Glenn Beck does not understand Agenda 21 or sustainable development

Glenn Beck does not understand Agenda 21 or sustainable development

By Felix Dodds

(One of the authors with Michael Strauss and Maurice Strong of the recent book ‘Only OneEarth – The Long Road via Rio to Sustainable Development’

 This blog was inspired by a review by Executive Editor William D’Alessandro of Victor House News Co. of the book Only One Earth that I co-authored along with Glenn Beck’s book Agenda 21

 Glenn Beck’s book Agenda 21 is of course taking the name of the great negotiated agreement of the 1992 Rio Earth Summit. The original Agenda 21 was hoped to be a blueprint for the 21st century moving towards a more sustainable future.  It is a very sad indictment of the politicians of the last twenty years that more of it was not enacted upon.

 That brings me to Glenn Beck’s Agenda 21, which it turns out actually isn’t written by him but by a registered nurse, Harriet Parke. The book is a very depressing science fiction book claiming the story she explains is the result of a world that would have implemented Agenda 21.

Glenn’s contribution is an “afterword” which focuses on sustainable development, Agenda 21 and the United Nations. I want to focus this blog on that  - but would like also to make a couple of comments on the science fiction part of the book before moving on.

 Harriet has taken a couple of issues in the original Agenda 21 and extrapolated them into a world that is horrible and would not be recognized by anyone involved in promoting sustainable development. These issues are energy provision and save the squirrels (I kid you not – though they are meant to be representative of environmentalist care for all species above humans). Of course environmentalists would claim we are all part of the ‘circle of life’ (loved Pocahontas!) and that we need to keep as many different species and plants, as they help us with many medicines and create a balance for our existence here on this planet.

In this horrible world everyone is spending their time walking and producing energy, I would assume that we have run out of fossil fuels and not invested, as many of us have been calling for, in renewables. The world that Harriet imagines seems more likely to occur if we fail to move to a sustainable planet than if we do. I will come back to that at the end of the blog.

Returning to Glenn.

Underlying the attacks of Glenn Beck and his fellow travelers in the Tea Party is the accusation that Agenda 21 and sustainable development is some left wing plot to take away your freedoms. So what did he write?

 Let’s start with the first UN Conference on the Human Environment in 1972 in Stockholm. He claims the outcome document is ‘filled with a lot of socialist nonsense.’ I don’t know who has done his research. Perhaps he isn’t aware that the Soviet bloc boycotted Stockholm. This was because the conference was attended by West Germany who had just joined UNESCO and East Germany, yet not a member of any UN body, which were not allowed to attend. The result of this was that none of the Soviet block came to or participated in Stockholm.

 What he may not be aware of is that the main developed countries had conservative governments, the US (President Richard Nixon [Republican]), the UK (Prime Minister Edward Heath [Conservative]), France (Georges Pompidou[Gaullist ]}, and Japan (Eisaku Satō [LDP]). The only major developed country with a left of center Head of State was West Germany (Willy Brandt[Social Democratic Party]). This is hardly a bed of socialists behind the development of the Stockholm Declaration and Action Plan. Rather, it’s a group of responsible conservatives.

 One of the outcomes from the Stockholm Conference was the establishment of the United Nations Environment Programme. One of the major countries behind the establishment of UNEP was in fact the US and President Nixon’s White House. President Nixon had set up the US Environmental Protection Agency in December 1970 followed by the establishment of the Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ) in the Executive Office of the President. This was due to deep concern in the US about water and air quality. The US went even further and offered to host UNEP in Washington. This did not happen because the United Nations Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO) had recently been set up and its HQ was agreed to be Vienna. 

Many governments felt that this new body should be housed in a developing country, so the US withdrew its offer and UNEP was the first UN programme established in a developing country, Kenya. The US continued to show leadership as they drafted the UN General Assembly resolution for the establishment of UNEP. One would hardly call President Nixon a socialist, though he may go down as one of the greenest US Presidents after Theodore Roosevelt. Roosevelt was another Republican remembered for the visionary act of establishing the national wonders if this would have been seen a ‘socialist; by the anti-green Tea Party activists of today.

 Let’s move forward to the Rio Conference in 1992 – first the Soviet Block no longer existed and some of its former members including Russia itself now with President Boris Yeltsin had right of center Heads of State. In the developed countries we had in US President Bush (Republican), in the UK Prime Minister Major (Conservative), in Germany Helmut Kohl (CDU), Japan Kiichi Miyazawa (LDP) and the only socialist Head of State was in France François Mitterrand (Socialist Party). Again the key developed countries were nearly all in the hands of conservatives when negotiating Agenda 21. Another set of responsible conservatives?

 Agenda 21 and the Rio Summit were to some extent a result of the UN Commission on Environment and Development’s report: ‘Our Common Future,’ published in 1987 and which recommended a new Summit. It is interesting to note that the US member of that Commission was William D. Ruckelshaus who had been the first Head of EPA under President Nixon and came back to had EPA a second time under President Reagan.
So what is Agenda 21? Is it a terrible socialist text? I do not think so. It is a collection of the best science based information at the time and the policy options available to move to a more sustainable planet. It recognizes that with growing population and consumption patterns the world will need to manage the global commons to ensure that we have a decent planet to pass on to our children and their children. Most of the recommendations in Agenda 21 are ones that developed countries like the US were doing or were intending to do.  It is “soft law,” which means governments are not bound by it. Imagine that you want to run a business. Wouldn’t you look for the best advice to run that business? I know I would! That is what Agenda 21 is.

So what policy areas does Agenda 21 address?

  • Combating poverty

  • Changing consumption patterns
  • Demographic dynamics and sustainability

  • Protecting and promoting human health conditions

  • Promoting sustainable human settlement development
Integrating environment and development in decision-making
  • Protection of the atmosphere

  • Combating deforestation

  • Integrated approach to the planning and management of land resources

  • Managing fragile ecosystems: combating desertification and drought

  • Managing fragile ecosystems: sustainable mountain development

  • Promoting sustainable agriculture and rural development

  • Conservation of biological diversity

  • Environmentally sound management of biotechnology

  • Protection of the oceans, all kinds of seas, including enclosed and semi-enclosed seas, and coastal areas and the protection, rational use and development of their living resources
  • Protection of the quality and supply of fresh water resources
  • Environmentally sound management of toxic chemicals, including prevention of illegal international traffic in toxic and dangerous products

  • Environmentally sound management of hazardous wastes, in hazardous wastes
  • Environmentally sound management of solid wastes and sewage-related issues
  • Safe and environmentally sound management of radioactive wastes
Many, though not all, clearly deal with developing countries. But of course some deal with issues that affect all of us wherever we might live. They address how industry should behave and how they should act responsibly. 

Agenda 21 should have had a 41st chapter of Agenda 21 which never was negotiated. This was on ‘Transnational Corporations and Sustainable Development’ and the way they should behave. The US and UK, in particular, ensured that chapter was never put to governments. Smart regulation is very important to ensure that we do not get things like BPs spill or the banking crisis. It is downloadable from the UNCTAD web site

Now let’s look at the attack that Beck and others have done on the International Council for Environmental Initiatives, otherwise known as ICLEI. ICLEI is an international network set up to share best practices on environment among local governments around the world. It has no power to force anyone to do anything. The idea of sharing best practices seems to be a good idea to help local governments to be able to serve their populations better.  

What Agenda 21 says about Local Agenda 21 is ‘local authorities should work with their populations to produce local agenda 21s’ so not a top down approach but actually a bottom up – no UN black helicopters here!

What Agenda 21 is saying is that local authorities should involve local people in helping them make better sustainability decisions. This is very much based on ‘individual’ involvement – an extension and renewal of democracy, which is exactly opposite to what Beck says it is and exactly what he should be supporting. A lot of the ideas that have come from putting Agenda 21 to practice include extending individual liberties and reducing government engagement in our lives. Moving away from central power generation to local and individual power generation through solar power also makes individuals more energy secure. The move to promote rainwater harvesting means that a proportion of your water comes under your own control and not the companies that at present provide all your water. The move to local food production makes you less dependent on food imports and large agro business. If that food is free from pesticides then it is better for your health. Many of the ideas in Agenda 21 support the development of local economies as opposed to importing goods from abroad therefore creating local jobs. I could go on.

 Let us turn to the precautionary approach, which is one of the 27 Principles in the Rio Declaration --- something which is already part of United States law for drugs and food. What the precautionary approach means is that companies should not be able to just do things like experiment with our water, air etc. without showing first that it is safe. I think this is common sense to most people.

 The Rio Declaration also has the polluter’s pays principle, which is being exercised on BP for their damage but also should be recognize more broadly the damage caused by developed countries due to climate change such as the floods in Bangladesh and the famine in Africa. The US itself has seen some extreme weather events like Sandy and the droughts over last few years.

 The US has had a mixed response to climate change. Under President Reagan it backed a 20% cut in CO2 in 1988 at the international climate change conference in Montreal but when Bush was elected his oil interests pulled back the US commitment. The Senate voted by 97 votes to zero in 1997 not to support the Kyoto Protocol to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). The UNFCCC is last environmental convention the US ratified. This was not because it was against doing something on climate change, most recognized that something needed to be done, but because they wanted EVERY country to take on targets not just the developed countries.

 The science is now overwhelming. The World Bank produced a report in December 2012 where it said 97% of all climate scientists now believe that climate change is happening. If I was ill and I went to 100 doctors to find out what was wrong with me and ‘97 of them’ said I needed to do something and 3 said I wasn’t ill I know what my decision would be. If you watch Fox, which I do a lot, you would think it was a more balanced view as their slogan is ‘fair and balanced.’ However, it is neither in the area of climate change.

In 2006 News International the parent company of Fox News began calculating and reporting on its worldwide carbon footprint and in 2011 Rupert Murdoch, Chairman of News Corporation, announced that the company and its subsidiaries had reached their goal of carbon neutrality. Mr. Murdoch stated that improving the energy efficiency of the company’s day-to-day operations had not only curbed emissions but also “saved millions of dollars.”

In Europe the vast majority of the right and left both accept that Climate Change is happening and acting on it. In the US some people in the Republican Party, such as Christie, have made strong supportive comments on Climate Change and maybe they represent a new republican realism.

The problem we face over the next 17 years up to 2030 is
  • Population growth: Expected to reach 8 billion by 2024 and 9 billion by 2050
  • Economic prosperity: There will be a rising economic prosperity in some of the emerging economies particularly in India and China;
  • Increasing urban world: by 2030 over 60% of people will live in urban areas and by 2050 70%

This with climate change will mean

  • Increase in energy demand: global demand for energy by 30-40% by 2030;
  • Increase in demand for food:  agriculture production to increase by 30-50% by 2030 to meet the global demand for food;
  • Increased need for water:  Demand for water will exceed global availability by 40 % in 2030.
The question is what we do about these challenges. I am for doing what I can do as an individual but I am also about working together. The result of not working together may be a form of world that Harriet indicated though I don’t think anyone will care about the squirrels

I would be happy to debate Beck on Agenda 21 at any point.


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