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Don't alienate conservatives, says Rob Hopkins

Rob Hopkins and carrot lady
Rob Hopkins giving an award to a local Transition organizer in the UK. Photo: orangejon via Flickr.

"Transition is much more powerful for not being explicitly political," Rob Hopkins told a conference call of Americans involved in Transition groups and interested in the movement. "It's better when Transition avoids associating itself with either the left or the right."

Hopkins thinks that Transitioners should "fly under the radar" on political controversies. Even more, to overcome its obvious lefty bias and make up for the activist background of many of its members, he also thinks that Transition should make a special effort to reach out more to the right wing.

He says that where he lives in Totnes at least, a progressive burg home to lots of old hippies but also to many rural conservatives, Transition has successfully positioned itself as mainstream and non-ideological. And since in the UK, devolving political power down to localities is more an issue of the right than the left, re-localization resonates with conservatives.

"If we want something akin to a war-time mobilization, then we need everybody involved," Hopkins said on the call, sponsored by Transition US (listen to the audio here).

Easier said than done

Compared to the US, where your only choice is between the drill-baby-drill party or the coal-and-nukes-with-a-little-solar party, it seems that the many colorful European parties -- from Trotskyites, Anarchists and Greens on the left through Christian socialists in the middle over to nationalists and neo-Fascists on the right -- regularly try to outdo each other on plans to cut carbon emissions.

In Hopkins's Britain there's no major political party whose platform features denial of climate science. Of course, they have corporate lobbyists. But is Parliament swimming in cash from BP the same way that Congress is dripping with oil money from Exxon or the Koch Brothers? Do British polluters lavishly fund climate science deniers the way that the US Chamber of Commerce does?

My guess is that it's not anywhere close. Otherwise, how could it go without saying that Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron will make all the right noises about going green? He may actually do something about it too, though surely not as much as British environmentalists would like.

So, it seems to me that warm-fuzzy non-partisanship shouldn't be so hard for Transition groups in a country where most citizens -- even corporate ones -- are all just some shade of green. Sure, there's the odd crank who will heckle you at meetings or online about climate and peak oil. But the overwhelming consensus in Europe appears to be very friendly to getting off of fossil fuels. Am I wrong?

The situation couldn't be more different here behind the dollar curtain.

Just the other day I was trying to remember what happened to those three or four Republicans I used to know who believed in climate science. Heck, these days there's even a group just for them: Republicans for Environmental Protection. But judging by the party's presidential candidates, nearly all of whom have renounced any concern for climate change they formerly expressed, environmental Republicans must have about as much influence in the party as black Republicans (at least they have Herman Cain!) or the gay Log Cabin Republicans.

Which is to say, none at all.

Forget climate change -- just stick to "green jobs"

I have some personal experience trying to reach out to conservatives on Transition issues as Hopkins suggests. In 2009, I ran for public office in Virginia -- delegate to the state assembly -- on what I thought was a thoroughly non-threatening-to-Republicans platform of green jobs.

I ran as a Democrat, but I shook the hand of every conservative farmer, Chamber of Commerce member and gun shop owner that I could find. And I stayed away from divisive issues like abortion and gay rights to focus on jobs and the economy.

As it turned out, the editorial board at a local conservative newspaper excoriated me for pushing what they saw as a liberal strategy. "Green is a delightful color, so much so that Democrats are positively blinded by it," wrote the Waynesboro News Virginian, which also saw green jobs as just another form of liberal tax-and-spend:

A study Curren disputes, conducted by the Universidad Rey Juan Carlos in Spain, says that for every green job government created there under the kind of breathless initiatives touted by Democrats here, 2.2 jobs were lost in other sectors. From 2000 to 2008, Spain spent an average of more than $750,000 on every green job it created. Government can create green jobs, so long as it spends itself into the brink.

Since then, this "Spanish Study" has become a mainstay of the free-market blogosphere in the US, though the study was funded by a climate skeptic and has been roundly discredited.

Yet, no matter what some right wing think tank says, you'd have to be a total idiot to deny that putting up wind turbines and solar panels creates jobs with thousands of clean energy developers, companies that benefit from a level of government subsidy that's microscopic compared to the pork given to oil drillers, coal processors and nuclear power generators.

And of course as peak oil makes fossil fuels more and more expensive, green jobs will start to look like the only jobs.

Green conservatives and other endangered species

But when it comes to anything they see as "green," for most American conservatives, facts matter less than whose facts they are.

Because liberals like them, green jobs are ideological. Photovoltaic panels are ideological. Efficient light bulbs are ideological. Even local food and preserving farmland are becoming ideological.

It's not just because all these things can lead back to climate change. Even if you stay mum on the "C" words, you can still get into a heap of trouble with a conservative if you appear in a green hue of any shade, no matter how light.

So how could an American conservative of today ever like Transition? Localizing the economy, doing things on a smaller scale and working with the ecosystem instead of against it contradict fundamental free-market values of infinite economic growth and opportunity, unlimited personal freedom (including freedom for corporate persons) and financial wealth as a sign of personal virtue.

The free-market mind doesn't like plans. For a conservative, plans conjure up images of a "Centrally Planned Economy" or Soviet Communism. So you can forget about energy descent plans, or really any planning at all that would limit the ability of developers to build cul-de-sacs wherever they damned well please or discourage automakers from selling the biggest gas guzzlers that the market will bear.

In other words, everything Transition stands for goes against what American conservatives today hold most dear. It wasn't always like this. As a one-time Republican myself (I campaigned for Reagan in 1980), I can say that Abraham Lincoln, Teddy Roosevelt and even Richard Nixon would've each found something in Transition to like.

But the party of Palin and Bachmann and Beck and Limbaugh, which has become little more than a front for Big Oil, is not your father's GOP. (The Democrats, as a front for Wall Street, are not much better). No wonder that when the Tea Party stumbled on Transition they found it so disturbing.

To his credit, Hopkins did say that he can't tell Americans how to do Transition in the United States. Politics may be one area where the American landscape -- and the "American exceptionalism" so beloved of conservatives -- requires a different approach.

Yet, I still hope that Rob is right. I don't enjoy conflict any more than the next small town community-gardener. I would rather be a lover than a fighter -- and I'd love to welcome my conservative brethren into the Transition fold if they too want to localize their communities, prepare for peak oil and, yes, fight climate change.

Hello, conservative brethren: are you out there? Anybody? Hello?

-- Erik Curren

Editorial Notes: Erik Curren is the publisher of Transition Voice. He co-founded Transition Staunton Augusta in December 2009 and serves as managing partner of the Curren Media Group.

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