Conspiracy, in Theory
Slate by Josh Vorhees
5 May 2014
image credit: Win McNamee/Getty Images
State lawmakers in Missouri last week revived an effort to significantly curtail local planners’ ability to adopt smart-growth policies. Missouri House members have successfully passed legislation that prevents the state from adopting policies that infringe on private property rights that are traced back to Agenda 21, a nonbinding resolution that was signed by President George H.W. Bush and 177 other world leaders at the end of the United Nations’ 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro.
Agenda 21 is a hot issue that is relatively unknown to the majority of Americans. In 2012 a full 85 percent of Americans didn’t know enough about the U.N. resolution to have an opinion on it, according to a poll commissioned by the American Planning Association.
Despite Agenda 21 being relatively unknown among most Americans, there is a strong conservative movement against the resolution. . The movement, supported largely by groups like the John Birch Society and the American Policy Center, has found success by targeting sustainable development efforts on multiple levels, from the individual projects to the state policies that make them possible.
Over the past three years, conservatives have introduced anti-Agenda 21 bills or nonbinding resolutions in a total of 26 states, passing such efforts in five of them, according to data compiled by Karen Trapenberg Frick. Karen Frick worked with Paul Waddell and David Weinzimmer to write an article researching the impact of the Tea Party in the anti-Agenda 21 movement.
One of the remarkable things about the campaign is that the anti-Agenda 21 activists often win simply by showing up. Frick’s research suggests that state bills—even when they fail—ultimately "inspire imitation and create momentum" for the movement, resulting in more converts around the country. Frick says she’s also noticed a relatively recent change in how activists are delivering their pitch at planning meetings: “Some activists—certainly not all, but some—are starting to shape-shift a bit to speak the language of city planners.”