What is the latest in crazy conspiracy theories? Well, believe it or not it’s the old conservative notion that planning ahead is a good thing. Planning, especially resource based planning, and anything with the word “sustainability” in it has been identified by right-wing factions of American politics as a part of a grand scheme to take over the United States. Yes, sustainable urban planning is all part of a vast plot to impose the U.N.’s Agenda 21 on our nation, and if it hasn’t already arrived where you live, it’s coming soon. Forget the “Black Helicopters”, the invaders will be using hybrid cars, bike paths, hiking trails and light rail lines to infiltrate our country. If you thought that we had a problem with an inability to appropriately plan development, conserve resources and formulate responsible infrastructure investments you were wrong. Planning apparently IS the problem.
Only two things are infinite, the universe and human stupidity, and I’m not sure about the former. -Albert Einstein
The conservative movement in America has managed to turn a legitimate policy debate over land use controls and property rights into fodder for the fringe and a cause celebre for the Tea Party crowd. Instead of having an intelligent discussion over the appropriate balance of societal needs and individual rights, you know, like the debates conducted in the Federalist Papers, they’ve decided to take the conversation somewhere else. There’s no need to conduct a rational assessment of our resource capacity compared to anticipated demand, the right-wing has decided that it would be much better to turn an important issue of public policy into an X-Files episode. They have a problem though, the truth most certainly is out there.
How far has the right-wing fringe pushed this lunacy? Well, farther than you might think. The Republican National Committee actually adopted a “Resolution Exposing United Nations Agenda 21” in January. The State of Alabama adopted a law in May 2012 prohibiting the state, or any of its subdivisions, from participating in any actions directly related to or traceable to the dreaded Agenda 21. Not to be outdone, a visit to the John Birch Society’s web site will provide you with the following analysis:
…UN’s Local Agenda 21 program may already be in your local community, through your home town or city’s membership in ICLEI – Local Governments for Sustainability. Agenda 21 seeks for the government to curtail your freedom to travel as you please, own a gas-powered car, live in suburbs or rural areas, and raise a family. Furthermore, it would eliminate your private property rights through eminent domain.
This is, after all, the organization that labeled President Dwight Eisenhower a “tool of the communists”, so their ability to spot infiltration by property stealing Bolsheviks is clearly beyond reproach. Tea Party activists have been on an anti-Agenda 21 binge; writing op-eds, letters-to-the-editor and protesting at planning and re-development meetings across the country. There will be no planning for these guys.
The thing is, you would think that an effort that promotes living within our means, accurately forecasting financial needs and obligations and making intelligent and well thought-out land use decisions would find some favor with conservatives. That’s kind of the traditional definition of conservatism, isn’t it? I guess not. Apparently, since the concept has met with the approval of the liberals among us, it must therefore also be evil. Private industry actually has a term for this approach to conducting your affairs. They call it a business plan. But bring this type of analysis to government and it becomes a U.N. plot. Go figure. If liberals are for it then conservatives have to be against it. Simple, isn’t it? So logic and principals be damned, this is America and you can’t make us be smart if we don’t want to be.
So, off we go on Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride. So much more thrilling than if we let those dour planners have their say. Do we have enough water for our future needs? Maybe. Maybe not. Clean air, working sewer systems, adequate roadways, sufficient energy sources? Who knows and who cares? Climate change? I’m not even sure it’s happening and we can’t do anything about it even if it is going on. An intact environment capable of supporting human life and meeting the needs of society? Your guess is as good as mine! I’m getting excited just writing this! Life is really an adventure if you don’t know where you’re headed. Why spoil it by trying to plan ahead. Who needs to go to Six Flags for an exhilarating ride? It’s all about the journey, isn’t it?
The problem is that we actually do know where we are going and that, in all likelihood, disaster awaits at the end of this trip. We live in a world of finite resources and an increasing demand on those resources. We’re not exactly careening off into the unknown. A crisis of public health threats, diminished quality of life and economic ruin lurk down at the bottom of the hill by the town dump where this road is leading us. Rational thoughtful people who look at the circumstances that we are facing and conclude that we need to pay attention to the balance between man and nature, between capacity and demand, between where we’re headed and where we need to go, are not plotting the end of the “American Way of Life”. They’re responding in a manner that anyone with a decent survival instinct should understand. Just because they share their conclusions with others, like scientists and planners from the U.N, doesn’t mean they are conspiring on an agenda. Maybe its just that intelligent sane people looking at similar facts and circumstances come up with similar answers. But I guess that’s just crazy talk.
With the modest efforts we currently devote to planning a future that works, we barely make headway. Abandoning planning as a tool of competent and visionary government policy-making altogether is sheer folly. It reminds me of the The Little Rascals episode where the gang was careening down a hill in a home-made fire truck. As they raced out of control one of the kids asked Stymie, who was steering the contraption, “where are you going?” His response, “I don’t know, but I’m on my way!” is an apt metaphor for our current state of affairs. However, this is a dangerous and irresponsible way to conduct ourselves.
There has traditionally been a lot of tension between environmentalists and planners. In a lot of ways, the recent insanity of the anti-Agenda 21 attacks on planning efforts may prove to be a very positive development. Although the two groups may approach the puzzle of planning a sustainable future from different perspectives, they share a lot of common ground. The rejection of sustainable planning called for by the Tea Party is an attack on both environmental protection and planning. When the cry goes out that “green is the new red”, both groups are being categorized as un-American. The time is long past for planners and environmentalists to come to terms with their differences and concentrate on the values and goals that they share. They’re going to find that for all of the disagreements that they may have on how to accomplish them, their aspirations are largely the same.
Maybe it’s just that going on a trip without asking for directions, no matter how lost you might be, isn’t only a “man” thing, its the American Way. The problem is that this isn’t a trip that we can afford to be lost on and there aren’t any secret short cuts. With a burgeoning world population putting unprecedented demands on the planet’s systems and resources, we need to come to terms with how we live on the Earth sooner rather than later. Future generations are relying on us having at least some idea of where we need to be and how to get there. Instead of wasting time on an inane and ridiculous manufactured debate over the influence of Agenda 21, we need to get to work. In the words of the esteemed World’s Foremost Authority, Professor Irwin Corey, “if we don’t change direction soon, we’re going to end up where we’re going”. You can be certain that if we don’t pay attention, we’re not going to like the destination. -Ben Spinelli