Alistair Bone talks to Hamilton City Council about its new scheme that some see as part of a dangerous global conspiracy.
Aaron Fleming and Gareth Cartwright work for Hamilton City Council. They deny being part of a worldwide plot to herd people together so they can be exterminated by UN death-squads. That puts them at odds with the US Republican Party. Fleming is the manager of strategy and relationship management. Cartwright is a strategic policy analyst. The Sustainable Hamilton policy they are responsible for contains a UN-led initiative called Agenda 21, the same Agenda 21 that the Republicans have branded "as erosive of American sovereignty" - before making opposing it the official policy of the party (which still controls the US House of Representatives and most of the state governments).
Agenda 21 dates from the UN's 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro. Its claimed aim was to lay down global principles for sustainable development into the 21st century. It was supposed to be about getting local governments and agencies acting on the environment. Worldwide, hundreds of local authorities have signed up to its principles. So American environmentalists were surprised when it became an official enemy of the Republicans back in August. Opponents of Agenda 21 had been around for years, but pushed what looked like outlandish conspiracy theories and were limited to what Democrats had believed were the "tinfoil hat" wing of the Republicans.
The central suspicion of those most keenly opposed is that Agenda 21 is the UN's plan to take away our cars, money, assets and freedom of choice and crowd us all into vertical urban housing estates that will be virtual prisons. The even more fearful believe the UN will then start some sort of radical process of depopulation to get our numbers down to about (an environmentally sustainable) half a billion. The rich and senior bureaucrats will be exempt from the process.
To be fair, the Republicans just call it a threat to sovereignty, but the roots of their opposition lie in the more outrageous claims. Republican groups have had some success in opposing Agenda 21 initiatives at a local government level. Earlier this year, Republican-controlled Alabama became the first state to ban itself from any association with Agenda 21 and its policies. More look likely to follow. Cartwright and Fleming do not roll their eyes at this. Instead, Cartwright says, "What the anti-people have done is muddy the discussion quite well."
The thing the anti-people don't like is still part of Hamilton City Council policy. The name Agenda 21 has been dropped, but all the relevant principles of the UN's old plan have been incorporated in the new Sustainable Hamilton scheme council adopted last week.
It will run for three to five years. The green light allows the team to talk to various agencies and businesses about what to do next. Three areas will get priority treatment: the promotion of a healthy natural environment, city living and business; collaboration; and leadership. The latter two are a key change because the planners now think sustainability is about more than just trees and water. "If you take the broad definition of sustainability, it kind of grabs everything - economic, environmental, and social," says Cartwright. "The public understanding of sustainability is environmental sustainability and that is what the last strategy spent most of its effort on. With this new one, we are trying to expand that back out again."
The council has other strategies - a suite of eight, in fact. The social well-being strategy is another, concerning itself with reducing harm caused by drugs and alcohol, etc. They all exist separately from the sustainability strategy at the moment, but maybe not for long. "What we are looking to do is integrate the actions that sit under the strategies as closely as possible," says Cartwright. "For instance, under sustainable homes we'd be looking at energy efficiency and water efficiency and reduced waste. In the social well-being strategy, we'd be looking at making the houses warmer and drier. But, actually, they are the same actions. There are still areas of the social well-being strategy that aren't directly linked in with the sustainability strategy, but I suspect over the next three to five years, we will slowly bring those in."
Which makes it sound a little like what the conspiracy theorists are suggesting: a creeping green fascism intent on controlling every aspect of our lives. The council wants multiuse, high- to medium-density housing in the city because it is more sustainable. It thinks more cars are probably not the best transport solution. It doesn't want more lifestyle blocks because they put productive soil out of action and are an inordinate drain on council supplied resources. The urbanisation programme, essentially city apartments, is denounced by the antis with the catchy rhyme "pack 'em and stack 'em". A phrase that can readily be spotted in letters to the editor and the comments section of New Zealand papers. But the planners swear there is nothing nefarious going on. Councillor Daphne Bell is chairwoman of the council's Sustainability Working Group. She understands that some people like grass. "I think we have a view of what inner-city living is like and we don't want it because we haven't seen some good examples. But people need different things at different times in their lives."
She says older people may wish to shrink their gardening responsibilities and be in the centre city, close to services. The same scenario may appeal to busy, childless professionals. "There are huge infrastructure costs if the city continues to spread," says Bell. "The economics of passenger transport are much more challenging for a city that sprawls."
"People do have options," says Fleming. "For instance, you can use a lot of water or not so much. So what we are trying to do is educate our community around things like that." It just looks like a one-world government plot because they are trying to solve a global problem. "If you look across the world, a lot of cities are facing very similar problems and future challenges," says Fleming. He says there is no UN money available to the council for its programmes.
Cartwright has some empathy with the suspicious. Selling sustainability has had to get smarter over the past five years. "In the past, environmentalists have said ‘Don't do it,' and that has not been a well-received message - which is fair enough. Who wants to hear that? Now we say, ‘You can decide what you want to do, but this is a more fun way of living.' " There will be some who don't buy in, and that's fine. Cartwright says they won't be rounded up. "Not everyone wants to live in the middle of the city - you don't have a lawn, you don't have a vege garden. So it's about our saying, ‘We've got a really cool space over here and if you want to live here, you can.' And if we do a really good job there, then naturally the city is going to grow within the city boundaries rather than just spread out."
But doesn't it have the same big brother-type effect, regardless of their motives, and lead to even reasonable people's seeing the council forcing itself, expensively, into people's lives?
Cartwright has faith in human nature. "Most people want to do the right thing, so if you give them a good option, they will take it." But these days he says the option offered must be at least as good and can't be any more expensive. That can be a problem. "A lot of sustainable options have a higher upfront cost but a lower lifecycle cost. And it is a harder concept to understand. The costs [should be] seen as an investment, rather than a straight-out cost for no benefit". He compares it to paying off a mortgage on a house. "It may feel restrictive now, but most things do when you are investing."
It's for the best, says Bell. Things like the much-criticised Rototuna building rules, requiring garages to be set back behind houses and clear sight lines to the road, aren't going to go away. "There are some things that we do need to require under the current district plan, some of the current design outcomes that we've had have not been optimal."
Earlier this year, more than 40,000 UN delegates had a look back over 20 years of Agenda 21 at another gathering, again in Rio. After, Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon told the General Assembly that things were coming along nicely. "In Rio, we saw the further evolution of an undeniable global movement for change," he said.
In a new document, The Future We Want, the UN says it plans to accelerate sustainable development and, like Hamilton City Council, expand it into the social and economic spheres - probably horrifying the plan's more extreme critics.
Despite its ambition, it's disappointing as a blueprint for world government. Mr Ban called it "an important victory for multilateralism after months of difficult negotiations." So its 283 sections read exactly like they were written by a committee formed from many other committees. It will casually run a single gigantic sentence over a whole tortuous paragraph. More than a few of these qualify the sustainable development goals with talk about recognising "different national realities", effectively giving a fat get-out-of-jail-free card on environmental action to whoever wants it. In truth, it is such a rambling construction, it could be used to justify doing a lot of things, depending on what you choose to emphasise.
What Bell and Fleming and Cartwright will be doing immediately under the plan is opening a worm farm in the council car park. It is part of the council's agenda of walking the talk, dealing with food waste and making their building a model of sustainability. Bell denies it's a UN operation or that she is a One World Government stooge. "If I am, I am unaware of that. I think we are doing what we think is important here. We want to take a long-term view and give people choices and talk with them along the way."
Agenda 21 critics in Hamilton refused to speak to the Waikato Times, citing fears mainstream media would distort their arguments. But environmentalists and more mainstream protesters have their own set of reservations about Agenda 21, believing it is a watered down response to a planetary emergency that is largely ignored anyway. Long-time community activist and Auckland mayoral candidate Penny Bright points out that it didn't stop GE, or, on a larger scale, any of the major wars that have blighted the environment since 1992.
"It comes across as trying to be well-intentioned," she says, "but I think the focus is misdirected. If you are trying to help build a better planet, then you have got to focus on the real problems. And when Agenda 21 was set up, they weren't allowed to address the role of corporations and multinationals."
The UN's review calls for more public-private partnerships (PPPs), with business getting more involved. Fleming says the council won't be able to do everything itself. "There are opportunities [for PPPs], absolutely," he says. Bright raises a red flag at this. "There're huge stacks of evidence internationally that PPPs are marvellous for the private sector because they smooth out the bumps in terms of the boom and bust cycle. You get a guaranteed income for however long the contract is. But the question is, who is benefiting and where is the money going?"
Bright says a European Union-sponsored review of the scheme found the same problems Hamilton City and the UN discovered. Agenda 21 didn't initially recognise the interconnectedness of its goals. "You can't look at the environment without looking at the economic system that has such a huge impact on the environment. It is the herd of elephants in the room," she says. That's crucial to making it work, she thinks, and the reason why it's not. "If you are talking about the Rio principles and Agenda 21, in terms of their stated aim, well, what a load of bollocks."