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How the Tea Party Thinks Sustainable Development Is an International Conspiracy to Take Away Our Personal Freedoms

Conservative activists believe that the UN is secretly plotting to herd humans into crowded cities so that the rest of the world can be devoted to wildlife preservation.

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Shortly after the midterm elections, a Maine tea party group blasted out a call to arms to its members: "Red Alert! Agenda 21 is coming on full force to the Mid coast area!" The notice implored members to show up at a November 10 meeting in Rockland sponsored by the Maine Department of Transportation. The group warned that the agency was:

implementing the sustainable development/Agenda 21. This is the hard core agenda 21 derived from…the United Nations, and we need to make a BIG presence to show our outrage and anger at this. This is the centralized planning for the de-industrialization of large segments of Maine, and the relocation and isolation of the population into human habitation zones. Plan on attending the meeting and express your outrage at this. We need to stop this NOW before it gets out of hand.

What UN-inspired outrage was on the table for the meeting? A proposal to improve development and reduce traffic around Route 1, which runs up the eastern coast of the state. Stacy Benjamin, the DOT project manager, says that four or five people she and her colleagues have never seen before showed up at the meeting. During the public comment session, the activists questioned the DOT representatives about Agenda 21. "None of us had ever heard of it," Benjamin says, laughing, "but we learned a lot about Agenda 21. They had handouts." The tea partiers also posed questions about "human habitation zones," she says, noting that they were polite and interested in what the committee members had to say.

The scene in Maine is repeating itself across the country. Only sometimes the activists are less polite. One planning consultant I spoke with, who requested anonymity, recalled a recent meeting where he was on the receiving end of tea party rage. "I got called a communist," he says. Someone in another tea party-heavy area recently told him, "We don't need none of that smart growth communism." The people he's been encountering are new to the process, short on solid facts, and many are "spitting mad." Combined with what they see as an "elitist" bent in planning consultants, he says, it makes for a toxic and intimidating mix for local officials who aren't used to being accosted by conspiracy theory wielding activists.

The local planning fights reveal a little-understood characteristic of the tea party movement: its inherently suburban nature. Not only does the movement's agenda derive from a hostility to what it sees as elites, but it's also hostile to the places those elites live—namely, cities and more densely populated areas—which makes sustainable development a natural issue for activists. Call them the newest pro-sprawl lobby.

In Virginia, Holt is trying to whip up tea party opposition to a comprehensive development plan being drafted in Chesterfield County, where she lives near Richmond. She believes such plans will, among other things, ban cul de sacs, and she happens to live on one. So far, though, she hasn't made much progress with the county. "They don't want to hear from us," she says. "They think we are wackos with tinfoil hats."

Indeed, while the UN conspiracy talk makes it easy to dismiss the tea partiers as nutters, that doesn't mean they won't derail local development projects. Take what transpired recently in Tampa, Florida, where tea party activists helped defeat a widely supported measure that would have funded light rail and road improvements in Hillsborough County. In the lead-up to a ballot initiative on the penny-per-dollar sales tax increase to fund the project, the local conservative paper, the Tampa Bay Examiner, ran a series on Agenda 21 plus commentary suggesting that the "smart growth" principles underlying the light rail proposal were simply "cover for an agenda to transfer American sovereignty to various tentacles of the United Nations."

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