Tea Party activists are raising serious concerns about community-based planning efforts promoting sustainable development, smart growth, green infrastructure, comprehensive planning, sustainable agriculture, local foods, and related outcomes. The issues being debated are significant, and bear upon not just how our communities should develop over time, but also concern core values about democracy, governance, and capitalism.
The purpose of this blog is to assemble and examine key assertions made in Tea Party literature about topics related to sustainable development. My sense is that considerable misinterpretation exists and the resulting confusion deflects attention away from deeper issues deserving serious and open public debate.
The following table is several pages long and full of references leading to source material for those looking to dig deeper. A series of related essays describe various dimensions of the controversy. A narrative summary of some of the main concerns is posted.
|Tea Party Concerns and Assertions||An Examination of History and Documentation Reveals…|
|Tea Party Concern: Sustainable Developmentis a strategy to limit American power, restrict consumer spending, limit property rights, redistribute wealth, and control reproductive rights.
|Rebuttal:Sustainable Development refers to a diverse array of strategies with the shared goal of developing human prosperity, health, and well-being in ways that can be sustained over time (rather than pursuing a development trajectory that is not sustainable). Often these strategies explicitly address both the grey and green infrastructure on which human communities and economies depend.
|Tea Party Concern: Agenda 21is a United Nations led effort to promote a one-world government, limit the US Constitution, and eliminate citizen control over local issues.||Rebuttal: Agenda 21 is a United Nations led effort that advocates local control. It was crafted in 1992 with the purpose of reconfiguring 20th Century economic development and environmental protection strategies for 21stCentury conditions and political realities. It emphasizes local decision making and local solutions to local problems. It was, in part, an attempt to address legitimate concerns expressed by poorer nations and communities that one-size-fits-all solutions to environmental problems were impractical, inequitable, and needed to promote economic development.
|Tea Party Concern: Agenda 21 consolidates power in the hands of unelected bureaucrats and plannerswho have a liberal bias/agenda.
||Rebuttal:One of the political realities to which Agenda 21 responded was the realization that rational, scientific planning by experts had serious limits. Agenda 21 advocates, instead, a more open, transactive planning strategy that actually gives more power to local stakeholders, including economic development interests.
|Tea Party Concern: ICLEIis a front organization for the United Nations to promote Agenda 21.
||Rebuttal:ICLEI helps local communities build capacity to respond to local issues.
|Tea Party Concern: “The seeds for Agenda 21 were planted back in 1987 when the writings of Gro Harlem Brundtland(a woman who was first Vice-President of the Socialist International) caught the eye of the UN. Dr. Brundtland wrote a report for the UN called, ‘Our Common Future’ eventually got into the business of environmentalism as a tool to control all the people of the world and establish a global government. The growth of ICLEI and the framework being put in place by supporters of Agenda 21 appear to be bringing Dr. Brundtland’s ideas closer to reality”
||Rebuttal:Brundtland—a physician, former Director of the World Health Organization, and three-term Prime Minister of Norway—chaired a UN chartered but independent commission composed of foreign ministers, finance and planning officials, policymakers in agriculture, science, and technology from countries that spanned north-south and east-west divides. Many of the Commissioners were cabinet ministers and senior economists in their own nations. The commission and many staffers worked for three years, soliciting input at public meetings around the world, to author an exhaustive report, which was reviewed and approved by the entire UN assembly.|
|Tea Party Concern: The Precautionary Principle(see Principle 15 of Agenda 21) violates the US Constitution because it asserts that people are guilty until proven innocent.
||Rebuttal:In this era of rapid technological advancement, the Precautionary Principle calls for prudence rather than haste. People and organizations benefiting from widespread adoption of their innovations are asked to take reasonable measures to ensure that their innovations do not cause, unbeknownst to the user, more harm than good, either to people directly, or to them indirectly through harm to the environment.
|Tea Party Concern: Community-based planning efforts are cumbersome and inefficient. They get mired in attempts to balance the advice of experts and conflicting opinions and values. This planning-based approach to decision making will ruin capitalism and destroy marketsbecause it ignores the entrepreneurship, individualism, competition, and independent actions that advance American businesses.
||Rebuttal:Planning is not a bad thing. Successful businesses plan. They devote enormous energies deciding where to invest, what markets to develop, what products to manufacture, and how to respond to changing conditions. Experts offer conflicting advice and someone or some committee makes the best possible decision. If businesses fail to plan or plan poorly, they go bankrupt and cease to exist. Planning and capitalism are complementary.
|Tea Party Concern: Sustainable Development is inefficient. Prosperity will suffer because the allocation of talent, resources, goods and services will not be subject to the tests of competition in a free market.||Rebuttal: Sustainable development is about making wise investmentsin our infrastructure that spans generations—i.e., land use allocations, transportation network, energy supplies, and water and waste systems. It takes a long-term view, rather than a quarterly financial reporting view. It may advocate against investments that cut costs and make profits in the short term, if those investments produce outcomes that impose health impacts and tax burdens that add costs in the long term.|
|Tea Party Concern: Sustainable Development ignores market signalsbecause decisions are based on a planning process that strives for consensus rather than price signals that reward competition and efficiency.
||Rebuttal: Sustainable Development planning attempts to account for externalitiesignored by market price signals. Externalities are recognized by economists as market failures that justify government intervention. Examples include children made sick by mercury released when coal is burned to power our lights, floods and famine resulting from greenhouse gas emissions, natural water filtration capacity degraded by poorly designed roads and roofs, fisheries collapse by overfishing, and aquifer depletion by over extraction for irrigating agriculture.
Sustainability-related markets failures are common because “Much of the world’s environmental capital… consists of common-property resources rather than privately held assets; in part because of free-rider problems, private firms and individuals have little incentive, absent requirements imposed by government, to invest in maintaining or growing capital of this kind.”
|Tea Party Concern: Sustainable Development is an attempt to disguise socialist wealth distributionpolices.
||Rebuttal: Sustainable Development seeks fair distribution of benefits and costs. Economic development projects are unfair if they distribute benefits to individual property owners but distribute costs to others through tax burdens and health risks. Sustainable Development attempts to allocate the costs of development to those who enjoy the benefits, or it redirect development if developers are unwilling to assume the costs.Sprawling suburban development, for example, benefits property owners fortunate to be near public roads and utilities but increases costs of storm water management to those down stream, requires tax revenue for more police and schools, increases traffic congestion that lengthens commutes of neighbors, all of which increases energy consumption that necessitates a larger military and increased risks of climate change.Building houses in flood prone areas is another example inequitable distribution of costs and benefits because the homeowners that benefit from living near water require the rest of us to pay for the levees, federal flood insurance, and emergency assistance that protect their lives and investments.
|Tea Party Concern: Smart growth restricts property rightsbecause it restricts people outside designated growth areas from developing their property to the same extend as people inside growth areas. People with property outside the designated growth boundary are being robbed of opportunity to generate wealth.
||Rebuttal: When growth areas are designated, some current owners can be disadvantaged. But future owners will negotiate a purchase price with full knowledge of the property’s development potential; thus the injury ceases once the property is sold. A goal of smart growth is to insure the benefits to the community resulting from decisions that take development opportunities from property owners far outweigh the costs these land owners incur. Efforts at compensation for taking of property rights have been made, but states such as Oregon have found full compensation too expensive with current tax revenues.Property owners must accept that much of the development “value” results from public investment in transportation, energy, water, schools, and other infrastructure. Most of a property’s development potential does not come from the land itself, but from its location relative to investment of public infrastructure. Because of budget limitations, public infrastructure cannot be built near everyone’s property. Therefore not all property owners will benefit equally from public investment. Smart growth and comprehensive planning are efforts to make decisions about infrastructure location more transparent, participatory, and rational.Property rights have evolved throughout US history in response to the changing social-economic-environmental context in which the republic operates, despite Tea Party rhetoric suggesting they are fixed, inalienable and God-given rights.
|Tea Party Concern: Sustainable Development discourages automobile use.
|Rebuttal:Sustainable development seeks to limit traffic congestion, minimize time wasted commuting, reduce energy consumption, and efficiently use tax dollars to build a transportation infrastructure. These goals can sometimes be best achieved by means other than building more roads for single occupancy vehicles.
|Tea Party Concern: Sustainable Development limits housing choice, increases crowding, and forces people to live in “hobbit houses”
||Rebuttal:Concentrating new development where infrastructure already exists or can be least expensively constructed does increase the density of people per acre. But this development pattern also increases access to amenities, shopping, and family. It also attracts an innovative, entrepreneurial workforce that is mobile and in search of quality of life. These “new urbanism” and “mixed use” developments held their value during the recent real-estate downturn, which may reflect changing consumer preferences.
|Tea Party Concern: Sustainable agriculture and local food policies redistribute income, increase taxation and regulation, and take away freedom and property rights. “American citizens would be stripped of their wealth and property… When this happened in Russia under Stalin, eleven million people who were seen as resisting socialism were intentionally starved to death. Food (or lack there of) can become the ultimate weapon, the ultimate control.”
||Rebuttal:Sustainable agriculture is a strategy to promote national security and local food security by insuring a reliable and safe supply of foods to complement long, international supply chains that increasingly dominate our food system and may be vulnerable to energy price spikes and global social unrest.
Local food polices are motivated in part by still-debated claims that food miles contribute to climate change and degradation of finite natural resources.
But local food systems are also part of concerted efforts to promote local economies, recirculate local dollars through local economies, and increase revenues for farmers and local merchants so they can better compete with global, industrial agriculture.
|Tea Party Concern: Sustainable Development restricts freedom and liberty. Big government, and particular government regulation, is problematic because it can restrict personal freedoms and liberties.||Rebuttal: The US Declaration of Independence captures the core American ideology with the oft-quoted assertion that “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” are inalienable rights. But this assertion never meant people were free to do things that harmed others. Environmental regulations and Sustainable Development attempt to reduce these harms and protect lives and opportunities to pursue happiness. Freedoms come with obligations. Freedomcannot occur without collective governance.
|Tea Party Concern: Environmental problems such as climate change, energy shortages, hazardous pollutants, and biodiversity decline are overstated. Most of these concerns reflect the aesthetic preferences of people who value nature more than humans. The issues certainly are not serious enough to justify dramatic changes such as limiting property rights, redistributing wealth, controlling population growth, and redirecting economic growth.||Rebuttal:“Ecosystems and the biodiversity they embody constitute “environmental capital” on which society depends in multifaceted ways. The “ecosystem services” in support of human well-being that flow from this capital include formation of soil and renewal of its fertility, management of flows of fresh water, maintenance of the composition of the atmosphere, pollination of flowers and crops, control of the distribution and abundance of pests and pathogens, production of fish and game in unmanaged and lightly managed ecosystems, aesthetic and recreational values from pristine landscapes, maintenance of the “genetic library” of global biodiversity as a source of future insights and innovations benefitting humankind, and important contributions to keeping climatic conditions in the range to which human society and current ecosystems are adapted. ““It has been increasingly well documented over the course of the last few decades, however, that biodiversity and other important components of the environmental capital producing these services are being progressively degraded by human activities. It is becoming clearer, as well, that the degradation of this capital has already reduced or rendered less reliable some of the associated services, with significant adverse impacts on society. These impacts include: damaging floods arising from deforested watersheds and heavier precipitation events; increasing costs of fresh water supply (higher pumping costs from declining water tables, increased treatment costs because of pollution and declining efficacy of natural purification); dramatic expansion of annual areas burned and property destroyed in wildfires; increases in the frequency and destructiveness of forest-pest outbreaks; disappearance or diminution of economically valuable freshwater fish populations in waters affected by acidification, other pollution, and warming; increased destruction from storms and tsunamis because buffering mangroves have been destroyed by coastal development; the pole-ward spread of tropical diseases; and the peaking and decline of the global ocean fish catch despite increased fishing effort. ““The root causes of the degradation of environmental capital and the associated diminution of ecosystem services are to be found in the combined pressures of population growth, rising affluence, and frequent reliance on environmentally disruptive technologies to meet the associated material demands, with the damages frequently compounded by bad management—attributable partly, in turn, to widespread under-appreciation of the importance of environmental capital for human well-being and to the absence of the value of its services from the economic balance sheets of producers and consumers. The proximate causes of the degradation include: widespread conversion of natural ecosystems to high-intensity human uses; exploitation, beyond sustainable yield, of commercially valuable wild plants and animals; introduction of invasive organisms that crowd out or otherwise kill off indigenous ones; emissions and spillovers of ecologically harmful substances from industry and agriculture; and, most recently, the growing impacts of global climate change resulting from heat-trapping gases and particles added to the atmosphere by human activities.”