According to the United Nations, sustainable development is a “mode of human development in which resource use aims to meet human needs while preserving the environment so that these needs can be met not only in the present, but also for generations to come.”
Yet according to conservative talk show host and commentator Glenn Beck, “sustainable development means centralized control over all of human life on planet earth.”
Most observers would characterize the differences between these points of view as major. Indeed, Beck, via his television program on Fox News, now available on YouTube, claims that individuals, industry, business groups, governments and non-governmental agencies are part of a “massive movement” whose real motives are masked.
As Beck asserts, some of these entities may have a “pure heart,” but most do not. “They have to trick you into more governmental control. It is time to ring the bell, and protect your own community.”
The bell has been rung, and now some individuals and groups around the country are coalescing around the idea that the government of the United States is in danger of being overtaken by the United Nations. For example, the 9/12 Project is a nationwide group founded on a theory proposed by Beck that imagines the U.S. the way it was on the day after the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorists attacks. Among a variety of causes, these organizations fight against United Nations Agenda 21, a non-binding, voluntarily implemented action plan of the United Nations drafted for a 1992 conference on the environment and development. It has been affirmed and modified at subsequent U.N. conferences and demonized by Beck and groups motivated by his thesis.
Various groups with ideas similar to the 9/12 Project have a presence online and often their members attend city council meetings or other public sessions to exercise their right of free speech. Because opposition exists to the sort of projects that take place under the umbrella of sustainable development, dealing with these groups and their concerns seems inevitable for today’s sustainability professionals.
That is why Laurel Sukup, sustainability assistance coordinator with the Wisconsin Division of Natural Resources, has given a great deal of thought to interacting with individuals who argue against what she is doing, in ways that invite civil discourse.
Sukup manages and directs the Wisconsin Legacy Communities program. She said her program “supports municipalities to move toward sustainability goals, further and faster than if they were working alone.” However, this is the sort of thing that opposition groups resist.
“I have had a number of instances where I’ve encountered folks that have been alarmed by municipalities’ participation in my program, which they feel is directly tied to U.N. Agenda 21,” Sukup said.
Ironically, Sukup speculates that many of those who feel upset when they hear words like “sustainability and smart planning” actually do support clean air, clean water, and governments that do not waste taxpayer dollars on energy inefficiency. But she has heard from individuals who identify as being motivated by concerns over Agenda 21.
“They don’t want the government to take action; they don’t want public/private partnerships. They feel it is a slippery slope because they are losing sovereign rights and autonomy. They argue this will lead to a relinquishing of power from the United States to the United Nations.”
Sukup uses the example of a super pool cover, a product that reduces the cost of heating a pool by 40 percent. While members of 9/12-type groups who are citizens of a municipality considering such a product might favor its purchase, they want the impulse to be a monetary decision, not one driven by sustainability. For such a project, municipal and sustainability professionals might argue that it is important because it saves money, reduces long-term maintenance costs, is good for the environment, and has positive effects on citizens.
Sukup has had opportunities to consider useful communication approaches at various public meetings. “A man who testified at a council meeting mentioned that he was caring for his terminally ill wife, but he left her bedside because he felt this was an important topic, to discourage municipalities from participating in programs,” she recounted. “He felt that by taking on these sustainability actions, the city was undermining its ability to govern and turning over those abilities to the U.N."
"This is incredibly real to them,” she said.
Sukup has become interested in research that studies how people take in information when they are in an acute emotional state. She understands that if people have an emotional reaction to something, they cannot be persuaded by logic. So, how can a municipality or a sustainability professional reach these individuals and promote discussion?
“A municipality might lay out facts of a program, but depending on the level of concern by the people who are against it, they will need to determine the best way to message and dialog with them,” Sukup suggested. “We need to also learn more about the emotional side of the brain and how to dialog in high stress situations. It starts with listening, allowing people to talk through their fears.”
She understands people who believe that Agenda 21 would take the United States down the road to ruin are in a different category from those who are unhappy about a malfunctioning streetlight, for example.
“Make sure facts and goals are crystal clear,” Sukup advised. “Make sure that you are really actively listening and understanding their point of view. With any dialog there will be things that are true, and yet they are interpreted in a way that was never intended. Make sure you listen to what they are saying, and make sure they know that you are. Then try to establish true, two-way communication. It doesn’t happen readily, it takes dialoging and patience. For municipalities and public servants, that is just part of the job. We need to be really, really good at it in those situations.”
The need to be good at interacting with the public is important for any municipal professional, of course, but Sukup believes the movement of people who hold ideas she finds difficult to understand is not going away.
“This movement has not peaked. It is on an upward trajectory,” she said. She finds that to be true whether working on her projects in Wisconsin, or in her role as board member with the International Society of Sustainability Professionals. She has heard from her colleagues in that group that there are people who believe “sustainability masks a sinister agenda” all over the country, and beyond.
Sukup noted that groups of this sort consider themselves constitutionalists. “It stems from the fact that they also believe that the states do not have to follow federal laws. There are many issues these groups take up, and their uncomfortableness with sustainability is tied to the idea of the government telling them what they can and cannot do,” she said.
“My perspective is that there is no doubt in my mind, when they are at these commission meetings, testifying in front of councils, that they are truly scared. That is why they are making impassioned pleas that the councils will wake up and see what they are doing to the community.”
Sukup has confidence that sustainability is a healthy model for individuals and governments to use for making decisions. “Sustainability professionals are fortunate to be able to evaluate our work through the sustainability lens and make sure the project is economical, good for the environment and good for the community. That’s how we live our lives and how we want to see decisions made,” she said.