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First They Came for the Lightbulbs...

The conspiracy theory behind Michele Bachmann's war on energy efficiency.

| Thu Aug. 4, 2011 6:00 AM EDT
Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.).

Few issues get Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) going quite like lightbulbs. At campaign stops across the country, she has repeatedly denounced a 2007 law that required manufacturers to develop energy-efficient lightbulb varieties. Bachmann sees the law as an affront to American values. "I think Thomas Edison did a pretty patriotic thing for this country by inventing the lightbulb," she told a New Hampshire audience in March. "And I think darn well, you New Hampshirites, if you want to buy Thomas Edison's wonderful invention, you should be able to!"

In reality, no one's stopping New Hampshirites (or anyone else, for that matter) from buying any kind of lightbulb they please—even the incandescent variety that Bachmann warns will be outlawed unless we pass the Better Use of Light Bulbs (BULB) Act that she supported. (BULB would repeal the energy-efficiency rules.) But Bachmann's crusade is about much more than energy-conserving bulbs: The Minnesota congresswoman is part of a movement that considers "sustainability" an existential threat to the United States, one with far-reaching consequences for education, transportation, and family values. If Bachmann is right, lightbulbs will soon be the least of our worries.

Bachmann's concerns may have been best articulated in an interview she gave to the American Family Association's OneNewsNow in 2008. As Republicans in Washington revolted over the rising costs of gas, the then-freshman congresswoman outlined the stakes:

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"This is their agenda—I know it's hard to believe, it's hard to fathom, but this is 'Mission Accomplished' for them," she said of congressional Democrats. "They want Americans to take transit and move to the inner cities. They want Americans to move to the urban core, live in tenements, [and] take light rail to their government jobs. That's their vision for America."

Although she didn't say it right then, Bachmann likely had something specific in mind: Agenda 21, a two-decade-old United Nations agreement that has taken on a life of its own on the far-right. The agreement, forged in 1992, nominally committed signatories to a set of shared values designed to mitigate the environmental impact of human development. Member countries agreed to a range of sustainability goals, from preserving the ozone layer to ensuring that forests are managed so they'll be around for future generations. (The United States is a signatory, but the treaty has not been ratified by the Senate.)

But to some conservatives, Agenda 21 became something far more nefarious—a gateway to a global government built on a radical doctrine of secular environmentalism.

"Sustainability," the idea at the heart of the agreement, became a gateway to dystopia.

As these conservatives saw it, the agreement paved the way for the entire planet to be controlled by a central bureaucracy: Humans would be cleared out of vast swaths of settled areas—like the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, for example—and instructed to live in "hobbit homes" in designated "human habitation zones" (two terms embraced by tea party activists). Public transportation would be the only kind of transportation, and governments would force contraception on their citizens to control the population level. A human life would be considered no more significant than, say, that of a manatee. "Sustainability," the idea at the heart of the agreement, became a gateway to dystopia.

In Minnesota in the 1990s and early 2000s, the loudest opposition to sustainability came from the Maple River Education Coalition (later EdWatch), the nonprofit that gave Bachmann her start in politics. Under the group's banner, Bachmann toured the state with an anti-Agenda 21 activist from the Twin Cities suburbs named Michael Chapman. Together, they spoke to church groups about the creeping "state-planned economy" that was instilling un-American values in children. (Bachmann's office did not respond to a request for comment.)

Agenda 21, opponents feared, would require government and industry to work in concert to find a way to get future generations to stay in line. One of the result, they argued, was a little-known federal program known as "school to work," which helps introduce students to various career options before they graduate from high school. But Bachmann and her allies insisted that, through this program, government bureaucrats would determine which industries to promote and funnel public-school students into those fields. They believed that public schools, meanwhile, would use the state's new curriculum standards, which they claimed were rooted in UN principles, to foist globalism and sustainability on students.

When she arrived in St. Paul as a state senator, Bachmann brought those views with her. In a committee hearing in 2003 to discuss a clean energy bill, Bachmann broached the subject of Agenda 21. The term "sustainability" can have radical connotations, she warned, in the "brave new world of energy conservation," and she voted for an amendment to remove the language.

As Bachmann explained to a perplexed chamber, sustainability, as defined by UN agreements like Agenda 21 and the UN Biodiversity treaty, would mean an end to resource extraction as we know it. "Last year in one of our committees, we had a guy come in and talk about the sustainable way of life," she said. "And he gave the definition of sustainable, and it struck me as kind of odd. He said that what sustainable means is that we've already taken everything out of the earth that we're going to take out."

And then Bachmann brought up a now familiar topic. "We already have all of the lightbulbs that we need to have in the earth," she recalled the expert saying. "We don't need to make any more lightbulbs. And so I'm thinking, 'You mean for all time? And that's part of sustainability, is for all time we already have the lightbulbs that we need, and apparently we'll change filaments as they go out.'"

It wasn't just lightbulbs, though. When four researchers from the University of Minnesota system were invited to brief Bachmann's jobs committee about climate change in 2004, she came prepared with questions ripped straight from the anti-Agenda 21 playbook: Did the researchers believe the state should take steps to reduce its population? Did they intend to tell residents specifically where they should and should not live? The professors, whose presentations had mostly focused on things like the impact of warmer winters on the ice fishing industry, were at a loss.

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