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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.

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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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