Agenda 21: Which Idiots to Believe?
A Fringe Plea to Stop the Bullshit*
Agenda 21 was a resolution passed in the United Nations back in 1992. It’s a toothless document and the social activists that helped draft it feel it has failed miserably. The resolution is non-binding and does not have the power of law, but it’s grown to have a psychological power to those with a religious fervor to save the environment and an equally strong but inverse power to those with a desire to live a rural way of life in America, and in particular, in California. Agenda 21 outlines not only the global problems of environmental degradation, overpopulation, predatory capitalism and inequalities of power, but also identifies a collectivist view of solutions to those problems. It is that collectivist view which is the fulcrum for evangelistic propaganda and rule making on one side, and vehement, defensive objection on the other.
I’ve reviewed the Agenda and it’s attendant documents a few times, and have my own opinion. I agree largely with the global situation described in Agenda 21 and find the suggested solutions naïve, short sighted and dangerous. It’s pretty clear to me that the part of Agenda 21 the comfortably well off don’t care for isn’t the part their unwashed followers talk about. That portion which describes reductions in greenhouse gasses, assigning all natural resources including and especially clean water as public resources, and constraining land use threatens rural people and small business people. The wealthy have no problem with environmental posturing, the part they don’t care for are those portions we don’t hear so much about: changing patterns of consumption and, especially, empowering local people with the right to control and benefit from local resources. Ironically, if home rule and pro-rural people understood Agenda 21 they could turn its principles to their favor, but few read it and those who do have already set the UN up conceptually as “one world government”.
My primary criticisms of Agenda 21 are two fold. First, it isn’t very well informed about human behavior and so its solutions are two dimensional and unlikely to succeed. Secondly, it is based on assumptions about equality and the value of human life, which are not realistic even within their own logical paradigm, and which involve values that the global community should be discussing, instead of leaving to career bureaucrats. The document should have been the starting point for challenging ideas about our common planet and the various calamities that become more likely and more common as our global population increases and consumerism spreads.
Instead, the principles of the document are used selectively by both sides, and an essentially moot document becomes potent though misuse, poorly representing issues of critical importance to all humankind.
The principles of the document have found their way in to current “sustainability” themes, and have been the focus of people intending to save the world. Those who believe we can and should try to save the world and all its little creatures including the monkey we call “human” don’t use the term “Agenda 21” much; instead they focus on the principles it contains. Such folks as state and federal bureaucrats who make decisions about land use and urban planning, environmental protection, wildlife regulation and so on typically focus on the environment and sustainability. They are all in general agreement because they all go to the same graduate programs, are members of similar organizations, attend the same meetings. Our bureaucrats follow the zeitgeist of protecting what is left and minimizing human impact on the environment. Land use and development has always been ruled by money; that continues unchanged. A tiny bird might halt a development or two, but the wealthy still get the houses they want and hotels still get built on the beach.
The power these bureaucrats wield, as is typical, falls mostly on the middle class and poor. Fewer and fewer Americans can afford to build a house while the homes of the very wealthy get more garish. The difficulties a middle class family will have trying to build a home can all be solved with money and technology; the problems a rural family would have building a house on grandpa’s farm can be fixed with money.
The last open areas are too valuable for hayseeds to inhabit, this is why America’s rural areas suffer: All the resources of rural areas are too valuable to benefit just a few locals; all the land needs to be a park; all the water belongs to everyone, the fishes but especially the thirsty cities in central and southern California. Much of the intervention being done in the name of the environment in rural areas in California is actually benefiting downstream water companies and their urban customers.
The new “green” and “carbon footprint” regulations for building codes are supported by large building materials manufacturers, because they have the technology to meet the requirements, and small time producers don’t. Part of the dangerous naivete of the experts who drew up Agenda 21 is their underestimation of the ability of capitalism to corrupt and inhabit even the most beneficial ideas. “Organic” is no longer organic, it’s just a label, a legal fiction, and “green” as an advertising term lost meaning in the real world. The power of profit can co-opt nearly any effort.
Even so, the philosophy moves forward to save the environment, save vanishing animals, save open spaces, save the watersheds, save the seas. Why not? The situation described in Agenda 21 is clearly worse than in 1992, and there isn’t much indication, regardless compact fluorescent light bulbs and green building codes, that anything is getting better. All the elements enumerated in the original document continue to deteriorate, including powerlessness and poverty among rural and indigenous peoples.
The problem with the idealized “sustainability” practiced by bureaucrats and power brokers, particularly as practiced in the U.S. and California, is two fold.
First, there is absolutely no reason to believe the population can reach stable, sustainable level through the mechanization of society by bureaucrats. We can doubt bureaucrats and experts because they have been so wrong so many times in the past. This is not to suggest we can ignore the opinions of experts who agree and disagree, it’s that, in many ways, experts often know the least about some facets of their field. The reasons for this are found in sociology and epistemology, but everyday experience as well as analysis demonstrate that experts don’t know as much as they think they do, which is why every so often we get a new batch of experts who are imagined to now understand all the previous experts didn’t.
Second, the idealization of the principles described in Agenda 21 relies on assumptions, beliefs, really, which everyone might not share. Even on environmental and political issues where it is possible to find agreement in principle, the execution of those values swiftly break down. Three Gorges dam and the dams on the Dadu. International fishing. Gold mining and small farms in Brazil. Watershed restoration in California (a favorite of mine). In each instance, the principles found in Agenda 21 come in to conflict, and different parties select different portions of the document, different principles to focus on, like warring Christian sects re-interpreting the Bible.
Further, those assumptions are built on religious and moral beliefs which are not universally shared, and when they are shared, again their execution leads to disagreement. Is it more honorable for a man living in an exploitative economic system to steal bread or let his family starve? Is it more of an offense for a man to fall rainforest than to let his family starve? Closer to home, do we really need to shut down the meadows because of a frog, a niche species whose habitat is disappearing do to climatic change, is rare?
Again, there is absolutely no reason to believe we can “save the planet” now, and no reason to believe it’s possible for an organism, even a clever one like monkeys, to achieve a stable population without war, disease, and famine. It might seem important to try to some, or even to everyone, but the ways we would do that, and the cost it would incur, a cost that will not be borne equally, is up for disagreement, or should be.
The two problems, the transience of expertise and the problem of perspective, provide cause for concern to those most negatively impacted by the discussion. In California, that typically means landowners and those who make their living from resource extraction, in other words, ranchers, farmers and rural people.
There are those living in rural California and rural places elsewhere who feel that urban people and their political masters are trying to kill them or drive them from the land. It isn’t hard to understand why these folks feel that way.
Nearly every means of making a living from the land has been demonized. Cattle and meat in general is demonized by a large number of predominantly urban people. Letting little calves poop in the water downstreamers are going to drink is increasingly prohibited. Sluicing is prohibited at a time when gold is near $1,500 and ounce and rural areas are dying for income. Old water rights are being devalued in the face of a “new way of looking at water rights.” The vehicles and equipment we need are under attack for being environmentally unfriendly. Cal Fire has made it unfeasible or impossible for smaller landowners to log so rural communities live in fear of yearly firestorms. Land use laws and building codes that make sense in populated areas and large subdivisions fit very poorly in rural areas. Urbanites are taking over meadows and lakes and keeping traditional users out. It’s getting so if you live in an old house you can’t poop in the toilet, and it’s getting hard to find a light bulb that will warm a calf. We aren’t welcome on the “public” land that surrounds us. On measures great and small, rural people bear an increased burden; it’s on our backs to keep air clean, to keep water clean, to care for the forests that do that. Caring for the land, raising food, falling timber for homes, those are things rural people live to do. They’d like to be allowed to do those things, and maybe even pay bills and send a kid to school and be allowed to build a house on the old ranch so mom and dad can give the big house to the kids. Agenda 21, “sustainability”, the “environment” all seem to be nonsense words, a kind of code for loss of local power, environmentalism run rampant, and a bloody spear point for the evisceration of agriculture and the rural people who depend on it by others.
Why, when Agenda 21 is a moot and toothless document, do people endow it with such power? I think there are several reasons.
First, it provides a handy reference for a way of looking at the planet and how humans inhabit it. As noted earlier, Agenda 21 seeks to empower people like the family farmers of Northern California. It’s easy to get bureaucrats to line up to “save the river” when it provides a vacation spot and clean drinking water for urban voters; it’s harder to get an urban legislator to stick up for the rights of rural people. There’s good money and votes in the first, and nothing in the second. So, those portions of Agenda 21 are ignored by rural activists because there isn’t an icicle’s chance in hell any of those provisions are going to be operationalized in California.
Second, on talking with rural people about the impact of environmental and land use laws they simply can not believe true Americans would come up with some of this crap. It’s got to come from Europe or somewhere, or more like from people who hate all nations, people who want one world government, strange people, foreign and hostile to us.
And, they perceive that we are losing our national autonomy and they’re right. It isn’t hard to find proof: our building code is essentially an “international building code”; a recent UN resolution abolishing small arms is, regardless the Obama administration’s insistence to the contrary, an agreement which will eventually disarm American citizens. The Obama administration used the U.N. Convention on the trafficking of drugs as the reason the feds have to go to war against U.S. states that legalize marijuana (even though it was the U.S. who insisted on them) United States law might insist international treaties have no power over citizens, but that is demonstrably, a fiction. Just as European nations are starting to chafe under the reign of the European Union, we are feeling the bridle of the U.N.
We recall that the U.N. was birthed after the last war to bring stability between nations, assist with refugees, and provide an international voice against tyrants. At its inception the U.N. was a small organization reliant on member nations. That changed swiftly. The U.N. is now a large bureaucracy filled with people who do nothing but write and read documents. The international nature of the bureaucracy, like the international nature of the E.U., mean the people living in the bureaucracy and taking their sustenance and succor from it, hold more allegiance to it than to any nation. In such a bureaucracy the culture devalues real individual people in favor of “people”, an abstracted legal concept. The U.N. has been a huge failure at it’s original mission, but has succeeded beyond dispute in one area: increasing the size and expense of the U.N. This was done by doing good, taking up the concerns of women, children, farmers and others for whom no actual benefit would occur, but on whose behalf thousands of documents are created.
It’s only when U.N. policy coincides with administration intention that something gets done. Right now, it’s in the interest of powerful people that the diminishing supplies of water in the Cascades and Sierras belong to the fishes and everyone except the hayseeds in the hills. The U.N. and Agenda 21 have no legal power in Northern California, but they have a strong psychological power.
Earth is in a poor state; there are too many people and we extract too many resources and use too much energy. I stand with those who use land and use energy and eat meat. Convince me it’s really in the best interest of humankind and I’ll lay down my saw and my rifle and move to a hive. That obviously hasn’t been done, and very likely the technology doesn’t exist to do it, and almost certainly there is no way to achieve uniform density of population and uniform resource allocation on the planet. Stop fracking, charge urban dwellers to compensate rural people for caring for our food, water, timber and air producing areas, and we’ll talk about the little dying frogs and global climate change. Until then, why should the burden fall unfairly on those living the traditional rural life?
As a tool for dialogue, the 20 year old Agenda 21 could be an important starting point for meaningful change.
Your Fringe Editor scrambled to find a more polite term than “bullshit” but there really is no better word in the English language for “moronic misinformation purposefully applied to sway the listener.” Sorry.
(Other Editor’s Note: I would have used Bullpucky)