As the clash intensifies between the resource demands of growing economies and the planet’s fixed environmental capacity, the responses of a frightened leadership are increasingly breathtaking. On Friday, the Denver Post reported that a candidate for governor of the state of Colorado, Dan Maes, is charging that U.S. mayors who promote bicycling are part of a United Nations plan to dominate American cities. “This is bigger than it looks like on the surface, and it could threaten our personal freedoms,” says Maes.
For people like Maes, bike sharing is clearly suspect activity: it is a communal service, used extensively in socialist European countries, and promoted by international organizations. Never mind that the program at the heart of Maes’s criticism, “B-Cycle” in Denver, is a private company, that most European nations have mixed economies, not socialist ones, and that international organizations do a world of good every day. Maes’s excited, fact-challenged charges are reminiscent of the fearful whispers about UN “black helicopters” that were said to patrol America’s night skies two decades back.
Many may laugh at Maes’s logic, but he is not a fringe political leader: he had a reasonable shot at winning the Colorado governorship until a strong third party candidate entered the race recently, and in any case he is hardly alone among conservative U.S. politicians who seem to lose their heads regarding all things sustainable. Leadership of the world’s largest economy could well shift to those promoting anti-sustainability policies—such as those working today to strip the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency of its authority to regulate carbon emissions—if politicians like Maes prevail in the U.S. November elections.
What makes politicians believe that crazy conspiracy theories—whether of UN bicycle subversion, the “hoax” of climate change, or any other alleged plot—could be persuasive to the electorate? Perhaps because fear is a powerful electoral motivator, and these are, we must admit, frightening times. On top of a brutal economic recession, we in the sustainability community are asking society to recreate economies wholesale, from their fossil fuel foundations to their waste-generating production and consumption habits. For many, the very affluence created by industrial economies appears to be at risk.
But sustainability advocates have a strong product to sell: sustainable, prosperous economies that serve all people. We have solid data to support the need for transformed economies, and creative pathways for getting to them. Surely we can win the debate over the future of the world’s economies if our opponents are limited to subversion-by-bicycle kinds of arguments. Can’t we?