For most Americans, notions of sustainability and passing a livable world to our children are mainstream.
But for the John Birch Society (JBS) and a growing segment of the Right Wing, such notions are the green mask for a sinister blueprint for a UN-led New World Order that will erase American sovereignty, abolish private property, force everyone from the suburbs into prison-like cities, and monitor your refrigerator.
They even have a label for it: Agenda 21, and the JBS has a step-by-step guide to how to fight it (see Agenda 21 Rollback Manual).
Some followers say more. For them, Agenda 21 means killing 90 percent of the world's population, forced abortions, and the end of civilization. Naturally, some say George Soros is behind it; others that it's a Zionist plot.
This would all sound like a joke if the Republican National Committee's (RNC) January meeting hadn't unanimously adopted an anti-Agenda 21 resolution based on JBS language . When it did, it joined seven states and 76 localities that have passed or proposed similar resolutions -- most of them repeating the JBS language word-for-word. The RNC did not return a week of calls requesting information on the vote.
"It's absolutely astounding how this baseless conspiracy theory has made its way right to the heart of the Republican Party, and that the RNC is proposing that this anti-Agenda 21 resolution be incorporated into the Presidential platform," says Mark Potok, senior fellow at the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC)
The JBS has made a remarkable comeback since Barry Goldwater and William F. Buckley, Jr. threw it out of the conservative movement in the 1960s. Since then, it's been cruising under the radar and throwing sand in the gears of state and local government, and the Agenda 21 issue is made for it. Working there, JBS followers have defeated comprehensive land use plans and derailed attempts at ordinary land use planning.
It's gotten so that planning officials have almost given up on talking to Agenda 21 types. "When I ask people to show me and tell me how planning affects their property rights, I don't get a clear answer," says Mitchell Silver, president of the American Planning Association. " I get rants about Agenda 21. That's when I know we're not even in the same room."
That's probably because the JBS and its allies are telling its Agenda 21 followers that every word planners say is a UN-inspired lie. Reading anti-Agenda-21 pieces on blogs and websites is like stumbling into a bizzarro world where everything means something else.
In 1972 the United Nations held a meeting about the global environment in Stockholm. Delegates from 69 nations attended.
The next one, in Rio de Janeiro in 1992, hosted delegates from 178 countries and produced a non-binding resolution--the dreaded Agenda 21. Its first principle: "Human beings are at the centre (sic) of concerns for sustainable development. They are entitled to a healthy and productive life in harmony with nature."
The document says the world is one world; that its resources are finite; that environmental problems in one country affect its neighbors and the world at large; that over-population imposes a great strain on the world's finite resources; that a concerted, global response is more likely to be effective than a disjointed one; and that every nation had to find its own way to live up to the resolution.
The US' response to Agenda 21 has been tepid, at best. President GHW Bush signed on to the plan; then President Bill Clinton created the President's Commission on Sustainable Development. The Commission produced a study and some meetings, and closed for business in 1999.
President GW Bush was less enthusiastic about sustainability, but he issued executive order 13423, encouraging green technology for the sprawling federal real estate portfolio.
Enter President Obama, who last June handed Agenda 21 issues to the Department of Agriculture by signing executive order 13575, creating the White House Rural Council. Designed to help rural areas, anti-Agenda-21 types insist the Council is part of a plan to depopulate the countryside until everyone is living in those prison-like cities. They even have what they call a map of the result..
It's unsurprising that the JBS has been agitating against Agenda 21; it's been calling the United Nations a sinister Illuminati plot for one-world government since the JBS was founded in 1958. But Agenda 21 has also become a sort of grab-bag for fringe ideas.
Marti Oakley, for instance, a Minnesota blogger and radio host, says Zionists lurk behind Agenda 21, merely using the UN as a front. She added: "I don't mean Jewish people, of course; Zionism is a political movement." Most Jews don't see it this way, and Ms. Oakley apparently doesn't know that this is the Hamas line.
Views like that are too much even for the JBS: An email from spokesman Bill Hahn says that "Anyone saying that Agenda 21 is a Zionist plot has an alternative agenda and is not credible."
Other ideas firmly in the anti-Agenda 21 mainstream -- that Agenda 21 means murdering 90 percent of the world population, for instance -- grew out of thin air.
Ted Turner supposedly said this in a 1990s interview in Audubon Magazine. But what he actually said was: "It's clear to me that ever-increasing numbers of people are having an ever-increasing negative impact on the natural world. And when the environment's gone, there ain't gonna be no people, either."
The source of this story seems to be that an ideal global population of 500 million is engraved on the Georgia Guidestones, an enigmatic monument in Elbert County, Georgia, which monument was given a sinister write-up on the Radio Liberty website.
The Agenda 21 issue is no national crisis. It's a non-binding UN resolution, sustainability is a motherhood issue, and the facts suggest the GOP is trying to keep its distance from it.
Of the seven states that entertained anti-Agenda 21 resolutions or laws--Alabama, Arizona, Kansas, Mississippi, New Hampshire, Tennessee, and Utah--only Kansas and Tennessee have adopted them, and even in those two states, neither Republican Governor signed them. In the rest the bills died in committee. And while the RNC resolution was unanimously adopted, the party's rules say it has to be voted on by the Convention's Rules Committee before it can become a plank in the national platform.
In fact the only state that's taken legal steps in the matter is Florida; last year that state repealed a 30-year-old "Smart Growth" law that required, among other things, that localities have comprehensive land use plans -- as noted, something viewed suspiciously by anti-Agenda 21 types.
So why bother about this?
On reason is that the JBS has traditionally focused many of its resources, and been most effective, at the state and local levels. In the 1970s, for instance, it began agitating against school tax rates, to remarkable effect. And California is still struggling under the JBS-inspired Proposition 13, which is blamed by many for the state's ongoing fiscal crisis.
Another reason: The idea there's a sinister plot to turn America into a prison plugs right into the widespread conviction that something profound and bad is happening in this country.
The reasonable explanation for this belief is that the world is passing through a transition as profound as the First Industrial Revolution; the ground is shifting under everyone's feet and fear of the future is a commonplace. But it's not typically expressed so concretely; it's more of a feeling, and one that canny politicians with their finger on the zeitgeist can turn to their advantage. And like it or not, the JBS fits that description.
The JBS is probably not expecting any dramatic rollback of the nation's environmental or sustainability laws in any event. More likely, it's playing moneyball -- staying in the game, feeding its fundraising machine, keeping its followers stirred up, and throwing sand in the government's gears. And however ludicrous the scenario may seem to some people, it's obviously getting a response, and probably drawing recruits, too.
The JBS goal, after all, is smaller government and to the extent attempts at comprehensive land use planning and sustainability initiatives are frustrated, abandoned, or scaled back, while its followers are kept engaged and recruits filter in, it's succeeding, and sticking to what's proven to be a successful strategy -- one that brought it from near-extinction in the 1960s to being a major, if unacknowledged, influence in American politics today.
Don't count them out.