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Agenda 21: First, they came for the light bulbs

agenda 21 bike path police

Remember when threats of a global government were symbolized by black helicopters and implied by the phrase “New World Order.” They’re so 20th century, it turns out: these days, the phrase “Agenda 21″ and compact fluorescent light bulbs are the new signs of “They’re coming to get you.”

Agenda 21 – it does sound a little spooky. You might think of it as a plan for world domination cooked up by a cabal of wealthy evildoers in a dark backroom. In truth, it’s much more innocuous: Agenda 21 is the title of a non-binding plan released at the 1992 Conference on Environment and Development in Rio. No secrets or backrooms here: Agenda 21 even has its own UN website.

But, if you listen to local Tea Party groups, or even the national Republican party, Agenda 21 is that plan for world domination. Last week, the New York Times published an article detailing some of the ways in which this twenty-year-old report on sustainable development has turned into a first-class bogeyman among the more conspiratorial fringes of the American right. Now, through the vehicle of the Tea Party, they’re pushing their fears into the mainstream. As the Times reports, those who buy into this conspiracy have lumped the White House Rural Council, ICLEI (an organization that sells carbon footprinting software to localities), smart meters, and bike paths into a long-term plan to undermine private property rights, and herd Americans into cities.

Sounds a little nuts, but George Homewood, a vice president of the American Planning Association’s chapter in Virginia told the Times “we’ve found we ignore it at our own peril.” Grist has published a short list of events that required police presence when activists turned them into anti-Agenda 21 protests, including a city council hearing in Missoula, Montana, and a planning meeting in Santa Rosa, California.

So, what do we make of this? Just paranoia amplified through the megaphone of social media? A “Tea Party Theory of Everything,” as Lloyd Alter at Treehugger (one of the first to recognize this phenomenon) has labelled it? I think those are both correct; I also think it’s an effort by radical conservatives to make sense of the market-based mechanisms incorporated into sustainable development. Despite all of the Marxist name-calling, sustainability in the US has been a decidedly market-based affair, with most of us supporting it calling for even more action along this front: shifting from income to carbon taxes, for instance. No one’s tried to limit choices, but we have asked that options with a greater footprint be priced accordingly. The idea that sustainability can co-exist with markets seems a bit more than some on the right can wrap their heads around – so grasping onto a twenty-year old non-binding international resolution, and labeling it the Rosetta Stone of sustainable development’s evil intentions, apparently makes more sense.

Got more insight into this whole Agenda 21 panic? Do share.

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Image credit: Xenocryst @ Antares Scorpii via photopin cc