Back in 2010, when Colorado gubernatorial candidate Dan Maes accused Denver's bicycle sharing program of being part of an insidious United Nations conspiracy to take over America's communities, a nation chuckled at the absurdity. "Cities Engage in Vast Biking Conspiracy (Shh!)" read a New York Times headline.
More than a year later, the same bizarre conspiracy theory is no laughing matter for anyone who cares about their community's future. Across the country, a loud minority of protestors, many aligned with the Tea Party, have made it their mission to derail not only the green programs of cities, towns and counties, but the broader planning efforts of local governments to improve local transportation, safeguard public health, and increase economic competitiveness. Last week the success of their efforts landed them back in the Times, only now on the front page.
Can We Talk About Local Solutions?
We should be concerned. As our nation attempts to recover from the economic crisis and a record-breaking year of extreme weather that cost us tens of billions of dollars, locally driven solutions are the key, and healthy community dialogue about them is more important than ever. Now is the time for people to ask, "How can we attract more businesses to our town? How can we better prepare our communities for more frequent floods or droughts? What kind of community do we want to leave for our children and grandchildren?" It's a conversation for everybody to take part in: business leaders, environmentalists, labor leaders, neighborhood groups, Republicans, Democrats, Independents.
The problem is that the Tea Party groups and their allies seem intent on shutting down local dialogues, rather than discussing and debating ideas and solutions. Across the country, they attend city council and planning commission meetings, and too often resort to shouting and intimidation tactics. They protest the very idea of their local government running an energy efficiency program, preserving historic buildings, or creating a local plan to repair aging infrastructure.
A Conspiracy Theory Takes Hold
For the majority of Americans who support things like local clean energy jobs or planting more trees on city streets, the natural question has become, Why are extremists waging a war on common sense in our own backyards?
But it's not common sense, insist the protestors. Local initiatives to plan for the future or make a community more livable-especially when they mention the word "sustainability"-are all part of Agenda 21, which they believe is a vast UN conspiracy. "Once they put their fangs into our communities, they'll suck all the blood out of it," said Glenn Beck. Most municipal staff had never heard of Agenda 21 before they were accused of being its accomplices.
Even with no evidence to back up their story, the activists see an Agenda 21 conspiracy everywhere they look:
• In Santa Rosa, Calif., Agenda 21 protestors shouted down speakers at a Metropolitan Planning Commission meeting to get public feedback on a regional plan to improve transportation. Police were called.
• In Missoula, MT, police were also called to keep order at a city council meeting to discuss membership renewal in the organization I lead, ICLEI-Local Governments for Sustainability USA. (The council voted to renew.)
• In Rutherford County, Tenn., a local zoning resolution was protested as a UN plot to take away private property. The list goes on.
Renewing the Sustainability Conversation
As more misinformation spreads, the problem is ultimately one of communications. My organization, ICLEI USA, is increasing its efforts to share the success stories of U.S. cities and counties who are reaping the benefits of smart planning and sustainability initiatives. We've got to take back the hijacked term, "sustainability," which isn't a secret plot but a mainstream concept embraced by everybody from local governments driving bottom-up solutions to countless corporations like IBM, Office Depot, and Intel, who agree that saving money through efficiency measures and reducing their environmental footprint is good for business.
And then there's Agenda 21 itself, about which the greatest distortions are being generated. This 20-year-old voluntary action plan was developed by the United Nations and national governments at the 1992 "Earth Summit" in Rio. Agenda 21 presents a vision for how all levels of government - especially in the developing world - can take voluntary action to combat poverty and pollution, conserve natural resources and develop in a sustainable manner. One-hundred-seventy-eight nations adopted the agenda, including the United States during the Bush administration.
Agenda 21 is not a treaty or legally binding document and does not infringe upon the sovereignty of any nation, state, or local government. Bottom line, it isn't being forced on anybody, anywhere, by any organization.
If people and organizations started responding with those facts, we could skip the conspiracy theories and get back to the much-needed conversations on energy independence, economic vitality, and the future of our communities.
Michael Schmitz is the executive director of ICLEI-Local Governments for Sustainability USA, the leading membership organization of local governments committed to climate action, clean energy, and sustainability, with more than 550 members in the United States and 1,100 worldwide.