despite the fact that, as we have shown in previous papers in this series, Section 8.18 of Agenda 21 provides that governments and legislators should establish judicial and administrative procedures for legal redress and remedy of actions affecting environment and development that may affect rights. Agenda 21, section 10.5 also expressly says that property rights should be taken into account in land use decisions. And so, not only is there no support for the claim that Agenda 21 encourages the reduction of property rights, as we have seen, Agenda 21 says the exact opposite.

It would appear that activists in the anti-Agenda 21 campaign believe that property ownership conveys the right to use property without limit and with no or few responsibilities to protect the environment or ecological systems.

Although Agenda 21 does not undermine property rights are there potential conflicts between sustainability and property rights? A new book has been published that looks at potential conflicts between property rights and sustainability. The book is Property Rights and Sustainability: the Evolution of Property Rights to Meet Ecological Challenges which is edited by David Grinlinton and Prue Taylor. This book seeks to determine  how to reconcile the exercise of freedom to use one’s property as one pleases with the responsibility to protect ecological resources.  The book contains 15 chapters that examine potential conflicts between property rights and the responsibilities of property owners not to harm the environment. The book further identifies ways of reforming property law to establish clearer obligations to protect the environment.  Although all authors in this volume acknowledge the importance of retaining property rights they also examine the need of property law to more clearly establish responsibilities that owners have to protect the environment.

All of the chapters in this book acknowledge social benefits from secure property rights, however most of the chapters in the book assume that the property law must also be clearer about the obligations of property owners to avoid harming the natural resource base on which life depends.

In the opening chapter, Grinlinton and Taylor argue that property rights law prioritizes economic interests over ecological obligations.

In chapter two, Klause Bosselmann argues that current property laws inappropriately give priority to individual entitlements over collective responsibilities. Bosselmann further claims that the property law’s unfinished business is to reconcile private rights with public duties.

Eric Freyfogle argues that is not right to pay land owners to forgo actions that are harmful to others.

J. Ronald Engel argues that property law needs to reflect an understanding of moral obligations property owners have that are understood through reflection on covenants that ground the social contract.

Peter Horsley criticizes current property law by claiming that it is based upon assumptions that humans own nature rather than an understanding of the relationship between humans and nature, namely that humans are part of nature. Property law according to Horsely fails to prevent many small cumulative impacts on nature, ignores the carrying capacity of ecosystems, and fails  to protect ecosystem integrity. Thus, according to Horsely the current focus on “rights” is causing growing harm to the natural world on which we depend.

Samuel Alexander claims that the overriding objective of property laws is to facilitate economic growth as efficiently as possible.

Nicole Graham claims that the meaning of property rights has always evolved over time and that recent steps to solve environmental problems by use of economic markets has been built on six myths about markets. These myths are: (1) rights and profits are not accompanied by responsibilities and costs; (2) the fragmentation of property into multiple and concurrent interests is a good thing; (3) market players make rational choices with perfect information; (4) environmental products can be accurately valued; (5) the demand for environmental products is responsive to price signals; and (6) environmental markets can solve environmental problems.

Craig Anthony (Toni) Arnold agues that the dominant idea about property is that it is a “bundle of rights” that leads to property owners becoming abstracted from ecological systems. He thus argues that property should be understood as a web of interests rather than as a “bundle of rights.”

Successive chapters by Veronica Strong, Nin Thomas, and Lee Golden examine differing cultural approaches to property.

Concluding chapters by David Grinlinton, Ann Brower and John Page, Elmarie van der Schyff, and Amokura Kawharu look at changing conceptions of property and the challenge of accommodating principles of sustainability to the ownership of and use of natural resources.

This new book claims that there may be a need to modify property rights to protect ecological systems although none of the chapters call for private interests in property to be completely replaced by public interests.

This book is an excellent summary of issues that arise when property rights conflict with the protection of the environment.

Yet there are open questions about how frequently environmental protection objectives contained in land us plans, regulations that constrain land uses to achieve environmental protection goals, or permit conditions actually conflict with property rights.

As we have explained in considerable detail in prior entries on this subject, Agenda 21 does not call for changes in property rights. In fact, Agenda 21 urges that property rights be protected. We now, however, look at whether many of the issues that have arisen in some of the local and regional controversies violate the property rights protection under the US Constitution.

To determine the magnitude of any conflict between sustainability and property rights, it is first necessary to look at how courts have articulated when government regulation violates property rights. A comprehensive article on whether there is a conflict between sustainability policies has been published recently. This article is: Does Sustainability Require a New Theory of Property Rights? (Circo. 2009) In this article, Circo concludes that under US constitutional law:

When the contested government action merely regulates land use without physically interfering with possession, the adversely affected landowner will have no right to compensation (a takings claim) absent a showing that the restriction denies the owner “all economically viable use of the land” or that it imposes burdens that bear no relationship to the regulation’s public benefits. In other words, unless the regulation virtually prohibits any valuable use of the land, courts will use a deferential balancing test to determine how far government regulation may go.

 Circo’s summary of takings law goes on to conclude:

The leading land use cases reflect the traditional theory that government may impose significant, even highly intrusive, restrictions on property rights for police power purposes. The usual test is that a police power imposition on property rights is valid unless it is “clearly arbitrary and unreasonable, having no substantial relation to the public health, safety, morals, or general welfare.” Notice the two elements involved: the limitation on property rights must be for a valid police power function (health, safety, morals, or general welfare) and the limitation imposed must bear at least some relationship to that police power purpose (must not be arbitrary or unreasonable).

 Thus it is clear that it is not a violation of property rights for government to impose reasonable restrictions on land use necessary to protect the environment unless the restrictions completely eliminate the use of the property by the owner.


Yet the anti-Agenda 21 campaign has asserted that land-use restrictions such as those that require land owners to install stream buffers when necessary to protect water quality, zoning ordinances that attempt to assure that development does not exceed the carrying capacity limits of ecological systems such as the maximum sustainable yield of groundwater, or regulations that require the protection of wetlands are an infringement of property rights. But as Circo’s analysis makes clear, property rights are not unlimited, and the US courts have almost always upheld reasonable regulation of land needed to protect the environment.

However, if government restricts any reasonable use of land to achieve sustainability goals, this would likely be seen by US courts as a violation of property rights. Yet courts do not see property rights as giving land owners the right to use the land in such a way that it adversely affects the environment.

Does this mean that any proposed government restriction on land use  in the name of sustainable development would not conflict with property rights as currently understood under US constitutional law? Here Circo sees at least one kind of government regulation urged by the idea of sustainability that could create conflicts between property rights and sustainability. That is in cases where governments limit the use of natural resources for the sole benefit of future generations. In such a case, Circo sees a potential conflict between sustainability and land use. It is in such cases where the issues of concern in the book discussed above arise. Yet, most environmental restrictions on the use of land that don’t prevent the land owner from using his or her land are not prohibited by property rights in the United States. And so, the anti-Agenda 21 campaign’s claims that sustainability undermines property rights is also not true for two reasons. As we have seen Agenda 21 calls for the protection of property rights. Also most of the land-use provisions under attack by the anti-Agenda 21 campaign do not violate property rights under. The general rule that environmental restrictions on land use do not entail an unlawful taking of property under the US constitutional law was set out in the Village of Euclid v. Ambler Realty Co., 272 U. S. 365 (1926).  This case held that insisting that landowners internalize the negative externalities of their conduct is a hallmark of responsible land-use policy and limitations on land use do not create and unconstitutional taking.

However a recent case by the US Supreme Court,  identifies a  potential  infringement on property rights when government imposes unreasonable conditions on land-use permits or approvals.  In Koontz v. St. Johns River Water Management District, No. 11-1447, 570 U.S. __ (2013), the court   concluded that there could be an unconstitutional taking of property if governments condition the issuance of permit to mitigate adverse environmental protection goals when the condition lacks an essential nexus and rough proportionality to those impacts. Otherwise there is no taking.

For the limited number of issues raised by sustainability that actually conflict with property rights, the book Property Rights and Sustainability: the Evolution of Property Rights to meet Ecological Challenges is good introduction to the issues that should be considered on matters where there is a conflict between protecting the environment and property rights.


Donald A. Brown

Scholar In Residence, Sustainbility Ethics and Law

Widener University School of Law



An Opportunity to Learn About Links Between Global Governance and Environmental Ethics


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Those who desire to achieve greater traction for ethical principles in guiding solutions to global sustainability problems including but not limited to climate change need to understand the barriers and opportunities presented by current global governance regimes. Although many, if not most sustainability problems, can be adequately dealt with at the national, regional, or local government level, some sustainability problems can not be solved without global cooperation that is mindful of the strengths and weaknesses of global institutions and the role of international law.

Professionals in law, environmental planning and science, policy makers, researchers and students of international law and governance with respect to sustainability and the natural environment require an understanding of the ethical questions at the center of international environmental and sustainability controversies in order to achieve greater traction for ethical principles in government decision-making.  Also a  comprehension of the strength and weaknesses of global governance systems is essential for those who seek to work on ethically based global solutions to the world challenging global sustainability issues.

Anyone interested in these issues has an opportunity to attend a program on International Law, Global Governance, And The Earth Charter Principles. The Earth Charter Center for Education for Sustainable Development’s program aims to empower participants who attend to become competent leaders for sustainability and help them enhance their knowledge at the intersection of international law, global governance, and the Earth Charter. This course will help deepen understanding of global governance systems, international environmental law instruments, and other legal  options to make global governance more responsive to ethical principles. The program will be held from July 3-7 in Costa Rica and applications are open. Please, find all the relevant information here:


Donald A. Brown

Scholar In Residence,

Sustainability Ethics and Law

Widener University School of Law

The Agenda 21 Disinformation Campaign in the United States: An Ethical Critique of an Attack on Sustainability

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I. Introduction

This the first in a series of five articles that will examine a disinformation campaign about the United Nations program on environment and development, Agenda 21. As we will see, this campaign has been surprisingly successful in the United States in undermining land use, transportation, and energy planning, and environmental regulation at the local and regional government levels.

Citizens may have many legitimate reasons to oppose elements of land use plans about which they have a right to contest. In fact, their involvement in local government decision-making may constitute an exercise of citizen virtue. Citizens may also need to participate in land use decision-making to protect rights of various types, including but not limited to, property rights. Yet, claims being made by the anti-Agenda 21 campaign are so demonstratively false, misleading, and deceitful that they fail to pass ethical scrutiny.

As we shall see, many of the claims being made by the anti-Agenda 21 campaign are not only without confirming evidence, they are directly contradicted by the text of Agenda 21 itself, woefully ignorant of the limited role of the United Nations in the world, and deeply misleading about what Agenda 21 is and its effect of on the United States.

The misleading claims of the anti-Agenda 21 campaign also have had consequences.  As we shall see, the anti-Agenda 21 campaign has been successful in preventing citizens at the local and regional level the United States from organizing their communities to protect open spaces, reduce traffic congestion, provide public transportation, protect water and air quality, construct bike lanes, and achieve other community benefits that can only be achieved by responsible land-use planning. The anti-Agenda 21 campaign has accomplished this by making preposterous claims including that local land-use planning is part of a plot to put United Nations in control of local and regional decision-making, rob individuals of their freedoms, and undermine property rights. As we shall see in the last entry in this series, the anti-Agenda 21 campaign that is making these claims has been funded, at least in part, by economic interests that profit from the absence of responsible land use planning and environmental regulation.

conspiracy2The assertions made by the anti-Agenda 21 campaign or not only false, they are so deeply inconsistent with the explicit language of Agenda 21 that they can only be understood as the paranoid constructions of somebody that has subscribed to conspiracy theories about the United Nations.  Because the text of Agenda 21 so dramatically contradicts the claims of the anti-Agenda 21 campaign, it would appear someone who believed that  the United Nations is an institution dedicated to undermining national sovereignty and the destruction of individual freedom around the world selectively looked for language in Agenda 21 that confirmed this conspiracy theory. They then quoted the confirming language and ignored the rest of the text of Agenda 21 that dramatically contradicts the conspiratorial conclusions, drew conclusions from the selected language without any confirming evidence, and made claims about the United Nations that are breathtakingly ignorant of the UN’s limited legal authority including its utter lack of power over national, regional, or local governments. (Only the UN Security Council has authority over governments but that authority is subject to the veto power of its permanent members, one of which is the United States, along with China, France, Great Britain, and Russia.)

As we shall see, one of the organizations connected to the anti-Agenda 21 campaign has been the John Birch Society whose website proclaims:

The global power elites view the UN as their main vehicle for establishing, step by step, a socialistic global government controlled by themselves. Now, more than ever, we need to get out of the UN and remove the UN from the United States. (John Birch Society)

And so it appears that the anti-Agenda 21 campaign has been fed by organizations who believe that the United Nations is taking over the world,  organizations that claimed in the past that the civil rights movement was a communist plot.

beck agenda 21


The conclusions of the anti-Agenda 21 campaign are so obviously inconsistent with the facts about Agenda 21 that many who are familiar with Agenda 21 have ignored this phenomenon on the basis that is so loony, delusional, or wacky that it could not gain traction in any 21st-century democracy. Yet as we will see, the anti-Agenda 21 campaign has had growing success in thwarting the implementation of local communities preferred visions of the future that have been derived cooperatively in mufti-stakeholder and citizen discussions. agend 21 pin

In a recent article in Professor John Dernbach concluded that “a well organized campaign against Agenda 21, spread by the Tea Party, Glenn Beck, and the John Birch Society, exists” (See, Agenda 21: A Guide for the Perplexed) In this article Professor Dernbach explains : (a) how this campaign is becoming affective in the United States and is threatening to undermine US sustainability programs, the real target of this campaign; (b) what Agenda 21 is and is not, and (c) why many of the claims made by the the anti-Agenda 21 campaign are demonstratively false.

This article will critically examine four of the claims of the campaign and deduce from the campaign the tactics employed by the campaign. The next article in this series will  critically examine five other claims of the campaign deduce from the claims the tactics campaign. In the last entry, this series will examine the tactics of the campaign through an ethical lens after looking at the organizations and funding behind the campaign. Claims examined in this series include:

Claim 1. Agenda 21 is a United Nations Program that implements extreme environmentalism, social engineering, and global political control.

Claim 2 . The United Nations has covertly pushed Agenda 21 into local communities throughout United States of America through the international Council of Local Environmental Initiatives and through policies such as ” Smart Growth,”  “Wildlands Projects”, “Resilient Cities”,  “Regional Visioning Projects” and others with similar obscure names.

Claim 3. Agenda 21 and sustainable development views the American way of life of private property ownership, single-family homes, private automobile ownership, individual travel choices, privately owned farms, and human existence as all being destructive of the environment.

Claim 4. Under Agenda 21, social justice is described as the right and opportunity of the people around the world to benefit equally from the resources afforded us by society and the environment which would be accomplished by socialist/communist global redistribution of property and wealth. 

Claims examined in the second part of this series include:

Claim 5. Agenda 21 attempts to erode the local control found in our communities across the nation and turns home and regional rule over to a global agenda set by a body organization authorized by the United Nations.

Claim 6. Agenda 21 calls for decisions affecting local property to be made in accordance with the Charter of the United Nations rather than local property law.

Claim 7. Agenda 21 means that individual rights must take second place to the rights of the collective.

Claim 8. Agenda 21 calls for free enterprise to be replaced with public/ private partnership.

Claim 9. In decision-making at the local level, the job of the facilitator is to guide the local stakeholder groups to accept predetermined objectives consistent with Agenda 21.

Claim 10. Agenda 21 implementation will mean that people will only be able to live in the certain limited areas of the United States marked on a specific map, living in rural areas will no longer be possible in the United States.

Claim 11. Agenda 21 requires that the same solutions to be applied the same everywhere in the world.

Claim 12. Agenda 21 erodes American Sovereignty.

II. The Success of the Anti-21 Campaign

The anti-Agenda 21 campaign has rapidly grown in influence in local and regional government planning decision-making in the United States in the last few years.  Anti-Agenda 21 activists making arguments propagated by a few extreme right wing organizations have appeared in greater numbers at land use planning meetings of local and regional governments around the United States claiming that land use planning and sustainable development policies are manifestations of a covert United Nations plot to undermine national sovereignty, destroy property rights, implement a radical environmentalism, and destroy individual freedom.  Despite the obvious delusional character of many of the campaign’s claims, this  phenomenon has been remarkably successful in the last few years in defeating local land-use planning proposals around the United States, in passing anti-sustainability laws in several US states, and, as we shall see, convincing the Republican party to accept its paranoid assumptions.


According to the Tampa Bay Times, the anti-Agenda 21 campaign was successful in getting the Republican National Committee to approve a resolution calling for a formal stance against Agenda 21 in the 2012 GOP platform and denouncing the U.N. accord as “a comprehensive plan of extreme environmentalism, social engineering, and global political control” that is being “covertly pushed into local communities.” (Jamison, 2012)

The Republican Party platform in 2012 stated that “We strongly reject the U.N. Agenda 21 as erosive of American sovereignty.”

And so if there is any question about the power of this campaign, it is remarkable that one of the two major American political parties has uncritically adopted the claims of the anti-Agenda 21 campaign despite the fact that, as we shall see, the edifice of this campaign has been constructed of delusional, inaccurate, and demonstratively falsifiable ideas about Agenda 21.

In addition, several state and local governments have considered or passed motions and legislation opposing Agenda 21. The New York Times recently reported:

Across the country, activists with ties to the Tea Party are railing against all sorts of local and state efforts to control sprawl and conserve energy. They brand government action for things like expanding public transportation routes and preserving open space as part of a United Nations led conspiracy to deny property rights and herd citizens toward cities.

They are showing up at planning meetings to denounce bike lanes on public streets and smart meters on home appliances — efforts they equate to a big-government blueprint against individual rights.

In Maine, the Tea Party-backed Republican governor canceled a project to ease congestion along the Route 1 corridor after protesters complained it was part of the United Nations plot. Similar opposition helped doom a high-speed train line in Florida. And more than a dozen cities, towns and counties, under new pressure, have cut off financing for a program that offers expertise on how to measure and cut carbon emissions.

Alabama became the first state to prohibit government participation in Agenda 21. The Alabama law bars the state or any of its subdivisions from adopting or implementing policy actions that “deliberately or inadvertently infringe or restrict private property rights without due process, as may be required by policy recommendations originating in, or traceable to Agenda 21, adopted by the United Nations.”

 Although the Alabama law is pretty vague in that it bars action without “due process of law,” as one observer notes, no doubt every proposal for smart growth, high density housing, heritage preservation, wetlands or forest protection, shoreline preservation, or environmental protection will now be bogged down in Alabama. (Alter, 2012)

A bill passed both houses of the Missouri legislature recently and as of this writing was awaiting the Governor’s signature. The Missouri Bill provides:

Neither the state of Missouri nor any political subdivision shall adopt or implement policy recommendations that deliberately or inadvertently infringe or restrict private property rights without due process, as may be required by policy recommendations originating in, or traceable to Agenda 21, adopted by the United Nations in 1992 at its Conference on Environment and Development.

 A bill has been introduced in Kansas that provides:

No public funds may be used, either directly or indirectly, to promote, support, mandate, require, order, incentivize, advocate, plan for, participate in or implement sustainable development. (Huffington Post)

This bill has potential remarkable future consequences, since every kind of land use plan, environmental regulation, or transportation plan could be understood to be “sustainable development.”

According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, Agenda 21 has become:

“a touchstone of a larger theme that equates environmentalism with totalitarianism and the loss of individual freedom. For a growing cast of far-right hardliners, Agenda 21 is a sort of Trojan horse, a totalitarian scheme with a green environmental mask, lying in wait to destroy America as we know it.’

In many places throughout the United States, the anti-Agenda 21 has been successful in thwarting local and regional land use planning. For instance, in February, 2013 the West Cornwall Township, Pennsylvania  supervisors passed a resolution opposing Cornwall-Lebanon Regional Comprehensive Plan, a joint effort of the townships of North Lebanon, South Lebanon, North Cornwall and West Cornwall as well as Cornwall Borough. (Lebanon Daily News)

The West Cornwall Township resolution is attached a Appendix A.

In December of 2012, North Londonderry Township withdrew from its regional comprehensive plan that it had created with partners South Londonderry Township and Palmyra Borough.

And so, Agenda 21 is being used by activists in the United States as the basis for opposing land use and economic development planning, environmental regulation, and transportation planning. Tea Party activists have recently changed their political focus from the federal government to a new perhaps more insidious target: local planning and zoning commissions, which activists claim are carrying out a global conspiracy to trample American liberties and force citizens into Orwellian high-density living zones.  Anti-Agenda 21 activists see Agenda 21 behind everything from a septic tank inspection law in Florida, a plan in Maine to reduce traffic on Route 1, and the creation of the bike sharing programs in Colorado and as a covert attempt to create United Nations dominated communities.

The activists frequently make the absurd claim that any land use plan that includes some environmental protection elements is a step in a stealth UN Agenda 21 plot even though most engaged in planning at the local level have never heard of Agenda 21, environmental goals have been included in land use planning long before Agenda 21 was created, and most citizens desire to protect local air, water, and natural resources, reduce traffic congestion, provide public transportation, and protect wetlands and fisheries to maintain the quality of life without any regard to what Agenda 21 says. The anti-Agenda 21 campaign argues that all of these local planning derived outcomes should be opposed because they are the manifestation of a UN plot.

We now look at specific claims made by the Anti-Agenda 21 campaign, evaluate them to determine their veracity, and identify the tactics of the Anti-Agenda 21 campaign that can be deduced from these claims.

III. Specific Claims

Claim 1. Agenda 21 is a United Nations Program that Implements Extreme Environmentalism, Social Engineering, and Global Political Control. (West Cornwall Township Resolution)

Agenda 21 is a non-binding, voluntarily action plan agreed to by the international community in 1992 to implement the concept of sustainable development. Although the term sustainable development has no precise definition, those who attempt to define it often quote the definition from the 1987 Brundtland Commission which said that sustainable development is “development that meets the needs of the present generation without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”

Many observers have commented on the fact that this is a notoriously vague definition that gives no clear guidance on how to resolve conflicts between economic development and environmental protection goals.

Agenda 21 is comprised of 40 chapters that are divided into the following sections:

1. Program of Action for Sustainable Development

2. Social and Economic Dimensions

3. Conservation And Management of Resources For Development

4. Strengthening the Role of Major Groups, and.

5. Means of Implementation

Chapters relating to environmental protection are in section 3 and include separate chapters on the atmosphere, land use planning and land resources, deforestation, fragile ecosystems, sustainable agriculture and rural development, biological diversity, biotehnology, oceans and seas, freshwater, toxic chemicals, hazardous wastes, solid wastes and sewage, and radioactive wastes.

The contents of these chapters were for the most part developed by examining best practices on these issues that existed around the world in the early1990s. In fact, many of the policies in these chapters were based on existing law and policies in the United States. The chapter on the atmosphere is an exception to this because it called for control of atmospheric greenhouse gases to prevent climate change and the United States did not have laws and regulations on greenhouse gas emission when Agenda 21 was agreed to in 1992. However, the call for control of greenhouse gas  emissions in Agenda 21 is much less precise than the obligations to adopt policies and practices to prevent the threat of climate change that the George H.W. Bush administration had agreed to when it negotiated and Congress ratified the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change in 1992. And so Agenda 21 added nothing to US obligations on climate change.

The environmental policies listed in the above chapters were understood to constitute simply a menu of options to be considered by nations, not binding directives. In this regard William Reilly, US EPA administrator during the George H. W. Bush administration, said during the 1992 Rio conference which adopted Agenda 21 that:

Agenda 21 is not a binding agreement, it is an action plan. It is  more a menu of options than a directive. No country could simultaneously undertake all the programs set out in the document. Each country must set its own priorities among the many issues addressed in Agenda 21. (Reilly, 1992)

Because the environmental provisions of Agenda 21 contained in the above chapters were for the most part based on existing US law as of 1992 or promises that the United States had agreed to under ratified international treaties, it is absurd to conclude that Agenda 21 calls for the implementation of extreme environmentalism. Moreover these chapters are mere recommendations for consideration by governments around the world, not rules that governments must accept. The provisions in these chapters are neither binding on governments, nor has there ever been a review by the United Nations of US law to see if it is consistent with Agenda 21. Even more tellingly Agenda 21 expressly incorporates the Rio Declaration which says in relevant part:

Nations have in accordance with the Charter of the United Nations and the principles of international law the sovereign right to exploit their own resources pursuant to their own environmental and development policies. (Rio Declaration, Principle 2)

And so rather than undermining national sovereignty, Agenda 21 reaffirms it and acknowledges that nations should develop their own policies based upon their own interests to resolve potential conflicts between environmental protection and economic development goals.

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Agenda 21 is not binding on the United States in three ways. First, it is not a treaty, the only kind of legal document that can bind nations. Unlike a treaty, the United States has never attempted to ratify it because it was always understood to be a non-binding set of recommendations that nations should consider or reject according to their own visions of appropriate environmental protection and economic development needs.  Second, Agenda 21 was never intended to obligate nations to implement its recommendations comprehensively. Its contents were understood to be only a menu of options for consideration by governments, a fact that is clear from a reading of the entirety if the text. Third, Agenda 21 never created an enforcement mechanism or any process for the UN to review national laws and policies to compare what has been done at the national level in response to Agenda 21.

At yearly meetings on the Commission of Sustainable Development (CSD) at the United Nations, an organization created by Agenda 21, nations self-reported on what they were doing in regard to the general subject of specific Agenda 21 chapters, not on the specific provisions of Agenda 21. And so the United States usually reported on what already doing under US law on matters that were relevant to the subject matter of Agenda 21s chapters.  That is, the United States reported on programs and policies that the United States had independently without regard to Agenda 21 obligations.

From 1995 through 1998, I held the position of Program Manager for United Nations Organizations at the US EPA Office of International Environmental Policy. In this position I had the lead staff responsibility for the US EPA to compile reports on programs managed by EPA that were submitted to the UN CSD.  In my tenure,  no programs or policies were reported on that had been enacted by the United States to comply with Agenda 21. In fact, during my tenure at EPA there was no one in the US government that had any responsibility to review US law and policy in regard to the specific provisions of Agenda 21 to determine how US law or policy needed to be upgraded to conform to Agenda 21.

The US simply never took Agenda 21 seriously, a fact that was a disappointment to many environmental NGOs that attended meetings of the UN  CSD. After the adoption of Agenda 21 in 1992, the European Union frequently tried to strengthen Agenda 21’s vague language by amending several chapters to include numerical targets and timetables. The US always fought these proposals and succeeded in preventing Agenda 21 from including quantitative goals. (Even if quantitative goals had been injected into Agenda 21, they would still not be binding on the United States.)

The United States understood that it had no binding obligations under Agenda 21 to develop any new programs and that the body of US law was for the most part equal to or more demanding than recommendations in the Agenda 21’s environmental chapters. The Clinton administration, as the Bush administration before it, saw Agenda 21 as only a menu of best practices, not a list of obligations. The chief value of Agenda 21 for the Clinton administration was that it provided guidance for developing countries on how to upgrade clearly inadequate laws and policies relating to environmental protection and economic development controversies. In fact many mainstream US environmental NGOs were uninterested in Agenda 21 because they saw it as document mostly of importance to developing countries. As a result the large US environmental groups did not even participate in most discussions about Agenda 21 at the UN CSD, they believed that they had more important environmental issues to work on.  Of course, some US environmental NGOs were greatly disappointed that the Clinton administration took no interest in upgrading US law and policy on the subject matter of Agenda 21 chapters. To do this the US government would need to work with Congress, and the Clinton administration had no appetite for this. The Clinton administration was engaged attempting to upgrade US law and policy on climate change but they never saw Agenda 21 relevant to this effort. As we have seen, the first Bush administration had agreed to and had ratified the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change under which international negotiations on climate change would proceed.

Since most of the environmental provisions in Agenda 21 were based upon preexisting United States law and policy, the United States consistently reported to the United Nations on matters under existing US law that preceded Agenda 21.

Opponents  of land-use planning in the United States that are connected to the anti-Agenda 21 campaign frequently claim that because United States law and policy now contain provisions similar to provisions in Agenda 21,  this proves the claim that the United States has been implementing Agenda 21. Such an argument completely ignores the fact that the United States and other developed countries have been adopting environmental law and regulations since the late 1960s, decades before Agenda 21 existed and the fact that the US has adopted environmental law is absolutely no evidence of the influence of Agenda 21 .

There is absolutely no factual basis for the claim that United States environmental policy was created in response to provisions of Agenda 21 and such a claim is demonstratively false.

lack of evidence

The claim that nations have a duty to comply with the provisions of Agenda 21 is flatly contradicted by the language of  the 1992 Rio Declaration which is expressly incorporated into Agenda 21 and which says:

States shall enact effective environmental legislation. Environmental standards, management objectives, and priorities should reflect the environmental and development context to which they apply. Standards applied by some countries may be inappropriate and of unwarranted economic cost to other countries, particularly in developing countries. (Rio Declaration, Principle 11)

And so, so all nations understood that they were not bound to change their laws in accordance with the provisions of Agenda 21.

What was arguably new about Agenda 21 for most governments was the call that environmental and economic development decision-making be integrated. Agenda 21 was premised on the notion that some economic development policies that fail to take into consideration impacts on the environment will harm legitimate environmental protection objectives and environmental policies that fail to consider legitimate economic development needs will frustrate the attainment of legitimate economic aspirations.  It is simply not true that Agenda 21 calls for environmental considerations to take precedence over economic development needs. In fact, a large motivating factor for the adoption of Agenda 21 was the fear of developing countries whose most important priority was getting their people out of grinding poverty that environmental laws of most interest to rich developed nations would limit their ability to proceed with economic development. Because Agenda 21 valued economic development on the same plane as environmental protection, many developing nations saw Agenda 21 as protecting their right to pursue economic development. Conversely in the United States, many environmental activists were suspicious of Agenda 21 for putting economic development on the same level as environmental protection.  They were afraid that Agenda 21 put too much value in economic development.

Yet Agenda 21 does encourage decision-makers at all governmental scales to consider at the same time environmental protection and economic development needs in decision-making. Because integrated decision-making allows nations to pursue both economic development aspirations and environmental protection goals, it is a way of preventing governments from unknowingly undermining these goals by focusing on only one of them.  Most policy makers agree this is a good thing. If, for instance, a project is proposed to limit the use of forest resources, governments should take into consideration the legitimate economic needs of those who rely upon the forest resources for subsistence.  Also, of course, economic development projects could adversely affect legitimate environmental protection goals. Therefore economic development projects should consider environmental protection impacts. And so, sustainable development is understood to be a call for the integration of environmental, economic, and social considerations into government decision making. It is simply untruthful to claim the Agenda 21 elevates environmental protection goals over economic development needs.

The following diagram captures the idea well:


sustain 2


Where the scope of proposed environmental, economic, or social policies conflict with legitimate environmental, economic, or social goals, the concept of sustainable development encourages decision-makers to identify these potential conflicts and work democratically with citizen groups to find solutions that achieve environmental, economic and social goals to the maximum extent possible. As this chart depicts, only when there is a potential conflict among environmental, economic, or social goals is integrated decision-making necessary. And so for the vast number of economic policies, integrated decision-making has no effect. As we shall see when we examine ethical issues raised by these matters, this idea of integrated decision-making provides no clear guidance about how to resolve conflicts among environmental, economic, and social goals. Under Agenda 21, this is left to governments to resolve working ideally with multi-stakeholder groups democratically.

The claim that Agenda 21 is a call for international control of local government decision-making is directly contradicted by the text of Agenda 21.  Section 10.6 (e) of Agenda 21 expressly calls for policy making to be accomplished at the lowest level of public authority consistent with the effective action and a locally driven approach. In addition, many other provisions of Agenda 21 specifically call for governments to make decisions at the appropriate level. (see, for example,  Agenda 21 section 10.6).  And so, rather than Agenda 21 establishing a “top-down”United Nations driven set of rules for imposition of radical environmental policies on nations and local governments, Agenda 21 is actually a call for a “bottom-up” stakeholder driven process that integrates environmental and  economic development concerns into decision-making which should take place at the lowest possible scale consistent with the scale of the problem.  Most environmental problems can be solved at the local level, others require cooperation at the regional or global level. For instance, wetlands protection can usually be dealt with at the local level, protection of water basins require cooperation among all communities sharing the basin, and problems like protection of the ozone layer, acidification of oceans, and climate change require cooperation at the global scale. Agenda 21 calls for solutions at the lowest level consistent with the scale of the problem.

Rather than being opposed to economic development, Agenda 21 actually calls for the strengthening the business sector’s participation in integrated environmental and economic development decisions. In fact there is an entire chapter in Agenda 21, chapter 30, which calls for the strengthening of the business sectors participation in decision-making.

In light of the above, assertions that Agenda 21 implements Marxist/socialist theories that would abolish private ownership of property is both absurd and flatly contradicted throughout the text of Agenda 21. In fact, Agenda 21 also expressly calls for greater use of “more effective and widespread use of economic and market-oriented tools.” (Agenda 21, Sec. 8.30)

Thus it is simply either a lie or reckless disregard for the truth to claim that Agenda 21 entails a “top-down” Marxist plan to abolish private sector involvement in the economy. In fact, in many places, as we have seen Agenda 21 recognizes the crucial importance  of the private sector in economic development. Furthermore business organizations were regularly consulted by the United States when it responded to Agenda 21 issues and the American business community consistently agreed with positions taken by the United States on Agenda 21 issues, at least in this writer’s experience. In fact the US government often agreed with positions of the US businesses on matters about which environmental NGOs disagreed.  One example was when US environmental NGOs and European countries proposed that  a code of conduct  for international corporations be adopted by the UN CSD. This idea was strongly opposed by American corporations and the US government on the Clinton Administration successfully prevented the UN from pursuing this idea.  his greatly disappointed US environment NGOs. Similarly in 1997 the US government supported the views of the US business community while refusing to support the positions of  environmental NGOs and European countries when  the European Union proposed that the UN CSD adopt targets to reduce unsustainable consumption by specific percentages. The United States strongly opposed this idea at the urging of the US business community and successfully prevented this idea from going forward in the UN despite strong pleas to the US government from the US NGO community to agree to consumption targets.

The anti-Agenda 21 campaign continues to make the false claim that because President Clinton established the Presidents Council On Sustainable Development (PCSD), an organization which met from June of 1993 to June of 1999, the United States has implemented Agenda 21 throughout the United States.  (For an in depth review of the purpose, accomplishments, and failures of the PCSD, see Dernbach, Learning from the President;s Council on Sustainable Development: The Need for Real National Strategy) The PCSD was created by Executive Order of President Clinton to give advice to the US government about how to move toward sustainability.

The membership of the PCSD was made up of roughly equal numbers of individuals from industry, government, and NGOs and was chaired by Ray Anderson, Chairman and CEO of Interface, Inc., a carpet manufacturer, and Jonathan Lash, President of the World Resources Institute. Included among the PCSD members of were Enron, BP Oil, Dow Chemical, and General Motors.

From 1993 to 1999, the PCSD delivered three reports to President Clinton. These reports included a broad array of policy recommendations intended to promote US domestic sustainability. Although the PCSD produced guidance on steps for achieving sustainable development at both domestic and international levels, the Clinton administration chose not to move to implement the PCSD’s recommendations. (McFarlane, Development Policy in the First Two Years of the Bush Administration)

Included in PCSD’s  recommendations was a visions statement which included the following goal:

To achieve our vision of sustainable development, some things
must grow—jobs, productivity, wages, capital and savings,
profits, information, knowledge, and education—and others—
pollution, waste, and poverty—must not.

This is hardly the vision of a radical socialist agenda. In addition, the PCSD’s  recommendations are replete with many express acknowledgements of respect for the power the market and private decision-making. It is simply not a reasonable interpretation of the work of the PCSD to conclude that it recommended the transformation of American society to a socialist future. Furthermore the PCSD was established as an advisory committee. It did not have any statutory authority of its own, nor was it located within an agency that had any statutory authority. If the US government choose to ignore its recommendations, nothing would come of them. In fact, that is what happened to the PCSD.

The last major event in the PCSD’s life was a national town meeting in Detroit in May of 1999. After the Detroit meeting, the PCSD shut down and as we have noted the Clinton administration took no steps to implement the PCSD’s recommendations. The George W. Bush administration completely ignored the recommendations of the PCSD.

And so nothing meaningful came out of the PCSD. Therefore, there is simply no basis for concluding that the PCSD led to the implementation of a radical environmental agenda in the United States. The claim that the PCSD’s work is evidence of the continuing UN’s covert implementation of Agenda 21 is not just misleading and false, it is a staggering example of reckless disregard for the truth given the unwillingness of both the Clinton and George W. Bush administration to take any steps to implement the PCSD recommendations.  The evidence proffered by the anti-Agenda 21 campaign in support of the fact that the PCSDs recommendations have been implemented is the existence of environmental law and regulation at the federal, state and local level throughout United States. However there is no evidence that existing US law and regulation on environmental matters  had anything to do either with Agenda 21 or the work of the PCSD.

Claim 2 . The United Nations has covertly pushed Agenda 21 into local communities throughout United States of America through the international Council of Local Environmental Initiatives and through policies such as ” Smart Growth,”  “Wildlands Projects”, “Resilient Cities”,  “Regional Visioning Projects” and others with similar obscure names. (West Cornwall Township Resolution)

The anti-Agenda 21 campaign frequently claims that Agenda 21 is being covertly implemented through organizations that have been created to implement Agenda 21 while disguising their intentions by changing their names to organizations with the names such as the  “International Council on Local Environmental Initiatives (ICLEI),” ” Smart Growth,” “Wildlands Projects,” “Resilient Cities,”  and “Regional Visioning Projects.”  In making these claims the anti-Agenda 21 campaign is explicitly arguing that those engaged in  these programs are doing so to implement Agenda 21.  That is  these organizations are pursuing their goals because of the Agenda 21,  not because they independently see benefits from sound growth, responsible land-use or transportation planning, or the creation of bike lanes for reasons other than Agenda 21.

The chapter in Agenda 21 on local authorities, Chapter 28, is only slightly longer than one page. It contains no prescriptions in regard to the content of local sustainability programs. This chapter simply says that each local authority should enter into a dialogue with its citizens, local organizations, and private enterprises and adopt a local Agenda 21. There are simply no minimum conditions for what constitutes a local Agenda 21. The clear objective of this chapter is that communities determine the content of local Agenda 21s through collaborative examination of their own needs for appropriate environmental, economic, and social policies.  Given this it is absurd to conclude that the contents of any local sustainability program were formed by Agenda 21.

Those engaged in the anti-Agenda 21 campaign are unable to identify a  link between these organizations and Agenda 21 or the United Nations other than claiming that these organizations are working on subject matter which is also covered in Agenda 21. No one in the United Nations reviews local sustainability plans to determine if they are minimally consistent with Agenda 21. There is simply no formal institutional connection between the United Nations and local governments except for the fact that the UN keeps some track of local sustainability programs  and occasionally convenes meetings to allow local communities to learn from each other about how to construct local sustainability programs.  The United Nations does not review or pass on the acceptability of these programs. Moreover, much of the land use, transportation, and energy planning that is under attack by the anti-Agenda 21 program has not been conducted by these organizations, they simply are the product of local government planning processes led by staff that often never heard of Agenda 21 nor ever worked with organizations such as ICLEI. Yet, even in the cases where local land use plans have been produced by local planning organizations working with local stakeholder groups rather than the named organizations, the anti-Agenda 21 argues that these plans are part of a United Nations plot.

The only evidence that these named organizations are covertly pursuing the implementation of Agenda 21 proffered by the anti-Agenda 21 campaign is that these organizations are doing work similar in content to the focus of several Agenda 21 chapters. Yet such an argument completely ignores the possibility that those working for these organizations are pursuing the organization’s goals because they believe that responsible planning is worthy of pursuit on its own terms because of the ability of communities to implement a vision of the future derived in planning processes. The anti-Agenda 21 campaign offers no proof that people working for these organizations have been motivated by the desire to implement Agenda 21. Given that, as we have seen, that most of the environmental provisions of Agenda 21 were based upon environmental laws and policies that existed before Agenda 21 came into existence it is preposterous to assume the people working for these organizations have been motivated primarily by the provisions of Agenda 21.

There is simply no evidence that people engaged in these organizations are taking orders from, report to, or are responding to wishes of United Nations. Even if they were, given that Agenda 21 is a menu of options, not a set of rules, local governments are completely free under Agenda 21 to determine which environmental and economic issues will be taken into consideration in their local planning.

However, this does not stop the anti-Agenda 21 campaign from attacking local planning on the basis that it is part of an UN Marxist plot to destroy private property.

Claim 3. Agenda 21 and sustainable development views the American way of life of private property ownership, single-family homes, private automobile ownership, individual travel choices, privately owned farms, and human existence as all being destructive of the environment. (West Cornwall Township Resolution)

Embedded in this claim are two assertions about Agenda 21 that are directly contradicted  by the text of Agenda 21.  One is the claim that Agenda 21 encourages the destruction of property rights. The second is the claim that Agenda 21 elevates environment protection goals over the interests of people. These two claims are very frequently made by the anti-Agenda 21 campaign yet directly contradicted by Agenda 21.

Section 8.18 of Agenda 21  provides that governments and legislators should  establish judicial and administrative procedures for legal redress and remedy of actions affecting environment and development that may affect rights. Agenda 21 section 10.5 expressly says that property rights should be taken into account in land use decisions. And so, not only is there no support for the claim that Agenda 21 encourages the elimination of property rights, as we have seen Agenda 21 says the exact opposite.

Rather than elevating environmental protection over human interests, Agenda 21 expressly incorporates principal one of the Rio Declaration that says that human beings are at the center concern for sustainable development. And so, the idea that Agenda 21 makes human interests subservient to environment protection goals is directly contradicted by the text of Agenda 21. Although it is true that Agenda 21 encourages people to live in harmony with nature, Agenda 21 does not discourage the use of natural resources to meet human needs except to the extent that it encourages decision-makers to consider how the overuse of natural resources will undermine the quality of life for present and future generations. Even in this case, human interests are the basis for concern about the environment. Also, local governments are completely free to decide which issues it will consider in land use planning.

And as we have seen above, Agenda 21 also incorporates principle two of the Rio Declaration that expressly says that nations have the sovereign right to exploit their own resources pursuant to their own environmental and development policies. This provisions make nations sovereign over natural resources, not the Unite Nations while reaffirming national sovereignty. Once again, the anti-Agenda 21 campaign is making claims that are demonstratively false.

Claim 4. Under Agenda 21, social justice is described as the right and opportunity of the people around the world to benefit equally from the resources afforded us by society and the environment which would be accomplished by socialist/communist global redistribution of property and wealth. (West Cornwall Township Resolution).

As we have seen, Agenda 21 expressly encourages property rights to be honored and for governments to establish civil procedures to redress the unlawful taking of property rights. The absurd notion that agenda 21 calls for the redistribution of wealth according to socialist/communist goals is nowhere be found in Agenda 21 and as we have seen Agenda 21 expressly calls for the strengthening of the private sector participation in decision-making in many places including an entire chapter of Agenda 21, Chapter 30.

Agenda 21 does call for more foreign aid from developed countries to assist poor developing countries with poverty alleviation. This however is simply a call for more foreign aid, not a request for redistribution of wealth pursuant to some socialist/communist theory. Chapter 33 of Agenda 21 calls for developed nations to provide 0.7% of GDP for foreign aid to poor developing countries. The United States, however, made it clear when it signed Agenda 21 in 1992 by making a special statement on the issue that it did not agree with this goal and was not in any way bound by it. This disclaimer was originally made by the George H.W Bush administration and was strongly and frequently repeated in the Clinton administration during meetings of the United Nations Commission on Sustainable Development.  In fact, when I was on the US delegation in 1997, when several developing nations criticized the United States for being in last place among developed countries in percentage of GDP devoted to foreign aid, with only 0. 1 % of US GDP devoted to foreign aid compared to 10 times as much in some European countries, the Clinton not administration strongly repeated its position that the US rejected the 0.7% of GDP goal. It further said that the principle way to help developing nations economically was to help them  them to attract private sector investment.

And so, the claim that Agenda 21 will lead to a Marxist/communist redistribution of private resources is another staggering delusional claim made by the anti-Agenda 21 campaign.

III. Conclusion to this First in a Series on the anti-Agenda 21 Campaign.

So far we have seen that four claims repeatedly made by the anti-Agenda 21 campaign are so demonstratively false, misleading, inaccurate about Agenda 21 that they can only be explained as the result of paranoid conspiracy theory about the United Nations or by a reckless disregard for the truth. Yet, we have seen that this delusional phenomenon has been successful in undermining local and regional planning and amazingly convincing the Republican party to accept and adopt in their party platform claims that are contradicted by the very document on which the claims are based.

Later entries in this series will continue the examination of specific claims made by the anti-Agenda 21 campaign, deduce from all these claims the tactics that have been deployed by the anti-Agenda 21 campaign and subject these tactics  to an ethical analysis. In a later blog we will also examine who appears to be behind this disturbing development in US affairs.


Reilly, William, 1992, Questions and Answers on UNCED Issues, March 29, 1992 (Copy of this in possession of author)


Donald A. Brown

Scholar In Residence

Sustainability Ethics and Law

Widener University School of Law


                Appendix A

cornwall 1


An Ethical Analysis of Mitt Romney’s Climate Change Views-Part Two


This is the second video looking at Mitt Romney’s statements on climate change through an ethical lens. In the first video, we examined critically Romney’s justifications for non-action on climate change that there wasn’t sufficient evidence that humans are causing warming and that the United States should not tackle the problem because it was a global problem. See:

An Ethical Analysis of US Presidential Candidate Mitt Romney’s Views on Climate Change 

Ethicsandclimate has also examined President Obama’s views on climate change in two entries. See:


Donald A. Brown

Scholar In Residence

Sustainability Ethics and Law

Widener University School of Law


Wind Power Ethics

I. Introduction

This paper examines ethical issues entailed by wind power, a technology that holds great hope for reducing the threat of human-induced warming but like all climate change solutions has several potential adverse environmental impacts. Recently opposition to wind projects has grown in the United States and several other countries as opponents have objected on the basis of potential adverse environmental and social impacts from proposed wind projects.

Wind Turbines

Wind power is a hopeful solution to the threat of climate change because it consumes neither fuel nor water and emits no greenhouse emissions strictly related to electricity production. Yet wind power can cause some adverse impacts to wildlife including deaths to birds and bats and some potential harms to people living near wind projects through the aesthetic degradation of natural landscapes and noise irritation to nearby residents. Transmission lines built to move wind power from project sites to electrical grids can create adverse land impacts of several different types. However, care in locating wind power projects can minimize or sometimes eliminate these potential adverse environmental and social impacts.

II. Ethical Analysis of Wind Power Project

A.     Ethical Issues That Arise Because Wind Power Is a Potential Solution to Climate Change

Because climate change is a civilization challenging threat to human health and ecological systems on which life depends, solutions to climate change including wind power must be evaluated in relation to the problem for which they are a potential solution. Because climate change has existing and growing devastating impacts on current humans, future generations, ecological systems on which life depends, any ethical analysis of solutions to human-induced warming including wind power must take into account the responsibilities of those who are causing or contributing to climate change to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions.

It is beyond the scope of this paper to evaluate in great detail the magnitude of potential adverse environmental impacts from wind power. Without doubt, wind projects have been known to kill some birds and bats, interfere with the aesthetic enjoyment of some landscapes, and create some noise problems for people living very close to large wind projects. However, proponents of wind power argue that wind power’s adverse environmental impacts are minor compared to other energy technologies that would constitute alternatives to wind power or that are currently the source of electrical generation.  Thus they argue that wind power is very environmentally benign compared to available electricity generating alternatives. In addition they argue that any adverse impacts that could be caused by wind power can be avoided or greatly minimized through thoughtful project siting decisions.

To the extent that wind power projects can be implemented in ways that minimize or avoid adverse impacts to wildlife, aesthetic values, or harmful land uses, wind power projects should be located, designed, and constructed to minimize these adverse impacts. Yet the adverse impacts to wildlife and birds, landscapes, water, human health, and ecological systems are likely to be much greater from human-induced warming than from wind power projects. Wind power projects may kill some birds and bats if unwisely located, but climate change is likely to kill entire species of birds and bats and other wildlife not threatened by wind power. In addition fossil fuel generated energy causes adverse impacts to human health and ecological systems that are not caused by wind power.

Climate change is not only a future catastrophic problem, it is already believed to be killing people around the world in increased vector borne disease, droughts, heat waves, floods, and intense storms. Wind power has not caused these problems at all.

Some regions of the world are already clearly affected by human-induced warming. For instance, according to the IPCC, precipitation that can cause deadly floods is already increasing significantly in eastern parts of North and South America, northern Europe and northern and central Asia, while precipitation is declining in the Sahel, the Mediterranean, southern Africa and parts of southern Asia  and contributing to diminished food supply and freshwater needed for agriculture and drinking (IPCC 2007: 17).  Climate change-caused harms that are already being experienced by some people are of many types including, but not limited to, death, disease, ecological harm, floods and droughts, rising seas, more intense storms, and increased heat waves (IPCC 2007). These harms will grow in the years ahead even if it is possible for the international community to stabilize atmospheric greenhouse gas emissions at current levels. That is, increased warming will continue even if atmospheric greenhouse gas levels are held constant because of thermal lags in the oceans and other delays in the climate system. It is simply too late to prevent additional climate change-caused suffering. To stabilize atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases at current levels will require huge reductions from current emissions levels. Therefore those who are opposing wind power projects are very likely already contributing to environmental destruction and human suffering around the world. This fact, as a matter of ethics, should disenfranchise those opponents of wind power who object because of potential harms to themselves as long as they are contributing to much worse environmental harms to others from climate change.

All major ethical systems hold that people have obligations not to harm others, regardless of where they are located around the world. That is, utilitarian, rights-based theories, and justice-based ethical theories hold that humans have duties to not harm others regardless of their location (Brown 2012: Chapter 7).  Different ethical theories will reach different conclusions about how duties should be allocated among people who are causing great harm to others but almost all ethical theories agree that human beings have duties to not harm others without regard to where in the world they live. Because individuals have duties to not harm others, governments have duties to not harm others outside their jurisdictions because these governments are the locus for creating policies that achieve the duties and responsibilities of their citizens (Brown 2012: Chapter 8). For this reason, both the governments themselves have duties to reduce greenhouse gas emissions under their control to their fair share of safe global emissions and individual citizens have duties to do all in their power to assure that their governments reduce greenhouse gas emissions to levels required by distributive justice because: (a) governments in a democracy can be understood to be a means of implementing the collective responsibilities of their citizens, and (b) individuals also have responsibilities to not harm others. For this reason, individuals that are emitting greenhouse gases in excess of their fair share of safe global emissions not only have duties to generate their power needs from more climate friendly technologies such as wind power, they have duties to support government policies to reduce the threat of climate change through greater reliance on renewable energy.

It is quite clear that the vast majority of regional and local governments, organizations, businesses, and individuals in developed countries may not reasonably argue that they are not far exceeding their fair share of safe global emissions because of the enormous reductions in current levels of greenhouse gas emissions that will be necessary to stabilize atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases at safe levels.

Climate change will put into jeopardy the very lives, health, and indispensable natural resources upon which lives of hundreds of millions of people around the world depend, while most gravely threatening the poorest people who are also usually the most vulnerable. And so, climate change is a threat to things that are the minimum material conditions for human life and it is interference with the dignity of human life that is usually the predicate for recognizing that human rights have been violated. In fact, climate change is currently threatening the very existence of nations like the Maldives and Kiribati. These facts demonstrate that excess greenhouse gas emissions violate basic human rights, a conclusion that strengthens the obligations of individuals and governments to replace fossil fuel energy with renewable energy. And so wind power projects not only satisfy the ethical obligations of individuals in regard to future energy consumption, they help individuals meet their obligations to reduce the harms that are coming from their existing energy consumption practices.

For these reasons those who object to wind power projects on the basis of some adverse harm to themselves may not object to wind power projects or other comparatively benign renewable energy technologies that could lower their carbon footprint unless they can demonstrate that they are not currently exceeding their fair share of safe global emissions. This is particularly the case when the adverse impacts from wind power on which they base their objection are harms to themselves while they to continue to engage in activities that are generating significant levels of greenhouse gases that are undoubtedly exacerbating great harms to tens of millions of people around the world. For this reason, no person who  is responsible for emitting greenhouse gas emissions at levels greater than their fair share of safe global emissions should be able to object to wind farm projects other than to assure that any new wind power project minimizes avoidable adverse impacts.

B. Other Ethical Issues Entailed By Wind Power Projects

So far we have only discussed ethical issues that arise because wind power has the potential of significantly reducing carbon footprints of those who are contributing to human-induced warming. There are other ethical issues that arise when wind power projects that have not been adequately considered in this paper thus far, but, which are beyond the scope of this paper. These ethical issues include:

  •  The need to assure that the process of approving wind power projects with ethical norms designed to prevent corruption and conflicts of interest in the approval process (for a good discussion of these issues see, Sutton 2012).
  • The need to assure that all potential adverse environmental and social impacts that could be caused by proposed wind power projects are adequately identified (see Sutton 2012).
  • Ethical issues that arise because of the deceptive practices of some corporations and free-market fundamentalist organizations that have created front groups and astroturf groups (fake grassroots groups) that disguise the real parties in interest.  (Goldenberg 2012). This funded opposition is ethically troublesome because it uses deceptive tactics designed to give the false impression that opposition to wind power projects is a spontaneous “bottom-up” citizen opposition when it has sometimes been funded by those who have economic interests in maintaining or increasing fossil fuel consumption (Goldenberg 2012).



Brown, Donald (2012) Navigating the Perfect Moral Storm, Climate Ethics, Routledge Earthscan, London, in press

Goldenberg, Susan (2012) Conservative Thinktanks Step Up  Attacks Against Obama’s Clean Energy Strategy, The Guardian, http://www. guardian. co. uk/environment/2012/may/08/conservative-thinktanks-obama-energy plans

Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) (2007), Summary For Policy Makers, Synthesis Report, Contribution to Working Groups I, II, and III to the Fourth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, Geneva, Switzerland, Available at: http://www. and data/ar4/syr/en.contents.html.

Sutton, Victoria (2012), Wind Energy Law and Ethics: A Meeting of Kant, Leopold, and Cultural Relativism, html



Donald A. Brown

Scholar In Residence,

Sustainability Ethics and Law

Widener University School of Law

New Book Describes Ways To Accelerate US Transition To Sustainability-Including A Greater Emphasis On Ethics.

As the world gathered in Rio de Janeiro in June in an attempt to make global course corrections needed to move the world to sustainable future, a new book was published that rigorously examines what has happened and failed to happen on sustainability in the United States. In Acting As If Tomorrow Matters: Accelerating the Transition to Sustainability, Professor John Dernbach, with the input from 51 contributing authors, including this author, after looking closely at US sustainability successes and failures, deduces from this experience a strategy to rapidly improve US sustainability performance. (Dernbach et al, 2012)

The idea of sustainable development was placed on the front burner internationally at the Rio Earth Summit in 1992. As most educated citizens know, this concept called for the integration of economic, environmental, and social justice goals in policy formation and human practices at international, national, regional, and local scales around the world. The idea of sustainable development was a positive step forward in human history because humans frequently have pursued either economic, environmental, or social goals individually in isolation from each other. That is, for instance, governments at all scales have frequently pursued economic development without regard to how new economic activity might affect the environment or social justice. The great wisdom of the concept of sustainable development is this insight that pursuit of economic, environmental, or social justice goals in isolation from each other will likely have adverse impacts on the goals not considered.

Acting As If Tomorrow Matters rigorously describes what has happened or failed to happen in the United States in the 20 years since the idea of sustainability got widespread international attention at Rio. To seriously examine what needs to be done to move the world on a sustainability path there is no shortcut to a thorough, ambitious, and rigorous analysis of what has happened and failed to happen. This is particularly true of a concept like sustainable development that creates immense policy challenges because of the ambitiousness of this idea’s scope. And so, if one wants to know what has happened on sustainability, there is no escaping the need to go deep on matters that are both wide ranging and complex and that have been unfolding for 20 years.

Because of the sheer complexity of the idea of sustainable development any serious analysis of progress must rely on experts and analysis beyond the disciplinary kens of most individual human beings. One of the most significant contributions of this new book is to make even veteran sustainability watchers aware of sustainability developments in areas that they have not been following. No one person can be an expert on even the major developments in environmental protection, economic development, and human flourishing. There is simply too much to follow. And so, another virtue of this book is that Professor Dernbach has obtained the cooperation of 51 renowned experts to compile the synthesis of US sustainability successes and failures.

This new book examines progress in such diverse policy subjects as: (a) links between environmental protection and public health outcomes, (b) relationships between consumption and population, (c) connections between poverty and unemployment, (d) links between the built environment and sustainability outcomes, (e) national, regional, and local governments successes on sustainability, and (f)  achievements in sustainability education, just to name a few.

Even sustainability experts, including myself, who  have been deeply been immersed in sustainable development issues since the Earth Summit in 1992 will learn from this book about sustainability progress and failures of which they were unaware .  Therefore, perhaps the greatest contribution of this new book is to make those working to make sustainability a reality aware for the first time of achievements, failures, and case studies relevant to sustainability’s future progress. I, for instance was unaware of many sustainability developments discussed in this book such as: (a) the fact that some US states now require that climate change impacts be described in any environmental impact study, (b) the impressive number of programs or projects on sustainability at the local government level in the United States, (c) that 1000 US mayors have joined a mayors’ climate change prevention program, and (d) that the city of Chicago has over 400 green roofs.  And so even the most experienced sustainability expert will get ideas from this book about how to improve the US sustainability performance.

Acting As If Tomorrow Matters not only describes progress on sustainability, it makes it clear that US performance on many sustainability issues has been a dismal failure on some matters. In fact, another virtue of this book is that in describing obstacles to sustainability it does not pull punches. The book makes clear that despite modest success on some sustainability issues, the US has failed to adequately implement the concept because of some persistent obstacles that have been blocking US progress. In this regard, the book discusses the following barriers to US progress: habits, lack of urgency, confusion about sustainability options, unsupportive law and governance, and perhaps most importantly strong political opposition to sustainability policy proposals.

The book also makes recommendations on how to overcome these obstacles including developing better sustainability choices, improving law for sustainability, and perhaps most importantly, the need for a new sustainability social movement.

Woven throughout the book are implicit and express claims that sustainable development must be understood essentially as an ethical and moral matter because what is at stake is the very future of the quality of life on earth. Sprinkled throughout the book are references to morality and ethics including discussions of  religious and moral leaders who have been provoking wider public discussion of the ethical dimensions of sustainability.   This inclusion of ethics in what is otherwise a policy book makes it unique among serious analyses of sustainability achievements and failures.

The importance of seeing sustainability problems as ethical matters becomes apparent when one considers the comments of some observers that have criticized the very idea of sustainable development because there is no precise definition of the idea that would allow for its unambiguous implementation when there are conflicts between environmental, economic, and social goals. Yet this is where ethics and morality become so very important.

In this regard, one minor suggestion for improvement of the conclusions in this excellent book is to call for even greater acknowledgement of the need to stress the importance of the ethical dimensions of sustainability. This is so because the implementation of the concept of sustainable development needs to look to other ethical principles to resolve conflicts among environmental, economic and social goals.  For instance:

  •  During a 30 year debate about climate change policy action the United States’ opponents of domestic legislative action have objected on the grounds that new climate change policies will unacceptably increase costs to some industries, reduce US GDP,  or make US industry non-competitive compared to other global players. Yet these arguments completely ignore US ethical obligations to the victims of climate change to refrain from harming them, creating human rights violations, or destroying ecological systems on which life depends. To resolve conflicts between increased economic costs of climate change policies and protection of the most vulnerable, ethical principles need to be consulted.
  • When questions of scientific uncertainty have arisen in opposition to sustainability policymaking ethical considerations about who should have the burden of proof and what quantity of proof should satisfy the burden of proof need to be considered. Yet policy debates have almost always ignored these ethical questions about scientific uncertainty that policy-makers must face in decision-making.
  •  Cost-benefit analyses of sustainability programs almost always ignore questions of distributive and procedural justice that are particularly important for poor, vulnerable people around the world. Ethics demands that these justice issues be considered in policy-making.


And so, in some controversial sustainability matters, ethical considerations have been the key missing element in policy disputes. For this reason, applied ethical analyses should be at the tip of the spear of the new sustainability social movement called for in this book.  Any sustainability social movement should follow actual concrete sustainability issues to identify the ethical issues that need to be considered to move forward on the sustainability path.

And so Acting As If Tomorrow Matters makes a significant contribution to moving the United States forward on the path toward sustainable development. Following perhaps the key recommendation in this book, interested sustainability advocates should work together to create a new social movement on sustainability armed with what we can learn from the sustainability successes and failures discussed in this book.

Those interested in the book can find more information at the book’s website:


 Dernbach, J. (2012) Acting As If Tomorrow Matters: Accelerating the Transition to Sustainability, Environmental Law Institute Press, Washington, D.C.



Donald A. Brown,

Scholar in Residence, Sustainability Ethics and Law

Widener University School of Law