Is the UN Using Bike Paths to Achieve World Domination?

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How a sustainability initiative became fodder for right-wing conspiracy theories.

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Did you know that the United Nations is in cahoots with local land-use planners all over the country to rob you and your neighbors of your God-given right to your gun, your land, your water, your food, and your liberty? Did you know that there is a UN document, titled Agenda 21, that sets out the plan and that Republican presidential candidate Newt Gingrich already has declared that, if he were to become president, he would cut funding for any activity related to that U.N directive? Glenn Beck knows all about it, naturally, and so does the Tea Party.

I watch NBC's Parks and Recreation and I take my dog along a walking path every day. But I knew nothing about Agenda 21 until I read Jonathan Thompson's jaw-dropping piece, "Anatomy of a Conspiracy Theory," in the current edition of High Country News, a publication that focuses upon stories about the West. That was Friday. By Saturday morning, by coincidence, my nascent exposure to the not-so-secret U.N plot was enhanced by The New York Times, which published a story titled "Activists Fight Green Project, Citing U.N Plot."

From the Times' story by Leslie Kaufman and Kate Zernike:

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.

There is nothing new about local land use efforts being manipulated or sabotaged by politics --  that's been a part of the American scene since George Washington was a child. There isn't a city or town or county in this country that hasn't been afflicted at one time or another by bickering over zoning and development. What's new here is that the successful arguments being deployed against new, "sustainable" land uses are: 1) detached from the merits of the plans themselves, and 2) beyond the realm of mainstream political thought.

Local land use plans that emphasize "sustainable" growth aren't just evaluated by their impact on political or economic forces. The traditional arguments, which weighed local plans for their impact on one local group or another, have grown faint. Now, the loudest argument is the most bizarre. Such plans are considered per se unacceptable because they are seen as part of a vast international conspiracy, orchestrated by the United Nations, which would ultimately result in international domination over the way Americans both live and breathe.

Agenda 21 and Its Agents

According to the United Nations, Agenda 21 "is a comprehensive plan of action to be taken globally, nationally and locally by organizations of the United Nations System, Governments, and Major Groups in every area in which human impacts on the environment." It is the result of a June 1992 conference in Rio de Janeiro, called the Earth Summit, and it was originally adopted by 178 countries, including the United States. The preamble to the document makes plain what its signatory nations thought was at stake 20 years ago:

Humanity stands at a defining moment in history. We are confronted with a perpetuation of disparities between and within nations, a worsening of poverty, hunger, ill health and illiteracy, and the continuing deterioration of the ecosystems on which we depend for our well-being. However, integration of environment and development concerns and greater attention to them will lead to the fulfillment of basic needs, improved living standards for all, better protected and managed ecosystems and a safer, more prosperous future. No nation can achieve this on its own; but together we can -- in a global partnership for sustainable development.

Ten years later, in September 2002, in Johannesburg, South Africa, at the World Summit for Sustainable Development, then-Secretary of State Colin Powell reminded the world of President George W. Bush's commitment to "the great moral challenge" of including the world's poor in "the expanding circle of development." Then, less than one year following the terror attacks on America, and less than nine months before America went to war in Iraq, Secretary Powell said this: 

Here in Johannesburg, we have recommitted ourselves to achieving, by 2015, the development goals set forth in the Millennium Declaration. We further dedicated ourselves to improve sanitation, rejuvenate fisheries, promote biodiversity, and encourage renewable energy. We have reaffirmed the principle that sound economic management, investment in people, and responsible stewardship of our environment are crucial for development.

The United States is taking action to meet environmental challenges, including global climate change, not just rhetoric. We are committed to a multi-billion dollar program to develop and deploy advanced technologies to mitigate greenhouse gas emissions.

It's awfully dicey, even by Beckinsian  standards, to tag both Bush and Powell as part of a worldwide plot to deprive Americans of their constitutional rights to rape the land, foul the air, dirty the water, and sprawl development wherever the hell they feel like it. You might even call it an inconvenient truth. So, instead, Agenda 21 theorists have seemed to focus most of their ire upon a group far less likely to score well on one of Frank Luntz's polls: the International Council for Local Environmental Initiatives (or ICLEI for short).

The ICLEI describes itself, on its website, as:

an association of over 1,220 local government Members who are committed to sustainable development. Our Members come from 70 different countries and represent more than 569,885,000 people. ICLEI is an international association of local governments as well as national and regional local government organizations who have made a commitment to sustainable development.

ICLEI provides technical consulting, training, and information services to build capacity, share knowledge, and support local government in the implementation of sustainable development at the local level. Our basic premise is that locally designed initiatives can provide an effective and cost-efficient way to achieve local, national, and global sustainability objectives.

In the United States, hundreds of cities and countries are part of the ICLEI, from Abingdon, Virginia, to Yountville, California. Jurisdictions from Maine to Florida, in states that are both red and blue, are represented. If the conspiracy theory is true, it's one helluva conspiracy, involving ten of thousands of local officials from all parts of the country, all empaneled and aligned to foist the UN's sinister version of "sustainable growth" upon American communities. Forget Big Sky Country. You've now entered Big Lie Country.

You would think that the Tea Party, with its disdain for large government, would be delighted with the ICLEI's emphasis on "locally designed initiatives." No. To the "Agender" crowd, as they are called, the ICLEI is the local instrument by which the UN forces its "sustainability" agenda upon the U.S. It is the link that binds foreign power to a remote county in Colorado. Thompson reports in his piece that at least 16 American communities have opted out of ICLEI recently because of negative perceptions about Agenda 21.

Some of those perceptions no doubt have been formed by Glenn Beck, the former Fox News star, who said last June that "sustainable development is just a really nice way of saying centralized control over all human life on earth." For a change, he was being general. Other Agenders have been more specific in describing the impact of Agenda 21. In their view, every single human function on Earth is now and forevermore designed to be controlled by the UN initiative. Think about that when you are next rolling down a bike path.   

The Colorado Plan

Using Thompson's work as a guide, here's a closer look at what happened over the past few years in and to La Plata County, Colorado. It's the story of how a local land-use plan, based upon the concept of sustainable development, was undermined and then eventually destroyed by this particular strain of conspiracy theory. It's a tale of the waste of taxpayer money, a story that chronicles how and why smart professionals don't want to be in government, and it's a reminder of how much damage the Tea Party has wrought upon even local government.

Here's the lead paragraph from the High Country News piece (the story is not yet available online): 

In November, La Plata County Commissioner Kellie Hotter called local land-use planning "a blood sport." She wasn't kidding. Since last spring, as this southwestern Colorado county considered a new comprehensive land-use plan, carnage has piled up. By mid-December, casualties included a fired planning commissioner, a resigned county planning director and the plan itself -- a 400-page document that took two years, $750,000 and 137 public meetings to produce.

Who was responsible for the plan? "A diverse, 17-member working group," Thompson tells us, which last spring came up with "an ambitious vision:

to rein in sprawl, encourage bicycling and public transportation, protect agriculture and promote sustainability. Respect for private-property rights and conventional energy development were also emphasized, and the draft was sent to the planning commission, an appointed body that in Colorado has the final say on county comprehensive plans. 

The plan contained no regulations, Thompson reports, but nonetheless there was trouble from the beginning. In the Colorado House of Representatives, for example, La Plata County is newly represented by J. Paul Brown, a Republican sheep rancher, who, as of last April anyway, was convinced that the UN was out for his land. "If you are looking for a fight," Brown reportedly proclaimed at an early public meeting over the plan, "keep that crap up!" That's what "sustainable growth" is to many ranchers, you see: just a load of crap.

Soon, the Agenders were on the case. To them, the La Plata plan was not some organic document that had been drafted locally by 17 "diverse" working group members. It was not a local solution to current and future local land use problems. To them, the La Plata plan was a command from on high, from the UN, representing an invasion of local government by foreign power. This was news to La Plata County planning director Erick Aune, Thompson reports. Aune said he had never heard of Agenda 21 until last summer -- when it was too late.

The La Plata plan died last December. The next day, Aune resigned. When he did, one of the County Commissioners, Wally White, said that Aune "received little to no support from my board or the vocal minority opposing the comp plan. He's a true professional, and I wish him well." The Agenders doesn't just seek to halt land-use plans because they are UN-tainted. They also end up steering professionals like Aune away from local government at a time when local government needs all the professionals it can find.

Speaking of Conspiracies

I'm not here to defend the La Plata plan. It's certainly conceivable that it simply wasn't good enough, on its merits, to be worthy of implementation. Or maybe the good folks of La Plata County reckoned that they were just not quite ready yet for a "sustainable" development plan. That's an argument that is taking place all over the world these days. And it is an argument that should take place, on the merits, as Americans are pushed to engage in "responsible stewardship" of the environment, to use Colin Powell's phrase from a decade ago.

But that's not the fight that was just fought in Colorado. The La Plata plan was scuttled instead because of pressure from Agenders, in and out of government, whose theory whistles to every dog around. Agenda 21 is endorsed by the United Nations, which automatically makes it suspect to these folks. It's frequently implemented by an international group of land-use planners, which automatically renders it anti-American. It occasionally intersects with parts of the Obama Administration's policies, which automatically renders it illegitimate. 

Like all grand conspiracy theories, the UN plot for world domination, as expressed through "sustainable development" initiatives, links together all the disparate themes the theorist wants to see linked. George Soros is in on the plot. So is the Occupy Movement. So is President Obama. So are the Clintons. So, the Agenders say, is Queen Elizabeth II herself. And don't forget the Rothschilds! The only people missing from the equation are  Scully, Mulder, and the Smoking Man.

And, of course, none of this has anything to do with the only relevant question that ought to be asked about any local land-use plan: Does it make sense for the community, now and in the future, to implement the plan's recommendations? It is remarkable -- and a vivid and dour reflection of the political tenor of our time -- that opponents of "sustainable growth" are able to succeed all over the country in scuttling such plans without having to make a coherent, substantive argument against the actual initiatives contemplated by the plans.

That's not a cheap trick. After all, it cost La Plata County $750,000 that it couldn't afford. But it is quite the trick, indeed. You scare people already suspicious of the government into thinking that the black helicopters are on their way, that Soros and Hillary are in on it, and then you ask those same people to oppose land-use planning which is designed to cut back on pollution, or the  dangerous misuse of land, or just plain old-fashioned over-development. Who wins? As it is with conspiracies large and small just follow the money and you'll find out. 

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Andrew Cohen is a contributing editor at The Atlantic. He is a legal analyst for 60 Minutes and CBS Radio News, and a fellow at the Brennan Center for Justice.

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