Sunday, January 11, 2015

Sustainability, Politics and Agenda 21

Written for Healthy Indoors Magazine - January 2014

When my long-time friend and colleague, Bob Krell, the Publisher of this magazine asked me to write a monthly column, I got really excited. When he said I could write about whatever I felt was timely and interesting to me, my heart did a little dance!

I’ve lived in Arizona for the past 15+ years. That almost makes me a native by Arizona standards. About ten years ago, I came to the hard realization that if you really want to affect positive change, you need to become involved (or at least have a firm understanding) of politics.
Arizona is nationally known for its extreme politics, giving daily fodder to the likes of Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert. This doesn’t necessarily make me proud, but it does make me more determined to stick around and help fight the good fight here. I will also point out that contrary to popular belief we’re not all crazy I can assure you!

Having a background in indoor air and environmental quality, I often view Arizona as a petri dish for bad legislation. It reminds me of when I’d have leftover agar plates and I would have my kids cough onto them so we could watch what fuzzy, green things might stick and grow. I often joke that bad bills are like zombies here – you kill them, and they just keep coming back to life year after year after year after year after… You get the point.

Our 2014 Legislative Session is about to begin. Our elected officials have been busy drafting bills and having meetings to weigh the popularity. Many will go nowhere. Others will push on. Some good, some bad, some boring, some sad. (If you’re a 70’s kid like me, maybe you remember Schoolhouse Rock’s I’m Just a Bill.) Do they even still teach that stuff anymore? For some reason I fear not.

So what does this have to do with sustainability?


For the past two years, I have helped battle back a bill here in Arizona called the Rio Declaration – Prohibition. I even had a nice profile piece written after fighting it off the first year.
The Rio Declaration was the result of a United Nations Conference on Environment and Development that took place in Rio de Janeiro in 1992.  The conference agenda was to reaffirm the Declaration of the United Nations Conference on the Human Environment which had been adopted at Stockholm in 1972, and to further expand upon the mission,

“With the goal of establishing a new and equitable global partnership through the creation of new levels of cooperation among States, key sectors of societies and people, working towards international agreements which respect the interests of all and protect the integrity of the global environmental and developmental system, and recognizing the integral and interdependent nature of the Earth, our home.”

Twenty-seven principles were adopted into the Rio Declaration. The full Agenda 21 document is more detailed.

I also like to remind people that the “21” simply stands for the 21st Century and maybe we should all try living in it someday.

During that first year, there were a handful of other states that had similar bills- New Hampshire, Oklahoma and Tennessee, but thankfully, none of them passed. It was killed in committee in all three of those states, and Tennessee even did a fiscal review of how the state would be financially impacted, which you can read HERE.   

 Last year across the nation, we didn’t fare so well (even though we managed to battle the zombie back again in Arizona). 34 bills and resolutions were introduced in 20 states in 2013. Of those, only a few passed all the way through. But yes, some states passed a bill which broadly outlaws sustainability along with such missions as eradicating poverty.

Agenda 21 has become the target of right wing conspiracy theorists, such as the John Birch Society, and is the new BIG BAD WOLF.  There are actual “Stop Agenda 21″ tool kits along with language for bills so we won’t supposedly have a UN takeover while we’re sleeping.  Anything touted as green or sustainable has become code word for Agenda 21 conspiracy at both the local and state level.
Michael Schmitz, Executive Director of ICLEI–Local Governments for Sustainability USA, wrote a 3p oped about the recent attacks on green cities reminding people that:

“Agenda 21 is not a treaty or legally binding document and does not infringe upon the sovereignty of any nation, state, or local government. Bottom line, it isn’t being forced on anybody, anywhere, by any organization.”

Apparently a bunch of people missed that memo…

This my short list of how anti Rio Declaration/Agenda 21 legislation could potentially hurt any state:

Jobs – The green and sustainable job market is one of the only consistently growing markets across the nation.  Any and all federal funding for green job training could vanish. We also have green sects throughout our government at both city and state levels. These jobs could be jeopardized.

Business/Industry – Nearly every large corporation and industry (and many small businesses) have sustainability initiatives/plans.  This is now a way of life – as well it should be because it’s smart. Sustainability plans are meant to save companies money by using less energy, increasing productivity, lessening environmental impacts, and a myriad of other things that are good for People, Planet + Profit.  Would large companies want to set up shop in a state that was opposed to the Rio Declaration in this day and age?  The answer is an emphatic NO.

Health – Green building programs and policies improve the health of our people – thus saving millions of dollars in healthcare costs.  I can point to hundreds of peer-reviewed and published studies with regard to the health benefits associated with green building, as well as less absenteeism and improved test scores in green-built schools.

Economy – Our economy is still not 100% and many people are still un or under-employed.  Energy programs, including those that are federally funded, serve to help people lower their utility costs  by offering extremely low out-of-pocket costs to upgrade HVAC systems, add insulation, make sure ducts are sealed and offer shade screens.

Social Equality/Environmental Justice – Sustainability only works if it reaches across all socio-economic levels, into every neighborhood and touches every group of people. Funding for TOD (transit oriented development) various HUD programs, organizations like Habitat for Humanity and others could be at risk of losing major funding.  

So please keep all of these things in mind when following your local city and state politics in the coming months. Remember the opposition to green and sustainable is mainly fear based coupled with a lack of factual knowledge. Take the time to educate yourself so you can in turn help educate others.

The American Planning Association has an Agenda 21 Myths and Facts guide sheet. If you hear the term Agenda 21 or Rio Declaration being brought up within your local city or state governments, print some, attend and pass them out.

I’m crossing my fingers that my own zombie bill won’t be back for the third time, but it’s apparently pretty hungry for brains. Time will tell.

Only together can we create a healthier and more sustainable future.

And please remember to rock your vote!

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