Once applied mostly to clean energy, ‘sustainability’ now embraces a broader, more global meaning. Not everyone thinks that’s good.
Last November, the nonprofit formerly known as Green Chips officially changed its name to Impact NV. The change — denoting the evolution from a narrow focus on environmental issues to a broader one on sustainable development — wasn’t exactly revolutionary, the word “green” having disappeared from most mission statements in the late 2000s. (The comedy troupe Funny Or Die sounded the death knell with a 2013 video lampooning corporate green teams as psychotic bullies.) That term gave way to the less threatening “sustainable,” implying that the best practice in any given context is the one that contributes to long-term viability.
This idea is embedded in Impact NV, a behind-the-scenes operation whose forte is enabling other groups’ work through connections, fundraising, and guidance. Gwen Migita, Impact NV’s board chair and Caesars Entertainment’s corporate social responsibility VP, says the new name reflects a transition that had already come to pass: “Whereas 10 years ago, they might have been focused on energy, recycling, and so on — and now that’s covered — there are still issues like food scarcity that need to be addressed. We were already doing a portion of that, but because of the name (Green Chips), people immediately assumed recycling, energy efficiency, cutting down on greenhouse gases. So the name change made it more intentional. It’s about healthy living and vibrant communities.”
Sustainability, then, encompasses good stewardship of not just natural but also of human resources. However, as that idea has expanded, human nature hasn’t always followed suit.
This evolving philosophy of sustainability has a well-known model for practical application: the U.N.’s 17 Sustainable Development Goals, which start with “no poverty,” end with “peace, justice, and strong institutions,” and touch on “gender equality” and “climate action” along the way. They’re the latest iteration of a movement that started at a 1992 U.N. committee meeting commonly known as the Rio Earth Summit. There, world leaders came up with plans to address biodiversity, climate change, consumption rates, and other issues. Given the inevitability of global development, they determined, a plan was needed to make sure that everyone gets to enjoy its benefits while allowing no one to exhaust the Earth’s limited resources.
Reasonable as it might sound, this plan inspired a conspiracy theory now embraced by countless people, including some Southern Nevadans that I’ve talked to while covering public lands issues. Dubbed “Agenda 21” — after an unfortunately named planning document that resulted from the Rio Earth Summit — the theory is that a small faction of wealthy individuals, working through powerful organizations, are trying to take over the world’s resources for their own enjoyment; depending on the version of the theory (there are many), the rest of us will be confined in camps, forced to serve the 1 percent, or be exterminated. Those pulling the strings range from the Clintons and Illuminati to the communists and Greenpeace.
When I interviewed Shawna Cox, a supporter of Bunkerville rancher Cliven Bundy, about her opposition to Gold Butte National Monument, she told me: “The wealthy people created the problem in the first place, because they believe that all of the rest of us are worthless eaters. The world is for them, and they need to get rid of us. There should only be 500,000 people left on this planet, and everybody else should be serving the elite. It sounds far-fetched, but it’s reality, and that’s what they’re doing one step at a time. When you read Agenda 21, it’s exactly how they make these plans.”
It’s tempting to think that sustainability-focused organizations can just write off Agenda 21ers as the unreachable fringe. (Anti-U.N. sentiment dates back at least to the John Birch Society’s 1960s campaign for U.S withdrawal from the organization.) Yet, a birther occupies the White House, and two states, Alabama and Texas, have proposed anti-Agenda 21 legislation in recent years. Could fear of sustainable development seep into the mainstream?
One way to help allay that fear might be to shift the spotlight from international agendas to local issues, so people can feel the effects in their neighborhoods. Coincidentally, Migita says that Impact NV’s aim isn’t to change everything overnight, but to prioritize its actions based on community needs — say, youth homelessness.
“Southern Nevada is the No. 1 region in the country for unsheltered young people,” Migita says. “That’s an area where we can drive change by bringing together various groups across sectors — nonprofit, for-profit, government, etc. — and getting them to ... focus on solutions and long-term goals.”
So, using the U.N.’s adapted methodology (derived from Agenda 21), a Las Vegas organization seeks to help kids living on the streets find food and shelter. Who could be against that?