TAMPA — In a nation fond of its conspiracy theories, the belief that an international cabal is plotting to take over the United States by building bicycle paths manages to stand out.
That's the fear of dedicated activists who assert that proponents of green development projects are secretly colluding with the United Nations to create a tyrannical worldwide government, using as their blueprint a 1992 U.N. environmental accord called Agenda 21.
As outlandish as it might sound, the theory has led some groups to openly denounce Agenda 21 as a threat to American freedoms.
Among those groups: the Republican Party.
Fears about the nefarious nature of sustainable development officially reached the mainstream of American politics this week with the release of the 2012 Republican Party platform. "We strongly reject the U.N. Agenda 21 as erosive of American sovereignty," the 54-page platform states in a section on U.S. involvement in international treaties.
It's an inconspicuous line, but one indicative of the rightward drift of GOP ideology. Concerns about Agenda 21 were once exclusively the province of conspiracy-minded groups such as the John Birch Society, an organization perhaps best known for its founder's assertion that President Dwight Eisenhower was a "conscious, dedicated agent of the communist conspiracy."
Over the past 18 months, the idea that environmentally friendly building projects are the work of a hidden hand has found an enthusiastic audience among tea party activists suspicious of government regulation. They now frequently sponsor events to educate one another on what they regard as the dangers of local smart-growth projects.
"The tea party groups are very much involved in this. They're hosting a lot of speeches," said Larry Greenley, director of missions for the John Birch Society. "They see it as a threat to their way of life, and they choose to work on it."
U.S. Senate candidate Ted Cruz, a tea party-favored Republican from Texas, has agitated against Agenda 21, stating on his campaign website that it seeks to "abolish … golf courses, grazing pastures and paved roads."
In January, the Republican National Committee approved a resolution calling for a formal stance against Agenda 21 in the 2012 GOP platform and denouncing the U.N. accord as "a comprehensive plan of extreme environmentalism, social engineering, and global political control" that is being "covertly pushed into local communities."
Others have a hard time seeing what the fuss is about. Adopted by 178 governments — including the administration of Republican President George H.W. Bush — Agenda 21 lays out principles to encourage "continuous and constructive dialogue" among world leaders on such topics as climate change, low-impact development and renewable energy resources. It's nonbinding, so even the countries that got on board in 1992 are free to ignore it.
Suspicion about Agenda 21 is "a complete and utter absurdity," said Mark Potok, who tracks antigovernment groups and ideology for the Southern Poverty Law Center.
"There are people who believe that there is a secret weather machine underneath the city of Brussels that is being used as we speak to ruin the lives of American farmers. To me, fears about Agenda 21 are not much different," Potok said.
Agenda 21 has become a talking point among tea party supporters speaking out against all manner of environmental initiatives— public transportation, carbon-reduction plans, wildlife protections — before state and local government agencies. Republican Hillsborough County Commissioner Mark Sharpe is frustrated by what he sees as their obstructionist tendencies.
"They're trying to suggest that any attempt by a community to plan for its future is somehow un-American," he said. "It's just absolutely ridiculous."
Sharpe added wryly, "If there's any attempt by the U.N. to impose its will on our community, we'll do our level best to fight it."
Sharpe said he is not overly concerned about the nod to anti-Agenda 21 activism in the platform, since it is unlikely to affect local development decisions. "You pick your fights," he said.
Peter Jamison can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 445-4157.