In 2011, Roanoke County started to see opposition to the
county’s engagement with ICLEI, as well as opposition to
Agenda 21. Opponents of the project started attending local
meetings and speaking during the open citizen comment
period. Additionally, they submitted Freedom of Information
Act requests regarding RC-CLEAR activities.
Staff members at the Virginia Association of Counties
(VACO), which assists municipalities with local and regional
planning, coined the term “new activists” to describe these
types of opponents. Unlike the citizens who had traditionally
been engaged with local government, new activists are said
to be (1) new to public participation in government decision
making, (2) highly frustrated by the status quo, ( 3) often supportive of more radical approaches to policy development, and
( 4) less patient with the slow speed and processes of traditional government action.
While the Tea Party is probably the most famous new activist group, the definition also covers federalists, libertarians,
patriots, 9-12 organizations, the Reform Party, environmental advocacy groups, and other groups that are generally
upset with government. Moreover, new activists need not be
associated with any organized group. As VACO notes in documents about dealing with this nontraditional group, “[i]ndeed,
‘none of the above’ seems to be the favorite electoral choice
of many of these new activists.” Rising debt, an overreaching federal government, and limitations on property rights are
some of the common issues motivating these groups in Virginia. Sustainable development projects often involve the last
two of these issues, which seems to make them a hot topic
among many new activists, although the same or similar
groups might favor one type of project in a particular region
and oppose it elsewhere.
ICLEI in Roanoke as an intractable conflict
Like other intractable conflicts, the conflict over ICLEI in Roanoke was long-standing and eluded resolution. The county
started to see pushback in 2011, and the conflict continued for
Divisiveness and polarization around value differences were
shown in the way people described their opinions about ICLEI,
Agenda 21, and climate change issues. Opinions about these
topics ranged from needing to address climate change immediately, to disbelief that climate change was happening at all.
Different science and data sets were used to back up these
opinions, and various experts spoke on behalf of both sides.
The conflict was highly emotional. Fear-based arguments
were used on both sides, often focusing on threats to children
and future generations. People ridiculed one another in tradi-
tional media, as well as social media. During public meetings
some participants yelled while others wept. People involved
reported getting calls at home and being harassed in pub-
lic. Representatives from many different organizations and
institutions and different social levels joined in the discussion
– environmental groups, local citizens, scientists, government
leaders, and media. The issue was pervasive: discussions
occurred in advocacy meetings, at kitchen tables, online, and
in the newspaper as well as at public government meetings. In
the course of the dispute, new activists questioned authority
at all levels – from the United Nations all the way down to the
local government leaders.
Different sides in the conflict framed the issues quite differently. These frames defined for participants what the conflict
was about, who was to blame, how the problem should be
solved, and who should be responsible for solving it. As writers on framing have noted, once we construct our knowledge
on a subject or issue, frames help us to represent that knowledge and take a stance within the issue. They sometimes
delineate insiders and outsiders, or friends and enemies.
Frames aren’t easily modified, and in fact, they tend to stabilize and transfer to other issues, which increases intensity
and adds to the longevity of the conflict.
At public meetings, we heard inflammatory language such
as: “the devil is at the doorstep” (in reference to the United
Nations), “religious philosophy of evolution” (in reference
to science manipulating decision-making), “regionalism is
communism” and “planning is socialism’s trademark” (in reference to the way local governments make decisions that
impact their collective populations). Perhaps the starkest
language we heard was the fear that local government was
going to make “human habitation zones” that would force
people to live in certain areas where infrastructure and services would be directed.
Those who work in natural resource issues and local plan-
ning had only heard of Agenda 21 as an obscure document
that came out of a UN meeting in 1992. Suddenly, Agenda 21
symbolized infringement of local control and local property
rights, and became a rallying cry for local engagement and
An intractable conflict is one that is
long-standing, eludes resolution, is divisive, has
a good deal of intensity, pervades various social
levels and institutions, and is highly complex.