The You-Can-Never-Be-Too-Vigilant crowd is stirring again, warning us about the sinister forces circling above the county in their black helicopters, just itching to swoop down and take away our freedoms.
To hear some of them tell it at public meetings these days, it may already be too late.
Who is at the chopper’s controls? As is so often the case, the United Nations.
Their blueprint: something called United Nations Agenda 21. Their agent of conquest: the International Council for Local Environmental Initiatives (ICLEI). Their target: all of us, through our local planning agencies.
Yeah, I know – it sounds nutty, and it would be easy to ignore for just that reason.
But here’s the problem: The folks who think this way have influenced government decisions in San Luis Obispo County before, and they may have the ear of some of today’s decision-makers.
Then again, they may not – the degree to which the Board of Supervisors is influenced by this increasingly vocal minority remains to be seen. We should all continue to watch, carefully.
So, what is Agenda 21?
It is a plan for, basically, how the world should develop in the 21st century, thus the name “Agenda 21.” It was adopted in 1992 in Rio de Janeiro at the UN Conference on the Environment and Development.
Some 179 nations, including the United States, under the administration of President George H.W. Bush, signed on.
If you’re wondering just how frightened you should be by Agenda 21, Google it and read it yourself. But first stock up on No Doz. It’s 300 pages long.
No force involved
The most important thing to know about Agenda 21 is that it is non-binding. That is to say, nobody has to do anything the document suggests.
Many suggestions in Agenda 21 coincide with the principles to which planners across the United States adhere. That’s not surprising, since American planners helped shape Agenda 21.
ICLEI is an international association, with hundreds of local governments as members, that encourages and enables local governments around the world to carry out principles it shares with Agenda 21’s framers.
Those principles are complex, but for simplicity’s sake let’s put them under the heading of “smart growth.” Generally speaking, supporters of smart growth argue that resources like water, breathable air, land, and forests are finite and we should plan accordingly.
Smart growth’s best-known goal is to move growth closer to urban areas, which avoids the need to extend sewer lines, roads, and the like and cuts down on traffic and air pollution.
Many people believe, however, that this view of planning also infringes on property rights.
That is a legitimate divergence of views. It has been and should continue to be argued.
But here’s where the discussion goes off the track: Because the views of many U.S. planners coincide with the views of the UN’s Agenda 21 and ICLEI, a growing number of people here and across the country are arguing that the UN is controlling or seeks to control local governments.
Local Tea Party leader Matt Kokkonen, for example, says local planners did not develop these theories about planning on their own -- “They’re too similar” to other governments.
“I don’t think it fell from heaven to the county,” says Mike Brown about smart growth and similar principles. Brown speaks for the Coalition of Labor, Agriculture, and Business (COLAB). “It’s really a thing promoting socialism and collectivism.”
“Several years ago,” says new county Supervisor Debbie Arnold, “our county joined and began relying upon planning guidelines and tools developed by ….ICLEI.”
“I am always wary of outside efforts designed to create homogeny and convince our community to surrender local control to some global organization,” she wrote in an email to The Tribune.
In fact, the county did sign up briefly with ICLEI in 2008 in order to gain access to its software, which it used to develop the county’s greenhouse gas baseline, according to Planning Director Jason Giffen. It left ICLEI in 2009.
A bridge too far
But to suggest that agreeing with ICLEI, or using its software, means relinquishing control to them is a bridge way, way too far.
“Agenda 21 has not been adopted by the county, nor does it infringe on the independence of the local planning process,” Giffen wrote in an email to The Tribune. “Local planning programs are governed by state statutes such as those found in the California Government Code and the Public Resources Code.”
Amen, brother. But why then do some folks believe in conspiracy?
I asked Cal Poly political science professor Michael Latner, a behavioral scientist who studies social movements and who has seen Agenda 21 invoked at the Atascadero City Council as well as at county meetings.
After the Soviet Union fell and the Cold War ended, “global conspiracy theorists needed a new bogeyman,” Latner said. The UN was still available.
While opposing smart growth and similar programs on the local level might be a legitimate political stance all by itself, “there’s a great political advantage” to saying some larger threat looms behind it, he said.
Well, if it’s a crackpot point of view, why should any of us care?
Because that perspective might be getting a foothold at the local government level.
You read what Arnold said. Members of COLAB and the Tea Party backed her bid for county supervisor, although neither organization formally endorses candidates.
In addition, there is history here. Nearly six years ago, North County conspiracy theorists persuaded the then-Board of Supervisors to oppose designating the Carrizo Plain National Monument a World Heritage site – a list of spots around the world that includes the Taj Mahal, the Acropolis, Machu Picchu, Chartres Cathedral, and Victoria Falls.
"I don't know that we need to invite international muscle," Charlie Whitney of Santa Margarita said at the time.
Could this embarrassing past vote be a prologue for the new Board of Supervisors?
Maybe. But both Arnold and Frank Mecham, another North County supervisor with COLAB member support, say they can sort out the legitimate from the loony.
Arnold says the county “has passionate and active advocates on all sides of any land use discussion,” and she has “every confidence in the ability of our locals to scrutinize, debate, and ultimately arrive at solutions that reflect Central Coast values and priorities.”
Mecham, who bristles at the suggestion that he marches in lock step with COLAB, has a lengthy and nuanced view on Agenda 21 and ICLEI.
“Whether there is a global conspiracy, I think that is above my pay grade,” he wrote The Tribune. “But if there are parallels with some of the land restrictions, regulations, and policies that have been enacted that compare to Agenda 21....well I think it’s safe to say that folks are concerned, and I, for one, need to take that into consideration.”
Stay tuned. We haven’t heard the last of this.