Agenda 21: A Guide for the Perplexed

Posted on March 27, 2013 by John Dernbach

At a local government meeting on a land use plan, officials hear opposition based on the claim that it is tainted by Agenda 21.  A state public utility commission considering smart meters hears similar claims.  They are confused: what is Agenda 21 and why does it matter?

A well organized campaign against Agenda 21, spread by the Tea Party, Glenn Beck, and the John Birch Society, exists well outside the realm of ordinary environmental law work.  But it is beginning to affect that work.  The real target of this campaign, moreover, is not Agenda 21 but sustainable development—a common sense approach to reconciling environment and development that provides the basis for our environmental and land use laws.  Environmental lawyers thus need a basic understanding of what Agenda 21 is and what it is not.     

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. 

Agenda 21 endorses, and to a great degree is based upon, ideas that were already expressed in U.S. environmental and natural resources laws.  Its core premise is espoused in the National Environmental Policy Act of 1969.  Long before Agenda 21, NEPA set out “the continuing policy of the Federal government” to “create and maintain conditions under which man and nature can exist in productive harmony, and fulfill the social, economic, and other requirements of present and future generations of Americans” (42 U.S.C. § 4331). 

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, opponents are 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.  For many opponents, the absence of a textual basis in Agenda 21 for such claims (in fact, the text explicitly contradicts all of these claims) is not a problem.  First, they are attacking a document that is not well known, and so they count on not being contradicted.  Second, the false version of Agenda 21 fits a well known narrative that is based on fear of global governance and a perceived threat of totalitarianism, and on distrust of the United Nations.  Indeed, the absence of information to support such fears only deepens their perception of a conspiracy.  According to this view, moreover, people who talk about sustainable development without mentioning Agenda 21 are simply masking their true intentions.  

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).  This, of course, could chill a variety of otherwise ordinary state and local decisions.  Similar bills are pending in state legislatures across the country. 

In a variety of other places, elected officials and professional staff who have worked with stakeholders for years to produce specific land use and energy proposals find their work mischaracterized as the product of Agenda 21, even though they have never heard of it.   Agenda 21’s lack of direct relevance to the specific proposals should, but does not always, provide an answer to such claims. 

The campaign against Agenda 21 has no serious empirical or textual foundation.  But it can work against sustainability and good decisions—and cost time and money—when clients and their lawyers don’t recognize it for what it is.