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What Sustainable Development Is and Is Not

A Challenge to the Washington County Tea Party

Prepared by Anthony Flaccavento, January 23, 2011

Materials gathered by the Washington County Tea Party portray "sustainable development" as a sinister effort to undermine American values and install socialist policies that eliminate private property. Based on nearly 20 years of work, research and writing in this field, I am putting forth this challenge to their attack on sustainable development. It is divided into four sections, corresponding to four core elements of their "argument".

Sustainable development is being driven by the United Nation's Agenda 21

· Contrary to the WCTP's contentions, "Agenda 21" and the UN have absolutely nothing to do with the vast majority of sustainable development (SD) projects and initiatives in Washington county, neighboring states or the nation as a whole. Out of a dozen sustainable development initiatives in the Appalachian region and more than 30 nationwide with which I am personally familiar, not a single one was launched or driven by Agenda 21, or is managed or directed by it. In fact, all of these initiatives were started at the grassroots, by a broad base of community people including local businesses, farmers, civic leaders, elected officials, etc. In 20 years of work and consultation with SD groups around the nation, I have never once heard "Agenda 21" even mentioned.

· While these various groups may well agree with the UN's very general definition of SD - "Meeting the needs of the current generation without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their needs" - their actual missions, goals and work are driven and controlled by local people in response to local needs and opportunities.

· Most "smart growth", "livable cities" and "new urbanism" initiatives, which the WCTP also decry, trace their roots to the work of Jane Jacobs and other urban reformers of the 1960's and 1970's, long before the UN's 1992 SD conference. These efforts came out of increasing public frustration with long commutes, traffic jams, urban decline, etc

The WCTP fundamentally misunderstands what SD is and what it does, both locally and nationally

In our region, the work of ASD, People, Inc, the Jubilee Project and other SD organizations has led to:

· Development of the Abingdon Farmers Market, with over 100 independent farmers and small enterprises selling their products to nearly 2000 local people every week

· Food City, Ingles and other supermarkets in our region purchasing millions of dollars of produce, meat and eggs from local farmers over the past 10 years.

· The Harvest Table, House on Main and at least 8 other restaurants in the county purchasing produce, meat, eggs and cheese directly from local farmers

· The Holston Valley Green Building Council, with over 50 local businesses - including builders, contractors, energy efficiency and alternative energy providers, manufacturers, and more - providing products and services to home owners, schools and businesses around the region.

· The Heartwood Artisan Center, projected to generate several million dollars per year for local artisan crafters, artists and tourism businesses beginning in 2011.

· A community kitchen in East Tennessee that enables small and start up businesses to produce value added food products for commercial sale

· An EBT system at the Abingdon Farmers Market (and now also in Norton, Lebanon and Mountain City) that allows Food Stamp participants to buy directly from local farmers

· Rail Solutions, promoting increased use of freight rail to decrease traffic congestion, danger and pollution along I 81.

· Similar initiatives in Kentucky, West Virginia, Ohio, New Mexico, Arizona, Iowa and most other states

Rather than being anti-American, opposed to liberty and property rights, these examples and countless others demonstrate that SD: Assists and promotes local businesses and family farms; works with forestland owners and landowners generally to increase the value and economic potential of their land while decreasing tax pressures; and encourages and supports innovation and entrepreneurship.

It is also important to point out that SD has nothing to do with "the issuance of money out of thin air", a reference to the powers of the Federal Reserve and to the end of the Gold Standard to back US currency, something that happened two decades before the UN conference on SD; nor does it have any connection whatsoever to "biometrics and government monitoring of citizens".

Sustainable Development and the "three E's"

Sustainable development does indeed work toward a world in which there is a better balance among a strong Economy, a healthy Environment and greater Equity, both today and for future generations. The WCTP's characterization of these goals as sinister threats to personal liberty, property rights and American independence is, however, completely groundless.

· Economy - SD has nothing to do with "the establishment of a global economy with free trade of goods across national boundaries" as they contend. This was well underway more than a century before SD was even conceived. Quite the contrary, the essence of SD is building strong, diverse local economies which create more economic opportunities for people while making them and their communities less vulnerable to global economic trends or problems.

· Equity - There is no SD leader, text, platform or organization that seeks to undermine America's principles of "equal justice". The often expressed goal of increased social justice simply means creating more opportunities and removing obstacles - educational, economic and political - to full participation by all citizens in the society. In fact, the national Tea Party's goal of reducing the burden of debt on future generations falls squarely within the SD principle of "intergenerational equity".

· Environment - The claim that SD seeks to completely destroy private property and elevate the status and rights of "plants, animals and even inanimate objects" to that of human beings is absurd. No reputable leader, writer or practitioner of SD has ever advocated anything like this. The fact is that the vast majority of SD initiatives seek to improve environmental stewardship primarily through voluntary, market-based solutions, and secondarily through modest changes in public policy. Some examples of these policy changes include

o Emory and Henry's December, 2010 decision to begin purchasing a percentage of its food from local farmers, 10 % now moving up to 25% by 2015.

o The Washington County School system's 2009 adoption of modest green building goals for new construction, leading to the use of money-saving natural lighting and energy efficiency measures in several classrooms.

o Washington county and dozens of other VA counties' endorsement of expansion of rail along the I 81 corridor to reduce traffic problems and safety concerns

o The Appalachian Regional Commission's 2005 adoption of an "Asset-based development" strategy which seeks to help local communities build on their natural, cultural and individual assets to create jobs

o The USDA's decision several years ago to allow Food Stamp recipients to use their EBT cards at farmers markets, and USDA's expansion of the Senior Farmers Market program, enabling seniors on fixed incomes to buy fresh produce from local farmers.

All of these policies, like the work of SD organizations, are designed to make things better for people while sustaining the environment, not to elevate the environment above people. This is an American value that goes back to Thomas Jefferson and has been sustained by Teddy Roosevelt, Richard Nixon and countless others. These policies also represent the "public-private partnerships" that the WCTP criticizes.

The WCTP claims that smart growth and sustainable development is contrary to the will of the American people, driven by a foreign, UN agenda

In truth, zoning laws and government regulations, while far from perfect, come into being not to give plants and animals equal rights to human beings, but to sort out competing claims among people.

· Their example of the EPA and the Chesapeake Bay as evidence of this preference for the environment over people completely ignores that the degradation of the Bay directly impacts the rights and livelihoods of thousands of oysterman, crabbers and fisherman.

· Similarly, zoning laws, Purchase of Development Rights initiatives and similar efforts often arise because farmers cannot afford to stay on their land, as sprawl and speculation drives up land values and taxes.

· In fact, citizens both favor and push for policies to contain sprawl, enhance the walkability of communities and promote more mass transit and alternatives to cars:

o A 2000 national opinion poll by the firm Beldon Russonello and Stewart found that large majorities of Americans support "smart growth" policies, and that 83% support government efforts to increase green space and protect farm and forest land in and near their communities

o A 2002 national poll by the same firm found that 66% prefer alternatives to new roads, such as improved public transportation and more walkable communities, and that 60% support more state $ for such improvements, even if it means less $ for new roads.

o A 2010 national poll conducted by Transportation for America found that nearly 60% of respondents believe that the best way to combat congestion is to expand transportation options, including public transit, bike paths and walkways - all of which are "smart growth" strategies - rather than simply building more roads.


The goals of Sustainable Development are diverse, vibrant local economies, more opportunities for all citizens to participate and earn a decent living, and a healthy environment for our grandchildren and beyond. The vast majority of SD groups and initiatives focus on small businesses and market-based strategies to achieve this, along with public policies that make vibrant economies and healthy communities more attainable. One can agree or disagree with these goals and strategies, but it is clear that these efforts are coming from local people, businesses and community leaders, not from the UN, and that these efforts support rather than undermine American values of fairness, opportunity, entrepreneurship and stewardship.