Tuesday, December 18, 2012

The power of naming: Agenda 21 and the ICLEI

Agenda 21.

There, I said it. Cue the conspiracy stuff, whether real or imagined. Cue the mocking of the same. Because let's face it, mentioning Agenda 21 is dangerous business these days. Trying to decipher what it really is, what it really means, is no simple task as theories abound in this regard. Glenn Beck's recent release of a novel by the same name only makes the task more difficult. Beck's book is apparently a dystopian work that, though fictional, is based loosely on his interpretation of the real Agenda 21; I have not read it and have no plans to do so, even though it seems to be in the spirit of Orwell, one of my favorite authors. Additionally, it is fair to note that--according to one of the book's editors--Beck didn't write the book, himself:
At the time I was working on it, the manuscript belonged to its actual author, a woman named Harriet Parke, who lives a few minutes from my aunt. But a year and a few lawyers later, Glenn Beck purchased the right to call himself its creator, and Ms. Parke agreed to be presented as a ghostwriter.
Ghostwriting is nothing new, of course, but we mostly see it with works of non-fiction, with autobiographies and the like. Beck is doing nothing illegal here, though I have to say this stuff leaves a bad taste in my mouth; what exactly did Beck do, apart from see to it that the book was published? That said, the above mentioned editor's opinions on the matter are just as unsettling. She readily admits to enjoying the book, to it having "capable" writing and a "compelling" story; she says she would be proud to have her name associated with it, were it not for Beck's name on the cover.

That doesn't make a lot of sense. She doesn't like who Beck is, doesn't like his political opinions. I get that, she's far from alone in that regard. But the book itself, it's either good or its not. She says it is good, and that should be enough in my humble opinion. But alas, ideology takes center stage everywhere, these days.

And in that regard, the editor cites Beck's real-world take on the real-world Agenda 21 (an agenda for the 21st century), a United Nations "non-binding agreement" between signatories to it for the integration of "environment and development concerns" in order to achieve "the fulfillment of basic needs, improved living standards for all, better protected and managed ecosystems and a safer, more prosperous future." The over-arching program? So-called sustainability, economic and otherwise. Noble words, those. Noble goals, too. Achievable? Probably not.

Regardless, the bone of contention as it were is a portion of Agenda 21 that many see as being steadily implemented already in local communities (this portion is chapter 7, not 4 as the writer at Salon indicates). It's the "one world government" fear, writ small, as the language of Agenda 21 creeps into government policies until it is omnipresent. But is it a legitimate fear, or not?

Well, look at the Fort Lauderdale Department of Building and Planning/Zoning. Whoops, sorry. Now it's the Department of Sustainable Development. All building activities are subsumed within it. Fort Lauderdale's southern neighbor--Miami-Dade County--has an Office of Sustainability as well, which subsumes the offices of the Agricultural Manager, Consumer Services, Economic Development & International Trade, Film & Entertainment, Planning & Zoning, and Small Business Development into it. That's a pretty big nut, too. The OOS (Office of Sustainability) for Miami-Dade was created in 2009. Then, it had minimal formal power, though it was a part of all sorts of meetings. Now, county projects go through the OOS, first and foremost.

But forget the original question--is it a legitimate fear?--for a moment and consider just the mechanism: language, changing language to achieve a result. When did Fort Lauderdale create its Department of Sustainable Development? I'm not sure. As I said, Miami-Dade's came into being in 2009. But the county has been a member of ICLEI-Local Governments for Sustainability (the localized arm of Agenda 21) for some time prior to that. Fort Lauderdale is also a member of ICLEI.

Now membership in orgs like the ICLEI can just be--and often are--feather-in-the-cap types of things. They make good press, they get cities and communities noticed, they help get grants, and they can drive tourism and events to the area. But there is a definite pattern here: Agenda 21 to ICLEI to community membership to "sustainability" departments. And the last are becoming more and more entwined in decision-making at a local level, all sorts of decision making. Power is flowing towards this departments and many believe this power is already being abused.

How is that happening? Again, the language appears to be the driving force: the terminology being employed suggests far-reaching authority and that authority is being granted. I've addressed this technique previously. It's a perversion of a Confucian doctrine, the Rectification of Names. The quintessential example I gave previously:
There's a great fable about a Chinese Emperor who was having problems with a particular river that kept flooding. The river was named "The Wild One." In order to combat the flooding problem, the Emperor had a most novel idea: he would rename the river "The Quiet One." 
In the traditions of Chinese philosophy, this technique is a perversion of the Confucian doctrine, the Rectification of Names. Essentially, Confucius argued that it was of vital importance that names were "correct," that they carried the truth of what something was, when they were descriptive in any way (proper names obviously do not fit this bill). Thus, of a mountain were to be named "Long Mountain," it really should be long. And if an office were to be called "the office of bridge building," the office-holder really should be concerned with building bridges. Simply stuff, right? 
The name-changing Chinese Emperor sought to "rectify" the thing, itself, by changing its name (instead of the other way around), a name that was properly descriptive. 
Did it work? Of course not. The river's flooding was as bad as ever.
Then, I was speaking mostly about how pieces of legislation are often given names--like the American Jobs Act--that really fail to capture their true nature, that are more reflective of hoped-for results, as opposed to realistic assessments.

But in the case, the technique seems to be working. The language is still about hoped-for results: when, for instance, sustainability is cited as a justification for or against a particular action, it's done so on the basis of opinion, from a handful of experts (or simple bureaucrats) or maybe just one. Of course, few people had noticed all of this until quite recently (and yeah, we have to give Beck some credit in this regard). Now that people are taking note, it will be interesting to see if the sailing continues to be smooth for sustainability offices.

Cheers, all.