Don’t alienate conservatives, says 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 too.

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

— Erik Curren

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  1. says

    I was thinking the same thing, Erik: their conservatives are not our conservatives, and our conservatives are (to a large extent) so far gone that reaching out to them would only have us tumbling into the chasm. I admire your attempt to bring some green perspectives into the mainstream of your community. It seems like part of the lesson of your experience is “f*@k the mainstream — we don’t have time to deprogram all those people — we have to move on without them.” Maybe when push comes to shove comes to $15 dollar a gallon gasoline, some of the American conservatives will come to their senses, wake up from their Christian consumerist stupors, and get on the side of democracy. But in America, the transition seems less likely to be a “wartime mobilization” across all sectors of a diverse but united society than a quiet social r/evolution among interconnected pockets of reasonable people who believe in responsibility, freedom, and democracy. In that regard, are you familiar with the “Resilience Circles” idea? Something like this is definitely an early step on the path!

    • says

      Art, I’d heard of Common Security Clubs before but I just clicked your link to Resilience Circles and saw that their website looks quite interesting. I’ll check them out. Maybe we’ll do a story about them? And I think it’s funny and sad that Christianity has gotten associated with mainstream living and consumerism in the US, when it seems like some of the world’s best advocates for simple living (St Francis, Gandhi, Wendell Barry) were inspired by the teachings of the Bible. It seems like the old time conservatism had ethical values of thrift, humility and cooperation, which may be essential for us to re-discover today, as it seems that Resilience Circles are doing.

  2. Radoje says

    First off I think you are unfortunately conflating neo-conservativism and more traditional conservativism, though both tend to fall prey to the heresy (and I being very pricise with my langauge here) of American Exceptionalism. Of course there is a particular flavor of American Exceptionalism that infects the Left as well (witness Madaline Albright calling America “The Indespensible Nation”). From my, I suppose, more “conservative” vantage point, following in the tradition more along the lines of Wendell Berry, Bill Kaufmann, and Andrew Bacevic, I would say the biggest obstacle to making Transition more approachable by people on the conservative side is a sort of “have our cake and eat it too” attitude I see in much of the public face of the Transition Movement (and the larger sustainability movement). What I mean is, all the solutions, methods, and ideas proposed to make the transition to a lower energy, more sustainable future tend to conveniently fall in the comfortable ideological bounds of the Left. Now this is not at all surprising, it is simply human nature. However to be honest with ourselves, we’ll need to face the fact that the ideological “pain” of localization and sustainability cannot be borne entirely by the other side. Otherwise you are simply using Transition and sustainability as weapons to win an ideological war. Most conservatives are going to need to give up a number of cherished ideals and ways of looking at the world to begin coming to terms with the future of less resources. I would say it is incumbent on the left-leaning folk of Transition to make an honest assessment of which cherished liberal ideals are not going to work in the coming future and be honest and vocal about how those will have to be given up. You’ll never attract support by asking others to make sacrifices that you yourself are not willing to make in kind.
    Despite countless analysis measuring out how the appeal to science has failed in respect to getting people active about climate change, no one in Transition seems to be getting the message (as evidenced by continued appeals to the wisdom of Al Gore). It does not help matters that the scientific reporting on climate change is often mixed with the sort of fuzzy, one-world Utopian solutions that I find abhorrent. A better way to make Transition appealing to conservatives would be to ignore the science completely. Blasphemy I say? For what it’s worth I think appeal to science is a bad idea regardless of which political side of the fence you fall on. Utilitarianism is a dangerous path to go down and ultimately I believe and lower energy and more local existence is a moral issue. Living within our means and not exploiting Creation and other humans is the right way to live regardless of whether we are on the edge or ecological catastrophe or we all have cold fusion reactors in our basement. Again look at the works of Wendell Berry, you will hardly ever find much in the way of scientific reasoning or statistics in his work, but instead his view that our relationship to the land and others, and thus our way of life, is a moral matter.

    • says

      Radoje, you make many good points. Of course, I’m guilty as charged for pushing science and for liking Al Gore’s climate activism, though I do agree with you that he’s probably the wrong spokesman for conservatives, who are really neo-conservatives as you point out. Real conservatives would want to “conserve” stuff and go back to some of the good things of the past, I would think, which is part of Transition too. I really agree with you about liberals being willing to be flexible about our demands of Transition if we’re going to ask conservatives to give up some of their most cherished values. A discussion about that could be very useful at this point.

      • says

        I agree. To the extent “conservative” means a person concerned with individual responsibility and a respectable property with regard to social affairs, conservatives should be part of the transition to beyond-fossil fuel, beyond-plutocracy societies. I know there are some of those left in the US (I know a couple) and maybe that’s what most “conservatives” are in Britain. But the irrational, self-righteous, scapegoating of those with no power conservatives of Fox News and the contemporary Republican Party are going down with the ship. If they swim over to our islands of sanity and democracy, we should give them a chance to prove they can be good citizens. But we should not risk ourselves to go out and save them.

      • Radoje says

        I would suggest that a good place to start would be Wendell Berry’s essay “Sex, Economy, Freedom, and Community”. What it essentially boils down to is the old Christian concept (though of course not exclusive to Christianity, but this is the starting point for Mr. Berry’s analysis) of membership. Theological implications aside, I think Berry’s concept of membership is an excellent place to start looking at what building resilient communities will require of us. The idea that we are all members (in the older sense, as parts of the body, as opposed to “members” of a club) of each other and a larger whole has difficult implications for both the Left and Right. Those on the Right will have to give up the idea of empire, and an absolutist view of property rights. Furthermore, if we are members of one and other, then capitalist competition is not an appropriate form of relationship. Likewise on the Left, the concept of membership requires us to accept that we are not all equal “sovereign individuals”, and that we are not free to do withourselves and our bodies as we wish, because we are joined to the larger whole. An acknowledgment that our family, our community, and even tradition (which G.K. Chesterton once called “extending democracy to the dead” may have valid claims which trump our individual freedoms.

        • says

          Radoje, I read Berry years ago and have long wanted to check him out again. I just googled “Sex, Economy, Freedom, and Community” and found a book of essays by that title. It certainly sounds like it will challenge assumptions on both the right and the left and will be helpful for people in Transition. PS — Transition Voice is always looking for book reviewers, so, since I can see that you are articulate, and if you feel like doing a review of the essay, we’d be happy to look at it. If you’re interested, let us know by our Contact Form.

    • says

      I agree that the issue of transition to more local, powered-down ways of life is moral, and harping on the rationality of the science of global warming has probably outlived its usefulness as a propeller of social change (although that’s mostly because certain people will not believe anything that does not fit their preconceived ideas). But I also believe the issue of transition is not “political” in the sense of something to be hashed out thru compromise between partisans. Transition is not a “policy,” it’s an imperative. And you don’t bargain with imperatives.

      Maybe if you have more specific ideas, Radjoe, I will understand your point better, but I don’t see it from here. For instance, I don’t think transition is about “fuzzy, One-World utopian solutions”; it’s about individuals and communities taking radical (to the roots) responsibility for their own existence as the fossil fuels that built and engine our current highly-centralized society dwindle. What should I offer to “sacrifice” to get Fox News-brainwashed dittoheads to face the reality of that situation?

      • Radoje says

        I probably should have been a bit more clear about the “fuzz, One-world utopianism”, which Transition is mostly free of. I was referring to many of the articles found at Energy Bulletin, which admittedly casts a pretty broad net. I would agree that the why of Transition is an imperative (though of course there are many who are ignorant – willfully in some cases of this fact), but the HOW of Transition is not, and that is the question here. We are all of us very skilled at fooling ourselves into rationalizing our own biases and ideologies into imperatives that cannot be compromised.
        I think you mistake my intent, I am not asking you to sacrifice something for the purpose of reaching the brainwashed dittoheads. Instead I think it is important that all of us, regardless of which side or quadrant of the political spectrum we fall in, engage in some very serious self-reflection. There is an excellent book called “Faces of the Enemy: Reflections of the Hostile Imagination” by Sam Keen, which breaks down the various and sundry ways propaganda is used to dehumanize and create enemies. When I read it as a younger man I was very smug in seeing how “they” use propaganda, but as I became older I came to the realization that I used the same propaganda to dehumanize my enemies (real or imagined). I guess my point is that we need to try, as much as it is within our power, to be as cognizant of our own propaganda as we are of those who oppose us.

  3. NEWradical says

    I think the whole idea of left vs. right, conservative vs liberal, is an antiquated notion of identity we as a nation need to overcome. “But it’s so damn hard to change,” one could say. And I agree. The complex ideologies various groups of Americans have ingrained in their cultures is perplexing, and at times juvenile. We as Americans need to break free of these ideological shackles of political identity and realize that the “true” struggle is corporate vs community. And we must realize this corporate bondage is beginning to chip away. That it is time to strike at the throats of these corporate entities, not as liberals or conservatives, but as outraged members of a community that is fed up! The dust from mountain top removal has been falling on Americans eyes for too long. This is an issue that goes beyond political identity and therefore has an incredible opportunity to highlight a new arena of cooperation and retribution. It does not matter who you are marching with, in my opinion, as long as we are marching against mountain top removal. And it will be this issue that ultimately polarizes the people for corporate rule or community pride. Because face it, we can individually believe whatever the hell we want to believe when it comes to ideas like who funds education, or what kind of energy subsidies we want to promote, but if a group truly believes in cutting off my mountain top, I truly believe in cutting off their heads.

    • says

      I’m with you on mountaintop removal coal mining. It’s a crime against the American People. I had a chance to visit with some MTR activists in Boone County, West Virginia and saw how MTR was ruining the Appalachians, fouling the water, threatening communities with sludge slides and floods and polluting the water and air on a regular basis. And on top of it, employment in the coal industry had declined 85% since the 1950s. It was a lose-lose. There have got to be other ways to get our electric power, even if we have to pay much more for it.

  4. Auntiegrav says

    All empires die broke.
    Transition is about looking ahead to what will happen in your local community, and being able to live without the empire. Whether you consider the U.S. the empire, or the Bilderbergers, or the Rothschilds or just The Powers That Be, the same thing applies. In general, humanity is living as though they are dependent upon these pseudogods to grant them some kind of living standards and rights, when the opposite is actually the truth: the masses of people buy stuff and work to produce wealth, and their consuming and working is harvested by a few people who set up systems of systems to keep the masses working and spending.
    If we live as though those systems aren’t there, then our ideologies no longer matter. What matters is whether we are good neighbors or not. A good neighbor doesn’t burn your fields just to get a joy ride in a car. A good neighbor doesn’t tell you how to live, but sets an example of good living.
    Our leaders are not good neighbors, and they never will be. They are the side effect of our behaviors.
    Trying to reconcile one part of the empire with another is a wasted effort when we all see the writing on the wall telling us that the end of the empire is near.
    As Wendell Berry asks, “What are people for?” in a moral sense of purpose, we can also use science to establish what people are NOT for in a sense of reality and physical limits.
    The system of systems has used tools of coercion (marketing) to build itself and our culture into the consumptive humans we are. One of the aspects of modern life is that we now accept Marketing as The Answer to all political influence. By this, I mean that instead of questioning the actual desires of humans or how they behave, we instead simply ask them what their price is to buy our product. This leads to compromising on basic tenets of conservatism in order to get nutjob religious groups and oil companies to contribute to “the cause” of getting elected. It means sensible liberal-minded people try to imagine ways to get these mind-numbed “consumers” to buy the Transition “product”, when the root of the problem is buying and marketing crap in the first place.
    Step truly outside this box and look around at the trees and water and land, and see how 1000 people would figure out how to live without any part of the modern world to draw upon. What would their village look like? How would they treat each other, knowing they all were dependent upon each other?
    Trying to reconcile that common need interest with a divisive, competitive market-for-profit culture is pretty much impossible, yet that is what you are asking yourself to do.
    The people will transition when they have no other choice. A real dependency on change must be established if humans are to be serious about what they are doing for their own future. Anything based on a choice of conveniences is fickle at best, and never dependable. You want solar and biofuels to succeed? Cut down the power lines and don’t put them back up again.

    I have a friend trying to find a place and people to establish an intentional community. She doesn’t understand this yet, but she is learning:
    The land will recruit the people who fit it when those people are ready to give up all hope of the Spandex Future of plastic bubble cities. When we can no longer exclude nature from our lives, then we will take it seriously.

    • says

      It does seem like more people these days are going back to the land. And for those of us still in town, I hope that Transition groups will help us to build resilience on a community level so that our different skills and interests can complement each other.

  5. Sunny says

    Erik, I think trying to appeal to conservatives about transition and peak oil is putting the cart before the horse. Peak oil is not a household word, or even a widely known theory in the US. No American president has uttered the phrase “peak oil.” If you do a search for “peak oil” on, no CNN articles about peak oil come up. It seems to me the transition movement should be trying to connect with a potentially supportive demographic – say educated city dwellers, 25-50, who are concerned about energy issues and the environment – before trying to tackle people who vote Republican. If the transition movement wants to get to the tipping point of 20% of the US knowing the basics of peak oil, why not target likely early adopters first?

    • says

      Sunny, I think you’re right that it makes sense to start with our most likely audience of people who are already into sustainability. Then it can ripple out from there…

  6. Sohrob says

    Hi all, thanks for the intelligent and cordial conversation. Seems rare sometimes! I am curious if the author or readers have had any experience or heard of any bridges being made from Transition to the more libertarian side of the right wing. I ask because as far as I understand the values of self-reliance, personal responsibility, and local community are cherished in a very real way by libertarians, many of whom are against corporate control. This seems like a set of values that really connects to the transition movement. Anyone have any thoughts on this?

    • says

      Sohrob — Thanks for your nice comment. I think most Transtioners would love to find conservatives with a truly libertarian, self-reliant outlook. We link to a little magazine called “The American Conservative” which is quite good. There was also a book a few years back called “Crunchy Cons” by Rod Dreher, all about green conservatives and back to the landers. I’d also like to hear if anyone’s had personal experience with such folks!

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