Pssst! Have you heard about Agenda 21? The secret plot to collectivize private property—hatched by United Nations internationalists and midwifed by operatives ensconced within our own government—all in the name of "ending sprawl" and "encouraging sustainability"? The seizure of suburban homes by jackbooted, gun-toting U.N. thugs? The involuntary relocation of displaced suburbanites to cramped dwellings in densely packed cities?
No? Seriously? You haven't heard about any of this?
Don't blame Glenn Beck. His magazine, the Blaze, put Agenda 21 on the cover of its January/February 2012 issue; the article contained therein, its editors promised, would expose "the global scheme that has the potential to wipe out freedoms of all U.S. citizens." Beck then stretched this warning into a dystopian science fiction novel that came out last November titled (what else?) Agenda 21. In it, suburban and rural homeowners are stripped of their property and carted off to overcrowded cities, where they're forced to live in bunkerlike apartments, wear government-issued uniforms, and generate power for the grid by walking on piezoelectric "energy boards."
In truth, Agenda 21 is the sort of nonbinding, suggestion-filled "action plan" the United Nations generates whenever it holds any kind of major international summit. It emerged from the U.N. Conference on Environment and Development, held in Rio de Janeiro in 1992 and dedicated to addressing the most vexing environmental problems of the time. Beck, who has made a fine living catering to the tinfoil-hat crowd, is trying to pass off U.N. bullet points as a precursor to real bullets. But you don't have to believe the folks in the black helicopters are eyeing your redwood deck as a future landing pad in order to push the theory that a cabal of environmentalists and elected officials has it in for the 'burbs, and won't rest until every last Olive Garden in America is razed and turned into, well, an actual olive garden.
Last August, Stanley Kurtz, who has lectured at Harvard and the University of Chicago, wrote an article for the stalwart conservative journal National Review that appeared under the provocative headline "Burn Down the Suburbs?" It opened with a zinger: "President Obama is not a fan of America's suburbs. Indeed, he intends to abolish them." Kurtz's article was in many ways a rehash of observations made previously by Joel Kotkin, a writer who specializes in analyzing demographic shifts in cities and suburbs. In 2010 Kotkin, a former New York Times columnist, wrote on his blog that "for the first time in memory, the suburbs are under a conscious and sustained attack from Washington." He later told one interviewer that the Obama administration was "the first anti-suburban administration in American history."
For Beck, Kurtz, and Kotkin, all the evidence one needs to back up such breathless assertions can be found in the language of sustainability and "smart growth" used by environmentalists and their allies in government. Alas, what's being heard and what's actually being said are two different things. The champion of sustainability says: "We need to reduce sprawl by encouraging greater density." But the anxious suburbanite hears: "We're tearing down the houses on your cul-de-sac and replacing them with a 20-story Brutalist apartment building, complete with its own wastewater treatment plant." The champion of sustainability says: "It's time to shift from last century's car culture to the new century's culture of mass transit." The anxious suburbanite hears: "We'll be sending someone around for your Escalade shortly. Fortunately for you, the D train will soon be stopping at your new building—right next to your on-site methadone clinic!"
As someone who was raised in the suburbs and still has deep family roots there, I think I know what's fueling this anxiety. And instead of scoffing at it, I believe the champions of sustainability should be emphasizing how ideas that fall under the rubric of smart growth benefit all of us, wherever we reside. Their new message needs to be: If you really love your suburban quality of life, then know that the greatest threat to it isn't coming from bureaucrats, environmentalists, or liberal politicians. It's coming from that brand-new, almost completed housing development going up right next to yours.