I love a good conspiracy, even if there is little evidence there is one. Okay, I still question whether or not Lee Harvey Oswald alone killed President Kennedy. But there’s one supposed ‘conspiracy’ that is simply vaporware and that’s “Agenda 21.”

It’s the latest manifestation of a deep-seated distrust of government; one spawned by conservatives to the right of the Tea Party, who are not only fearful of big government but more disconcertingly, local government, including planning commissions, county superintendents, city mayors. The Agenda 21 movement is an attack on the very core of what is often referred to as “small d” democracy. It’s one thing to protest -- sometimes quite legitimately -- the gross inefficiencies and over-reaching of the federal government. It’s something entirely different when you characterize thoughtful efforts by intelligent, educated professionals and elected officials to provide the greatest number of citizens in their cash-strapped community with the services and infrastructure they deserve as a United Nation’s conspiracy to create a “one world government.”

In case you’re not up to speed on the supposed Agenda 21 conspiracy, here it is in a nutshell. In 1992, at the Rio Conference, the conferees adopted a number of voluntary recommendations that if applied would enable communities to move towards an environmentally, as well as economically, sustainable level of living. Central to the Agenda is the concept of smart growth, which seeks to better manage land and resource development to the benefit of the largest number of people without jeopardizing air, water and land quality. In the 20 years since their proposal, many of the enumerated principles, 27 in total, have been incorporated into city planning and development: more transit-oriented, higher population densities, etc. All pretty reasonable sounding stuff... unless you are an Agenda 21er who sees the dark hand of the United Nations manipulating your city mayor and planning department, as well as countless numbers of architects, engineers and land developers, most of whom see the practical economic sense behind the Rio recommendations.

To a 21er, the Agenda’s goal is to deny us all our property rights. It wants to herd us all, they assert without the slightest evidence, into tenement-dominated urban slums where government can better control us. This socialist-communal (read “communist”) movement wants to take away our private cars and force us to use crime-ridden, germ-infested, grimy public transit, or... horrors, bicycles. The “government” would own what was once private property. Private ownership in the suburbs, exurbs and rural countryside would be but a distant memory. This is a “Bladerunner-like” view of a future without the pall of gray overcast and refinery flares that doesn’t exist and never will.

I have some small insight in the area of city planning. I was invited to participate in a voluntary citizen effort to find ways to make Omaha more sustainable, and by sustainable, the city means both a nice place to live and affordable to maintain for both current and future generations. That initiative, guided by a community non-profit called Omaha by Design, is based on the fundamental assumption that the lower the density of population per square mile, the fewer services the city can afford to provide, essentially because the tax base simply isn’t there to support it. Planning professionals and city officials from the pubic transit to water and sewer department stressed that the costs of maintaining all those hundreds of miles of roads, water lines and sewers is becoming increasingly costly, especially when people complain about paying more taxes, a central tenet of 21ers distant cousins, the Tea Party.

What our city is proposing is returning to a more supportable density of around 6,000 people per square mile, roughly what the city once was when I was growing up here as a boy. Right now Omaha has a density of around 4,500 residents per square mile. A denser city is one that is simply more affordable to maintain: roads and sewers can be repaired and the tax burden spread over more people, which means less per person. By the way, if you’ve ever been to Paris, you might be surprised to learn that the population of central Paris is about 30,000 per square mile, if I remember correctly. Yet, despite that, people love to visit it and many want to live there.

On the issue of public transit and the supposed end of private vehicle ownership, there is no secret UN plot to take away our cars - much less our guns - and replace them with bicycles. It turns out that in a denser city, transit and bicycles just work better for everyone. As New York City’s experience demonstrates, you can live an exciting, fulfilling life without needing to own a car, and you’re likely to be much fitter, because you tend to walk and bike more. A compact city is also a more energy efficient one, we’re learning.

The key thing to remember is that all of the proposals found in the Rio Declaration on Environment and Development are entirely voluntary, and contrary to 21er assertions, it is very much focused on human beings first, not rare woodpeckers and obscure fish species. Here is Principle 1:

Human beings are at the centre of concerns for sustainable development. They are entitled to a healthy and productive life in harmony with nature.

If you take the time to actually read the document, you’ll find that there is absolutely nothing in it that in any form or fashion could be characterized as a conspiracy to create a one world government. In fact, the rights to national sovereignty are affirmed in the very next principle: Principle 2.

I encourage you to take the time to read the document and then learn about what sustainable development and smart growth are all about, because there is a lot of misinformation being circulated. The only conspiracy is in the minds of fearful and uninformed people who haven’t bothered, perhaps until now, to take an interest in their communities, much less learn about the real issues of running a city that works for everyone.

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