Llewellyn Hinkes-Jones is a Washington, D.C.-based writer whose work has also appeared in the Toronto Star, Morning News, Washington City Paper, and the Awl.
There's a surprisingly longstanding tradition in American politics of fighting land use regulations.
Agenda 21 conspiracy theories – those that posit the United Nations is preparing to take over the United States by way of bike lanes and smart growth (previously seen here, here, and here) – may seem at first glance like the zealous rantings of those with too much time on their hands. How else to describe the people that appear at local town council meetings with bullhorns and placards decrying an international socialist conspiracy in local zoning codes?
But these tirades are actually part of a longstanding tradition in American politics of grandiose paranoia as political shibboleth against environmentalism. That these theories have now been officially adopted into the GOP platform is less surprising than you might think.
The Agenda 21-related conspiracies are only the most recent incarnation of this country's property rights movement, which has long used disruptive techniques to foment dissent against environmentalists and land regulations. Often associated with groups like the John Birch Society and the Heartland Institute, and seen most prominently in the 1990s as the Wise Use movement, property rights groups oppose any government interference in land rights.
This might appear on the local level as a farmer’s dispute over zoning regulations, but it more often involves the struggles of natural resource-dependent industries against environmental regulations: coal plants fighting pollution controls, logging companies battling clear-cutting restrictions, and chemical plants fighting waste disposal regulations.
In the case of the UN’s Agenda 21 and the anti-smart growth fervor it has spawned, the attention is largely coming from development and construction companies. Their ire is aimed more specifically against septic tank regulations, wetlands protections, and any other restrictions on new construction in rural areas.
Any local decision that might set legal precedent for future use can become worthy of a campaign of paranoid rhetoric. And sometimes Agenda 21 is accused of manipulating the strings of just about any situation in need of an opponent. When Fort Collins, Colorado, was looking to replace its system of private garbage collectors with a municipal system, numerous voices decried the influence of the UN’s tentacles in municipal waste disposal.
At a certain level, the technique works. Several groups have been successful in stopping large-scale public works projects with accusations that have little basis in reality. By acting at a very local level with enough volume, these groups and individuals have been able to overwhelm, or at least derail, council members unprepared to deal with a fusillade of nonsense about international governance and legal minutiae. Accusations about ceding U.S. sovereignty to an international organization easily appeal to nationalist sentiments, and there’s plenty of circumstantial evidence found in local recycling initiatives that parallel the UN’s ideals.
Most importantly, this type of fearful rhetoric helps create a perceived enemy to rally against. If all of these urban planning and environmental regulations are part of a nefarious plot for world domination, then anything is up for grabs. Any insignificant recommendation about traffic circles to avoid congestion, smart meters for monitoring energy usage, or tracking greenhouse gas emissions becomes suspect.
These Tea Party tactics were passed down from the Wise Use era, with some of the same names repeated. In the '90s, threats of a UN socialist takeover were used to thwart environmental protections in state parks back when conspiracy theories were distributed by fax machine rather than Internet connection. But it goes back even further. Some of the Sagebrush Rebels that helped usher Reagan into the White House were comprised of public lands ranching groups who used fear-mongering to fight the environmental protections of the Carter administration. And then there are the lesser-known Sagebrush rebellions of the earlier part of the 20th century, who also incited political action by spreading fears of a looming government conspiracy to steal peoples’ land.
It’s only recently that the focus of the country's anti-environmentalism movement has turned to urban planning. It may seem absurd, but as long as these types of strategies help to protect oil, gas, coal, logging, mining, ranchers, land developers, and other natural resource industry groups from government restrictions and fines, then we'll continue to hear about the threats to private property ownership that this "global socialist conspiracy" represents.
Photo credit: Chris Keane/Reuters