Agenda 21: A Guide for the Perplexed

By Prof. John Dernbach

What is Agenda 21 and why does it matter?

Agenda 21 is a comprehensive public strategy for achieving sustainable development. It was endorsed by the U.S. (under the presidency of George H.W. Bush) and other countries at the U.N. Conference on Environment and Development in 1992. Agenda 21 stands for two broad propositions: 1) environmental goals and considerations need to be integrated into all development decisions, and 2) governments and their many stakeholders should work out the best way to integrate environment and development decisions in an open and democratic way.

Agenda 21 contains an almost encyclopedic description of the best ideas for achieving sustainable development that existed in 1992. On land use, it specifically counsels respect for private property. It contains a detailed description of the role that many nongovernmental entities, including business and industry, farmers, unions, and others, should play in achieving sustainability.

Ironically, Agenda 21 was never taken seriously as such in the United States; there has never been much enthusiasm here for following international agreements. It is not a legally binding treaty; it contains no provisions for ratification, for example. Agenda 21 also says nothing about new ideas like green building, smart growth, and smart meters. But sustainable development as an idea— achieving economic development, job creation, human wellbeing, and environmental protection and restoration at the same time—is gaining traction.

In response, a well organized campaign against Agenda 21, spread by the Tea Party, Glenn Beck, and the John Birch Society, is attacking sustainability by making false statements about Agenda 21. They say that Agenda 21 is opposed to democracy, freedom, private property, and development, and would foster environmental extremism. Far-fetched, you say? Well, consider this: in 2012, Alabama adopted legislation that prohibits the state or political subdivisions from adopting or implementing policies “that infringe or restrict private property rights without due process, as may be required by policy recommendations originating in, or traceable to ‘Agenda 21’” (Ala. Code § 35-1-6). Similar bills have been introduced elsewhere, and should be opposed.

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