A look at the conspiratorial hysteria and sensationalism surrounding the United Nations' Agenda 21.
by Kevin Hoover
May 5, 2015
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"Agenda 21." Well it certainly sounds ominous. Someone has an agenda, and if this is the 21st, are there 20 others that we aren't in on? And just look at Agenda 21's goals - nothing short of a global shift in thinking that aims to put the way we live on planet Earth on a whole new footing. It does this by providing certain... plans guiding the actions of political leaders on every level, even in your neighborhood.
On its surface, Agenda 21's goals are hard to fault. It purports to provide a framework for stewarding the environment and bettering the human condition on an enduring basis, all while protecting liberty.
Agenda 21 repeatedly affirms "freedom, dignity and personally held values," emphasizing personal wealth, improving the health of women and children, protecting cultural and natural assets and keeping the world's economy stable into the future. That cryptic number 21 simply refers to the 21st century. What's not to like?
Well, with a name right out of a Robert Ludlum political thriller, Agenda 21 is also something of a conspiracy theory toolkit. It's backed by the dreaded United Nations, proposes wealth leveling with developing countries, an array of ambitious environmental goals and loads of other changes to traditional ways of doing things, all riding in on a raft of politically charged terminology.
The 300-page document uses the word "sustainable" 647 times and "environment" more than a thousand. The word "science," by the way, gets 64 mentions, including index entries.
The potential for rhetorical redefinition hasn't been overlooked by today's hyperpartisan political writers and politicos. As an unintended consequence of the document, critics have figuratively deforested Earth to create millions of books exposing Agenda 21's hidden agenda.
Does Agenda 21 forward the framework for a new era of international cooperation and perpetual prosperity for all, or is it really a sinister trick to take away our rights, abolish private property, squash our freedoms, destroy American sovereignty and usher the world into a dark age of dystopian eco-dictatorship?
To find out, let's cast our mind back to the early 1990s. It was a simpler, time of incandescent light bulbs and cathode ray tubes, when phones were for talking on, the Internet was still a nerd toy and the political landscape wasn't yet a factionalized bloodsport battlefield.
Agenda 21 was fostered by an organization formerly called the International Council for Local Environmental Initiatives, since renamed ICLEI - Local Governments for Sustainability. Founded in 1990, it's another do-gooder non-profit, non-governmental organization with no real authority other than to trade in ideas.
Composed of participating governments from around the U.S. and the world, ICLEI encourages local decisionmakers to incorporate positive values and consider possible impacts of everyday decisions on things like public health, human rights and the climate, to name a few.
In 1992, the UN held an "Earth Summit" in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. There, ideas and suggestions that ICLEI had gathered were formalized into the document infamously known as Agenda 21. It was endorsed by leaders from 178 nations, including United States President George Herbert Walker Bush.
Bush 41 embraced Agenda 21 as a comprehensive framework for a healthy future. Said the president at the conclusion of the Earth Summit:
"We believe that environment and development, the two subjects of this Conference, can and should go hand in hand. A growing economy creates the resources necessary for environmental protection, and environmental protection makes growth sustainable over the long term. I think that recognition of that fact by leaders from around the world is the central accomplishment of this important Rio Conference."
Agenda 21 might have wound up as just one more unenforceable piece of diplomatic busywork, another batch of proud words on a dusty shelf. Neither a treaty nor a piece of legislation, it's bloated with the kind of boilerplate that normally bores non-bureaucrats to tears. Being a non-binding, completely voluntary document, it carries no force of law nor any penalties for non-compliance.
Early opposition came mostly from the fringes. The venerable John Birch Society, which also considers President Dwight Eisenhower a traitor, checked in with predictably alarmist disapproval. Another startup, the American Policy Center, really ran with it - that is - against it, and today markets multimedia Agenda 21 opposition kits.
As the 1990s progressed, more and more computer screens lit up with the misinformation superhighway, and when the 2000s rolled around, conditions were prime for redefining Agenda 21 in mainstream media as a global conspiracy.
Things really heated up in the mid-to-late 2000s, and election year 2012 saw the flame of Agenda 21 fear flare brightly. Any TV talking head, political polemicist or practicing politician in need of a marketable fear factor found one-stop shopping with Agenda 21. Turns out its core concepts are just about all code words for centralized control, or can be readily branded as such.
In fact, Agenda 21 might be one of the best object lessons in how the same issue looks 180 degrees out as viewed from either side of a polarized political divide.
Agenda 21's broad international endorsement - well, that's a conspiracy. Social equity? Social engineering. Healthcare? Wealth redistribution. Infrastructure rebuilding? Government-sanctioned monopolies. Sustainable development, even historic preservation? Eminent domain. Coordinated efforts to save the planet? The New World Order.
Even bike lanes, according to one anti-Agenda 21 group, are an interim step to eliminating car parking, cars, and eventually, buildings that aren't bike friendly. Demolition of entire cities will follow, all the better to herd the populace into high-density housing projects. Bicycle advocates are described as the "shock troops" for this socialist scorched Earth initiative.
Author Glenn Beck's bestselling novel, the homonynously titled Agenda 21, more or less melds 1984 with The Hunger Games to set forth just such an eco-fascist dystopia, where individuality and traditional values have been all but erased.
With characteristic subtlety, Beck told television viewers that Agenda 21 aspires to "centralized control over all of human life on planet Earth."
By 2012, Agenda 21 alarmism had been fully mainstreamed. The Republican National Committee adopted a resolution "recogniz[ing] the destructive and insidious nature of United Nations Agenda 21."
If one-world government really was Agenda 21's goal, the past two decades must have been frustrating for our new UN overlords. But then it was always intended as a long-term proposition.
It better be, since despite all the thunderous rhetoric and bombastic books, most Americans have no idea what Agenda 21 is. A 2012 poll of 1,300 voters found that just nine percent supported Agenda 21, six percent opposed it and 85 percent didn't know enough about it to have an opinion.
Has Agenda 21 accomplished anything?
Local governments do speak more and more these days about sustainability. But whether that's a result of Agenda 21's far-reaching tentacles, or coincident with planners being pushed by the same resource constraints and climate trends that compelled its creation, is something people can debate, theorize and probably rail about.
One thing Agenda 21 has done is provide a political rallying point. Local politicians, even in small, remote towns such as mine, where issues tend to dwell on funding law enforcement and road repairs - as well as environmental issues - have found themselves positioned by opponents as crafty agents of global totalitarianism.
While advocates call Agenda 21 grassroots action, opponents call it top-down dogma.
In 2012, Alabama was the first state to prohibit any implementation of Agenda 21, couching the ban in terms of property rights. Other bills continue to bubble up in lawmaking bodies ranging from state legislatures to hyperlocal governing entities like town planning commissions.
Unaffiliated, non-Agenda 21 efforts at sustainability don't get a pass on pushback. Even a la carte, the underlying concepts of Agenda 21 are anathema. North Carolina prohibits use of recent sea level rise data in coastal planning. Florida's Department of Environmental Protection has banned employee use of the terms "climate change," "global warming" and "sustainability."
Do we know for a fact that Agenda 21 isn't a global conspiracy - a big, green Trojan Horse full of all-controlling ecofascism, possibly directed by clipboard-clutching minions in pastel unitards scurrying about inside a hollowed-out techno-volcano, plotting civilization-strangling bike lanes?
No, because you can't prove a negative. But that would be awesome.
Can we prove that Agenda 21 is a conspiracy?
Lots of people are doing their best, but the closest we can come is the widespread acceptance of its basic principles by those responsible for keeping things going. In the U.S., ICLEI claims 450 member cities and counties in 46 states. Worldwide, it says more than a thousand cities in 84 countries have signed on to sustainability too. Sweden is the Agenda 21 superstar, its 288 municipalities having enshrined its policies in local law as part of a national green agenda.
Apart from the possibly tainted brand of Agenda 21, sustainability is being inexorably woven into municipal, corporate and even military operations. My coastal town of Arcata, California is incorporating sea level rise into the design of its bay-facing features, moving its corporation yard inland and sustainably managing its own community forest, complete with carbon offsets. Rare is the major corporation that doesn't make at least a show of a sustainability policy. A U.S. military think tank last year listed global warming as a national security threat. It forewarned that climate change-driven disruption of water and food supplies could cause widespread dislocation.
Are these problems real? Science tells us that many of the issues Agenda 21 was intended to fix have only intensified.
Deforestation of the Amazon, not far from where Agenda 21 was signed, had slowed in recent years, but rose 29 percent in 2014. Atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide had just passed 350 parts per million when Agenda 21 was signed. In 2014, it passed 400 parts per million and is headed for 450 within a few decades. Population continues to grow explosively, even as agricultural land is lost to development. Urban buildup continues in coastal areas subject to entirely predictable global warming-driven inundation. And the Holocene, or Sixth Mass Extinction, is rolling right along, with species disappearing at an alarming rate.
Seems like someone should sit down, study this stuff and come up with a plan. Oh right. We have one - a scarily-named voluntary plan that most Americans don't know exists.
Agenda 21 is the kind of noise a civilization makes when it has to come to grips with fundamentally changing conditions. It's a hopey-changey thing with basically the same advice, and little more enforceability than the Cub Scout Motto to "Do Your Best," Google's "Don't Be Evil" or E.T.'s "Be good." Just a lot wordier.
If you have a plan to save the world, or to take it over, do consider calling it something more appealing, like "Cuddle the Planet," "Fuzzy Kittens," or maybe "Free Beer."
That may be the easiest lesson to take away from Agenda 21.
By Kevin Hoover
Please contact us with any corrections or feedback.
Cite this article:
Hoover, K. "Agenda 21." Skeptoid Podcast. Skeptoid Media,
5 May 2015. Web.
25 May 2017. <http://skeptoid.com/episodes/4465>
References & Further Reading
Beck, Glenn; Parke, Harriet. Agenda 21. New York: Threshold Editions, 2012.
CNA Military Advisory Board. National Security and the Accelerating Risks of Climate Chang. Alexandria: CNA Corporation, 2014.
Editors. "Agenda 21." RationalWiki. RationalWiki, 4 Jun. 2012. Web. 19 Sep. 2015. <http://rationalwiki.org/wiki/Agenda_21>
Koire, Rosa. "What is United Nations Agenda 21?" Post Sustainability Institute.org. Post Sustainability Institute, 15 Nov. 2014. Web. 18 Apr. 2015. <http://www.postsustainabilityinstitute.org/what-is-un-agenda-21.html>
ScrippsCo2 Program. "Atmospheric CO2 Data." Scripps Institution of Oceanography. Scripps Institution of Oceanography, 1 Apr. 2015. Web. 19 Apr. 2015. <http://scrippsco2.ucsd.edu/data/atmospheric_co2>
United Nations. Agenda 21: Earth Summit: The United Nations Programme of Action from Rio. New York: United Nations, 1993.
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