I’ve been hearing a lot about Agenda 21 recently, the UN’s sustainable development plan. It’s been around for 20 years now, but for some reason it appears to have become a lightning rod for anti-green paranoia in the last couple of years. And I mean paranoia. Some of the rhetoric around this is absurd, claiming that Agenda 21 is a UN plot to replace nations states with a world government, abolish private property, and the end of the family unit.
It would be easy to dismiss this as extremist Glenn-Beck inspired silliness, except that it has an impact here in the real world. Tea Party activists have turned up to block things like high speed rail, city bike schemes, or even smart metering, all citing Agenda 21. The Republican Party National Committee apparently passed a resolution last month condemning Agenda 21, and Newt Gingrich has mentioned it on the campaign trail.
So what’s going on here? Is there anything to fear from this 20 year old document? Let’s start at the beginning:
What is sustainability?
First up, what is sustainability in the first place? Having heard plenty of false definitions from people who disagree with it, let’s look it in a dictionary, shall we? According to mine, it is ‘that which is capable of being sustained’ – something that can continue in perpetuity, or be carried over into the future. This concept is well understood in finances. If you spend more than you earn, month after month, then you have an unsustainable household budget – it can’t be sustained. You’ll get deeper and deeper into debt until you go bankrupt.
Environmental sustainability is no different. If you cut trees faster than they can grow, eventually you have no trees. If you draw water from an aquifer faster than it can be replenished, it’ll run dry.
Sustainability is a technical term, not a political one. Something is either sustainable or it isn’t. To say that something is unsustainable is not making a value judgement about that thing, it is saying that it cannot be sustained in the long term. If you value something and want to enjoy it in the future, then seriously, you want it to be sustainable.
What is sustainable development?
Agenda 21 is a plan for sustainable development, so let’s get a bit more specific. Development is the overall direction of society, and it’s a broad term. It includes the way that we are feeding ourselves and the way we travel. It includes urban planning and zoning, and the shape of the economy. It also includes social elements – education, democracy, freedom and human rights. It is the path that our civilization is on, the emerging story of our way of life.
Sustainable development then, is development that can be carried forward into the future. It means infrastructure that is still going to be viable in years to come. It means not creating institutions or government services without knowing how they’re going to be funded in the long term. And it means considering the environmental consequences of our actions – for example, not building a city in the desert where it will run out of water.
Here’s the simple truth of the matter: if we’re not proactively choosing sustainable development, then much of what we’re doing is going to be unsustainable development. And that means that we’re storing up big problems for the future. Some of those problems won’t become apparent until we’re gone, and we’ll have left our children with cities unfit for purpose, shortages of fuel, water, or food, and huge debts to repay. For the first time in several decades, the next generation will have a worse standard of living than we do now. There’s nothing sinister about sustainable development. It is the opposite, the unsustainable path, that betrays the future.
What is the UN?
There are plenty of problems that need international solutions, and the UN is one of the international forums set up to debate and try and solve those big problems, alongside others like the World Bank, IMF, and the World Trade Organisation. The UN is a forum for international cooperation. It allows countries to work together to deliver humanitarian aid, fight disease, manage conflict, encourage human rights, and solve problems.
Let’s get a few things straight about the UN. First of all, it’s a voluntary organization. You don’t have to be part of it if you don’t want to, and yet every country in the world has chosen to be there. Only one country has ever walked out, and that was Indonesia in the 50s. (It came back). It’s largely democratic, with decisions taken by two-thirds majority vote in the General Assembly – one country, one vote. The exception is the Security Council, which deals with security and conflict. Alongside 10 rotating elected members, the council has five permanent members who have a veto. The US is one of those five.
The UN has no authority over individual nations, and it can only make recommendations. National governments are at liberty to say no to anything that the UN decides together. And even if they say yes, the UN has no way of holding anyone to their promises – it has no army, no powers, no mechanisms of enforcement. It relies entirely on goodwill between countries. The worst the UN can do is suspend your country’s right to attend its meetings, and even that requires a majority vote.
Because you need a two thirds majority on decisions, and Security Council members have a veto, the UN can’t be manipulated for nefarious purposes. That’s a big safeguard, but it’s also the reason why it can be so slow to get things done. Consider last week’s failed resolution to condemn Syria. You’d think that we could all agree that bombing your own citizens is a bad thing to do, but apparently not.
In short, if there was a global elite looking to create a one-world government, they’d be idiots to try and do it through the UN.
What is Agenda 21?
After all that then, let’s get to the heart of the matter. What exactly is Agenda 21? Let’s look at the history of it. In the latter half of the last century, there was a growing recognition that there were some environmental problems that had to be addressed at the global level. In 1992, a major summit was called in Rio. 172 countries participated, most of them sending their heads of state.
The discussion focused on pollution, the need to diversify energy sources, water scarcity, and a number of other issues. The results of the conference and the long discussions leading up to it were summarised in a comprehensive action plan for the 21st Century: Agenda 21. Over 40 chapters, the document attempted to crystalize this new global enthusiasm for smarter, greener development into something of a vision for the future. It’s here on the UN website, in full.
Some governments, national or local, attempted to live up to it for a while. Twenty years on, most people have forgotten about it entirely. People occasionally pay lip service to its ambitions, but otherwise it’s more or less irrelevant. In fact, it never was particularly useful. Agenda 21 is vague, full of aspirational language and with no clear targets (which is kind of what you’d expect from a document drawn up by committee in a roomful of people who can’t agree on anything.) It doesn’t seem to have done much in the last 20 years either. If it was a plot, it’s a failed one.
But how could it be a plot, when it is a public document, drawn together by world leaders in a democratic process? If it was a plot somehow, how could it possibly succeed when it’s a non-binding set of recommendations from an international body with no power over individual nations?
Here’s the truth of the matter: Sustainability matters, and is nothing to be afraid of. The UN is powerless over you and your government. And the only scary thing about Agenda 21 is its bizarre re-birth as a right-wing scapegoat.
PS – before you comment and tell me I’m wrong…
In looking at this, I’ve genuinely looked for evidence of a plot within Agenda 21. I can find plenty of commentators claiming that it wants to revoke private property rights, for example, but none of them give me a reference. That’s interesting, because I’ve searched Agenda 21 itself, and you know what? In the 351 page doc, there is only one mention of private property, in a sentence saying that it’s important.
So here’s the deal: if you want to tell me I’m wrong, download Agenda 21 and show me exactly where it says these things. Thanks.