Under pressure: convergence against Agenda 21 in the Tea Party and Occupy movements

Uninformed public and low community participation have been the result of unsuccessful top down institutional approaches to implementing sustainable development plans, without incorporating local networks for cooperation mechanisms.

Christine Emeran
12 August 2014

Media coverage in the US since the summer of 2013 has extended a debate hitherto limited to practitioners and activists in the environmental field into a now highly controversial altercation over Agenda 21, one of the main outputs of the 1992 UN Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED, known as the “Earth Summit” and held in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil).

Agenda 21, a 40-chapter action plan, includes a survey of social and economic conditions (poverty, health, human settlements, demographics); resource management and conservation; inclusion of citizens; and mechanisms for implementation. The key question posed is why the debate now?

The trajectory of the debate in environmental politics has passed on from theories on catastrophe from the 1970s context where key actors such as the Club of Rome produced a report with MIT on the limits of natural resources, warning that gas resources would run out by the 1990s. Their research served as the rationale for government regulation in the industry. They did not foresee the present day situation of alternative energy sources and new techniques for gas exploitation.

This discourse on environmental politics has shifted to produce new theories of precaution and led the way for creating interest in the concept of sustainable development as a durable solution. The present environment of a gathering opposition in the US on Agenda 21 has permitted another opportunity to examine the present day role of international governance on national/local approaches to sustainable development concerning the governance and management of land use. This article seeks to present various views on Agenda 21 from the UN and US government, contrasting them with those of counter-movement actors, including the Tea Party and Occupy Movement in the US. The purpose is to uncover how these diverse positions on Agenda 21 shape and politicize their interactions with each other, are contested on the national and local levels, and what this means for sustainable development policy-making.

Agenda 21: the structure on the global to local level

A major concern since the 1990s has been the increase in population especially in the US and an urgent need to address the scarcity of resources. Up until that point, policy agendas have not been completely equitable in their approaches to finding reasonable solutions to the problem. To that end, Agenda 21 was seen as a concerted effort to address these critical issues on the global level at the Earth Summit (1992) through recommendations on key environmental and developmental areas for governments to implement. Agenda 21 created a Commission on Sustainable Development (CSD) to follow-up on UNCED and its progress on implementation of Agenda 21 at the local, national, regional and international levels, which accommodates patterns of “glocalism” discussed below.[1]

Additionally, the "ICLEI-Local Governments for Sustainability", an independent non-profit organization, was established in 1990, with headquarters in Bonn, Germany and 13 country/regional offices to link to more than 200 local governments in 43 countries. Their role has been to create network connections for local governments by providing technical support and knowledge sharing on sustainable development related to Agenda 21. Their aim is to "provide an effective cost-efficient way to achieve local, national, and global sustainability objectives."[2]

The concept of glocalism aptly describes how it was conceived international governance on sustainable development would work. Ideally, recommendations of sustainable development produced in the global arena (UN/Agenda 21) are meant to be re-interpreted to suit (adapted to) national and local situations and preferences with the inclusion of community participation. However, recent opposition from both political sides (the right and left) in the US has called for another deeper look into how Agenda 21 has been implemented on the national/local level. 

The US President's Council on Sustainable Development

In 1992, George W. Bush signed the non-binding UN resolution of Agenda 21 along with 179 governments at the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro to promote sustainable development as a plan to address the rising global population. The plan for implementation of Agenda 21 began in 1993 when President Clinton signed an Executive Order (EO 12852) to set up the President's Council on Sustainable Development (PCSD) to implement the recommendations of Agenda 21 on the federal, state and local government levels (Kibler 2013).

The goals of the PCSD were to:

Forge consensus on policy by bringing together diverse interests to identify and develop innovative economic, environmental and social policies and strategies;


Demonstrate Implementation of policy that fosters sustainable development by working with diverse interests to identify and demonstrate implementation of sustainable development; Get the word out about sustainable development; and


Evaluate and report on progress by recommending national, community, and enterprise level frameworks for tracking sustainable development.[3]

The PCSD also expressed a series of goals expressing interest in developing areas such as stewardship (encouraging individuals and groups to be responsible for their environmental impact), sustainable communities (creating communities to work together to preserve natural and material resources), and civic engagement (for citizens/business/communities to participate and influence relevant natural resource, and environmental decision-makers). Task forces were created by the PCSD to “encourage and support local and regional collaboration among Federal, State, and local government agencies; public interest and community groups; and businesses to advance sustainable development in [metropolitan and rural areas] communities.”[4] The overall goal was to adopt a National Strategy on Sustainable Development, whose recommendations, up till now, have yet to be implemented. Additionally, federal agencies such as the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) provided grants to state and local governments to promote Agenda 21. In 2011, President Obama signed (EO 13575) to create the White House Rural Council with 25 executive branches to implement Agenda 21.

Since that time, the US has also participated in other sustainability initiatives such as Future Earth, a 10-year initiative incorporating multi-stakeholder partnerships between policy-makers, investors, academics, business and industry, and other sectors of civil society to create global sustainability options and solutions (biodiversity and climate change).[5] Its meeting, Planet Under Pressure 2012, gathered the largest group of "global change" scientists with a total of 3,018 participants and over 3,500 others via the Internet before the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development (Rio+20).[6] The key recommendations from this meeting called for mechanisms to increase social relevance and "to facilitate an interactive dialogue on global sustainability," which recognizes that: 

Fundamental reorientation and restructuring of national and international institutions is required to overcome barriers to progress and to move to effective Earth-system governance. Governments must take action to support institutions and mechanisms that will improve coherence, as well as bring about integrated policy and action across the social, economic and environmental pillars.[7]

As an additional contribution to Rio+20, the US produced a government-negotiated document with some recommendations relating to sustainable development. Most significantly, the conference resulted in hundreds of commitments in support of new sustainable development projects or initiatives, policy advocacy, or public education.[8] This suggests that there is US national interest in the promotion of sustainability activities and programs. But more analysis is needed on the process to create a national plan.

What is interesting has been the form of implementation of Agenda 21 in the US, which is highly structured at the federal level through agencies responsible for its recommendations and disseminating them on the state and local levels. Their approach to Agenda 21 has not been fully participatory. It has not included communities in identifying problems and defining priorities to create a National Plan on Sustainable Development. Instead, at the national level a bureaucratic structure linking federal agencies have taken the lead in selecting recommendations from Agenda 21 to implement at the state and local levels through the promotion of grant programs to local governments without the input of those concerned, citizens. This may be part of the explanation for why there is an increased resistance among the public affected against it. 

Agenda 21: national/local opposition

In the revised charter, President's Council on Sustainable Development (April 25, 1997), one of its missions was:

(c) Getting the Word Out About Sustainable Development. Sustainable development depends on the actions of individuals from every sector of society, and on our ability to learn from one another's efforts and experiences. To foster learning and the exchange of ideas, the Council shall gather and disseminate information on sustainable development. It should also build on its previous work to educate Americans on sustainable development.[9]

However, until recently, very few Americans, about 15 percent, were informed on what Agenda 21 is. This is changing in the media where opposition raised to Agenda 21 comes principally from actors having personal interests affiliated with but not fully representative of the Republican Party, Tea Party, Green Party, and Occupy Movement on both the political left and right. All disagree with President Obama's policy of Agenda 21 on sustainable development.

Tea Party protests, San Francisco 2010. Steve Rhodes/Demotix. All rights reserved.The push against Agenda 21 in the media makes visible a disconnect between the national pursuit of sustainable development plans and community participation on the local (state/regional) level. This perhaps explains the difference in understanding what Agenda 21 is and its impact on the local level. For relevant actors in the US, Agenda 21 has been understood as a national plan to address questions of land development and population growth. The US Census predicts that the US population will increase by more than 40 percent, reaching 440 million in 2050. With the increase in urban density (population) across America, issues such as a plan for environmental sustainability have become more pressing for the US government to address.[10]

On the one hand, rallies against Agenda 21 are taking place with some representatives from the Tea Party, a loose coalition of local and national organizations with varying ties to the Republican Party on issues related to the federal deficit, government structure and taxes. Among conservatives, many oppose the arguments on global warming linked to Agenda 21. Others disagree with Agenda 21 on the grounds that it "...destroy (s) the middle class way of life" (Saul, Cedar Valley Tea Party in Cedar Falls, Iowa), "...undermine (s) your property rights and force (s) you to live in cities" (Jake Robinson, Tea Party member, Tennessee), and "is nothing short of treason" (Joe Dugan, leader, Tea Party Myrtle Beach). This mobilization against Agenda 21 is occurring on the local level and conservative groups connected to the Tea Party are active in blocking initiatives on development while the more radical among them decry Agenda 21as a "part of a grand conspiracy to take away their gun rights, destroy suburbia, and turn America into a modern Soviet state".

On the other hand, on the left, we find activists from the Occupy movement (a global movement that started on Wall Street as a critical response to the financial crisis and growing inequality in the US) entering the debate on climate change. Activists from the Occupy movement attended the 17th Conference of the Parties (COP17), UN Framework Climate Change, in Durban in 2012, made calls for "climate justice." However, the feedback from that meeting on the part of activists was "private corporations are occupying our seats in the UN climate talks and governments corrupted by corporate influence are claiming to represent our needs" and "inside their declarations the needs of the 99 percent are not being heard" (Sapa-AFP). Support of the Occupy Movement has also come from the Green Party. There are members from the Greens that said, "...on the surface, Agenda 21, promotes sustainable communities, however, it is a top down solution rather than a grassroots solution. For sustainable communities to flourish, people need to build them from the roots up." There are also concerns among activists in the Occupy Movement that UN's Agenda 21, Chapter 4.6, is overly concerned with developing national population control measures reinterpreted by them as similar to China's policy (Seal, Green Party).

Occupy Los Angeles protests. Magnus von Magnusson/Demotix. All rights reserved.

In California, there has been opposition to the government’s plan for implementing Agenda 21. At the grassroots, citizens from Danville (CA) created a meeting with associations “Save Open Space- Danville,” “Citizens Town Hall” and “Friends of Danville”. The purpose was to inform residents of their opposition to the plan before presenting them to their Town Council. This meeting was a response to the decision taken by the Planning Commission that approved two plans on sustainability despite the opposition raised from residents who disagreed with the land zoning plan (low income, high density house, more residential development on agricultural land). Agenda’s 21 goals were being implemented locally by the Association of Bay Area Government, Metropolitan Commission, NGOs through federal grants to local government. The residents instead offer their support for “Measure S” passed in 2000 and would like to extend this initiation for growth-control in Danville (see Sweeney 2013). In the San Francisco/Bay Area, a legal challenge is being prepared by local groups – The Post-Sustainability Institute/Democrats against Agenda 21 to challenge “Plan Bay Are/One Bay Area,” a regional plan on urban growth on the grounds it violates their constitutional rights to property and equal protection. They cite restrictions on business and residential plans as their main arguments against Agenda 21:

PLAN BAY AREA actually nullifies these boundaries by restricting development to very small locations in just some cities. The plan dictates that 80% of future residential and 66% of future commercial development must be built in these Priority Development Areas.[11]

Politicians have used this current atmosphere to make strong nationalist challenges against Agenda 21 and indirectly on the UN. This was apparent during the 2012 Presidential elections where the Republican National Committee passed a resolution against Agenda 21, described as "destructive and insidious" and included in the 2012 party platform the following: " we strongly reject the UN Agenda 21 as erosive of American sovereignty". Even some Democrats have expressed their opposition to Agenda 21 and made criticisms of the UN land use policies, which they consider as a radical plan of sustainable development based on communitarianism that creates social injustice for national sovereignty, which threatens to lower standards of living for Americans (See Democrats against UN Agenda 21). States have even joined the anti-Agenda 21 movements. In March 2012, a House Joint Resolution passed in the state of Tennessee opposes the, "harmful implications of implementation of UN Agenda 21’s destructive strategies for sustainable development."

For these actors what is at stake is the American way of life: private property, single family homes, private car ownership, and individual travel choices, and privately owned farms, which under Agenda 21 are considered as destructive to the environment (see Democrats against UN Agenda 21). It is clear that global issues of environment sustainability have got personal on the state/local front. The question is how to mitigate the global pressures of climate change and support national sovereignty in addressing sustainable development outside the framework of a singular global plan to control natural and human resources (food, health, water, population) as recommended by the UN.

Agenda 21: local to global frameworks

The question remains what is the role of local communities in long-term strategies of sustainability? Since Rio, governments have had the objective of integrating the principles of sustainability in policies such as urban planning with the aid of a consultation mechanism at the local, regional and national levels. This has not been achievable for a variety of reasons, the primary one, as formulated by Francois Mancebo, suggesting that its approach was too institutionalized. He cites the example of ICLEI, who coordinated a follow-up meeting in Hanover (2000) to review at the country level the implementation of Agenda 21 in 600 cities in the European Union. They reported mixed results. The main problem was to define a plan. Oftentimes, it was too broad and difficult to implement such a plan at the local levels. This produced constraints for local administrators in charge of implementing an Agenda 21that was not clearly defined for them and that did not result in much local action being taken.

For Mancebo, this was a difficulty with the instrument of measurement selected by ICLEI, which was perceived as too normative. The reports served only as a mode of accommodation by governments that wanted to appear active on sustainability on the global level. As actors they were able to keep up the appearance that their governments and local/regional associations at least from the structural perspective were organized to create relevant policies on Agenda 21. This weakness had already been acknowledged during the General Assembly at the UN in New York in 1997, a special session on Rio+5 released an assessment made by the University of Oslo, that there was low application of Agenda 21, unequal application that did not incorporate all aspects of sustainable development, and varying country involvement.

What is clear is that the role of implementors  (governments, local associations) have taken a lead on positioning themselves and their interests in the center of the sustainability discourse. This means that the current system/structure has been more concentrated in its form to implement rather than in its participatory actions to produce inclusive policies that address community concerns. Invisible in this politic are the citizens themselves whose space and ways of lives are directly impacted on a social and economic levels. They have not been full participants in the national approach to Agenda 21 in the US. Instead, as a recourse, civil society has stepped in (taken it further) and has made it possible for citizen-led initiatives on sustainability to reach national and global scenes, and to offer another approach to redressing inequalities in representation and participation.

One such example is The Citizens Network for Sustainable Development (CitNet), working on sustainable development on the local, regional, and global levels. CitNet, is a US based non-profit organization founded in 1990 to form a citizens network for participation at the Earth Summit (1992) who then changed its focus to sustainability issues in US and abroad, working to build broad-based cooperation with diverse participants from local and global grassroots, citizen sustainability movements to participate in Agenda 21. They have supported “citizen-led activities in developing, monitoring and implementing sustainability initiatives, promoting civil society participation in important policy fora, and connecting individuals and organizations.”[12] They have created a network to promote leadership and practices of sustainability among citizens in communities in national and international levels (including state/local government). Their work follows a bottom up approach that begins on the grassroot level with the support of citizen-led initiatives on sustainable development, and ends with CitNet members’ advocacy work on the national level for a National Sustainability Strategy/Office of Sustainability to monitor federal policies on sustainability in order to improve everyone’s quality of life.


There seem to have been sustainability activities occurring at grassroots level at least since the 1990s when the need existed for a non-profit to link the local citizen activities with the larger global movement. What has been its impact on the national level? Given the continued advocacy on the part of these groups, and no unified national plan on sustainable development in place despite numerous interventions with citizen recommendations, citizen-led efforts, it would seem, have not been sufficient to influence policy-makers.

Could it be that the federal structure in the US is not amenable to incorporating participatory forms of decision-making found in citizen movements for sustainable development into its framework of a national policy on Agenda 21? For starters, the two styles of governance are different one more hierarchical and the other more horizontal and decentralized. This has an effect on how information flows, for one, top-bottom approach is favored and for the other a bottom up strategy is used. The latter has been the model adopted by global movements, such as the alternative globalists World Social Forum, where the principal idea is to favour cultural differences and to form convergence on key social issues.

What is happening today in the US is a good example of how convergence on issues operates to start a protest movement against undemocratic policies that affect the livelihood of all citizens. Although the key discourses are presented both on left and right, it's helpful to keep in mind that political leaders have exploited citizen fears and largely driven the media debate against Agenda 21. On the other hand, it has served as legitimate opportunity for other actors to make their voice heard on why Agenda 21 is not working as a sustainability plan for them on the local level and to determine key issues. That has enabled more people to gain awareness and start to take a position on the issue and for others to create actions for/against Agenda21 or to propose alternative solutions.

Cited references

UNESCO, International Co-ordinating Council of the Programme on Man and the Biosphere, Twelfth Session, Final Report 63, Paris 25-29 January 1993 (p. 7) 

UNESCO, International Co-ordinating Council of the Programme on Man and the Biosphere, Eleventh Session, Final Report 62, Paris 12-16 November 1990 (p. 6)

[1] http://www.usda.gov/oce/sustainable/Rio20/prior.htm

[2] It is not a UN body or organization, they do not have a mandate, governments participate on a voluntary basis. See www.iclei.org

[3] www.clinton2.nara.gov/PCSD/Overview/index.html

[4] www.clinton2.nara.gov/PCSD/Overview/index.html

[5] http://www.icsu.org/future-earth

[6] http://www.planetunderpressure2012.net/

[7] http://earthsky.org/earth/final-issues-statement-from

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