On Glenn Beck and America’s Climate Change Divide

The right-wing crackpot doesn’t realize who he’s borrowing from.

Last month I wrote about Carbon Zero: Imagining Cities That Can Save the Planet, Alex Steffen’s compendium of strategies for wholesale sustainability. Published at about the same time, and reaching a much larger audience (according to Amazon’s sales figures), was a novel called Agenda 21 (Threshold Editions, 2012), a polemic attacking the entire concept of sustainable planning. Not that I think the novel’s authors—right-wing crackpot Glenn Beck, formerly of Fox News, and registered nurse Harriet Parke—have actually read Steffen, or even the obvious lefty precursor to their novel, Ecotopia. Instead, their book is a feverish riff on an obscure document, “Agenda 21,” penned at the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development in Rio de Janeiro more than 20 years ago. After reading the two books back-to-back, it’s apparent that there is a canyon-sized divide between those who think that smart planning might forestall the end of the world and those who think that planning is precisely what will bring it about. And it’s not the old Robert Moses–Jane Jacobs feud about master-planned places versus organic ones, but a rift over the notion of individual rights versus the “greater good.”

The narrator of Agenda 21 is a girl named Emmeline who’s grown up in a compound established by an environmentally driven, authoritarian regime—think the Sierra Club, as run by Pol Pot—that has overtaken the U.S. and denies most everything to its citizens in favor of protecting the earth. Emmeline’s mother, in the very first sentence, is taken away (to the sinister Recycle Center) for not putting in her time on the “energy board,” a treadmill-like device on which all the Republic’s citizens have to walk until they’ve generated their day’s quota of electricity.

Residents of the compound sleep in concrete huts, dress in color-coded uniforms, dine on nourishment cubes twice a day, and pledge allegiance to “the sacred rights of the Earth and to the Animals of the Earth.” Transpor-tation is via “bus boxes”—carts pulled by teams of men instead of horses. When they reach puberty, young women are quickly paired with virile men and expected to reproduce. Babies are removed from parents at birth to be raised in the Children’s Village. The message is that a desire for the greater good has run brutally amok.

I’d assumed that the interesting part of the book would follow our heroine’s escape through a hole in the fence; we’d finally learn more about how this regime had come to power, what was happening in the outside world, and the identity of the rebels who were trying to bring down the Republic. “Ahead, freedom,” declares the plucky Emmeline. “And the unknown.” Then, when I turned the page on my Kindle—no more novel. Instead, there was an afterword, a Beckian screed about the UN document for which the book was named, and how the phrase “sustainable development” is code for taking away your home, land, and freedom.

I wanted my $4.74 back.

Understand that, far from being an attempt at world domination imposed by blue-helmeted troops, the real “Agenda 21,” some 350 pages of dense bureaucratese, was a call for local governments all over the world to implement sustainable practices. The document points to those civic bodies that are “the level of governance closest to the people” and says local institutions should “play a vital role in educating, mobilizing and responding to the public to promote sustainable development.” Totally innocuous, right? Not if you’re Glenn Beck.

In true paranoiac fashion, Beck sees the existence of the now commonplace green initiatives in cities and municipalities all over the country as evidence of the conspiracy. Fired up by his sort of rhetoric, Tea Party types “are showing up at planning meetings to denounce bike lanes on public streets and smart meters on home appliances—efforts they equate to a big-government blueprint against individual rights,” reported the New York Times last year. And in a related event, the original “Agenda 21” was characterized as “destructive and insidious” in the platform drafted last year by the Republican National Committee. The main argument is that any planning effort that makes a case for the greater good—which is to say, every planning effort—is suspect and un-American.

In a January Internet broadcast from a studio somewhere in Dallas, Beck proposed his own master-planned community, Independence, USA. It’s a combination theme park, media center, and residential development that, if you ignore flamboyant gestures like a gateway modeled on Ellis Island (to commemorate the fine, hardworking immigrants of yore) has a distinctly sustainable quality to it. Okay, Beck has a business district similar to Galt’s Gulch from Atlas Shrugged. But when he described the rest of it he sounded like one of my Williamsburg, Brooklyn neighbors: “There’s not going to be a Gap here. There’s no Ann Taylor. If you want an Ann Taylor, go someplace else….This is where dreamers go. This is where people work and create their own businesses….”

Beck also voiced concern about how we grow food, saying we need to be self-sufficient “and it needs to be local. We have to teach how to grow food and we have to produce more than we consume.” (Sounds like Alice Waters, organic foods chef and founder of local produce mecca, Chez Panisse.) And then there’s the residential neighborhood: “We’re looking for ways to redesign our residential areas so we can break the class barriers….You can put affordable housing next to not-affordable housing and have rich people and people who are still up-and-coming live in the same area. And it will be good if you do it wisely.” (Sounds like mixed-income housing.) “The most important part is there are no streets. No real streets in front of the house….What do you say we take the concrete out of the street and replace it with grass, so now everybody is spending more time and your neighborhood gets together.” What’s with all this “we” stuff? Who has been duped by “Agenda 21” now?

When Beck’s fantasy began circulating online in January, another scheme turned up called The Citadel, a medieval-style walled village of gun owners to be financed in part by a munitions factory. Sited, in theory, on an Idaho mountaintop, “Each neighborhood will have similar housing for visual uniformity and aesthetic appeal. Walking paths, orchards, and stands of woods will be incorporated throughout the space within the walls, adding privacy and aesthetically pleasing green spaces. Public gardens with both flowers and vegetables will enhance the experience of residents and visitors alike.” So the overall scheme is…“walkable”—what planners and “Agenda 21” dupes might call Pedestrian Oriented Development. And suspiciously green, too. Oh, speaking of Marxist conspiracies: Citadel residents won’t own their property. They’ll lease it. As it turns out, there’s nothing wrong with the greater good as long as it’s for the benefit of self-described “patriots.”

I doubt that Beck or the proponents of The Citadel have suddenly embraced the principles of sustainability. They don’t realize that they’ve adopted ideas that are part of the environmentally conscious approach they’ve painted as a UN conspiracy. Beck doesn’t know he sounds like an activist chef from Berkeley, California. The Citadel backers don’t realize they’re borrowing heavily from Andrés Duany. They don’t know because they’re not paying attention to that end of the spectrum, just as people like me don’t normally tune in to Glenn Beck.

So, aside from feeling cheated by a novel that was just the setup for a political tract, what I got from reading Beck’s Agenda 21 and perusing the latest in extremist planning is a visceral feel for the way in which this country is divided.

We have our own cable channels, websites, and Twitter feeds, all carefully selected to tell us what we already know. This echo chamber effect is not news. But because of our own self-imposed information blackouts, we can’t know that certain desires (walkable neighborhoods, close-knit communities, business districts that aren’t dominated by chain stores) might be shared across the spectrum. Our spectacularly fragmented media landscape keeps taking us farther and farther away from the possibility that a greater good even exists.

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