Transition Culture

An Evolving Exploration into the Head, Heart and Hands of Energy Descent

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6 Jan 2014

How to discuss Transition with … No.1: Conservatives/Republicans

Laguna Beach

When I visited the US recently, I met Chris Prelitz, and heard his story about how Transition Laguna Beach had set out, from the outset, to ensure that they appealed to the Republican members of their community.  It led me to wonder whether there might be an argument that such an approach is more useful than just focusing our efforts on those who might more naturally be attracted.  So I recently caught up with Chris via Skype to hear more.  It was both fascinating and illuminating. 

The challenge

How to engage the more conservative individuals and organisations in the process of Transition in your community? 

Key points

  • We need to master “bridge language”
  • We need to develop the ability to see ourselves as we appear through their eyes, and master the art of “camouflage”
  • We need to nuance our language and messages to reflect the values of security, patriotism and safety that underpin much of the thinking
  • Many of those in alternative/change movements operate in a sphere of concern, but not in a sphere of influence
  • When you look for it, there is a lot more common ground than you might imagine. 


logoChris Prelitz is an author, designer/builder, and sustainability provocateur. Chris is founder and President of Transition Laguna Beach.  His own home is passive solar, net-zero, and strawbale nestled in a permaculture forest in Laguna Beach, California.

The conversation  

At Laguna Beach’s recent Patriot’s Day Parade, the group won the award for Best Float, with their truck hosting a community allotment adorned with Stars and Stripes flags and watched over by Queen Bee.  Here’s a video of it.  It’s really worth watching, it’s quite something.  Can you imagine your initiative doing something similar at a similar event? 


I asked Chris how he would describe the Republican mindset:

“There is a deep sense of patriotism, people like to wrap themselves in the flag.  The flag represents safety and security and familar values.  It is a mindset that has quite a small sphere of interest.  Yet within that Republican community there are many natural allies, those who love local food, who value local economies, those who love renewable energy, who are fond of the place and its traditions. 

Talking about climate change, about carbon or proposing that people do things “for the Planet” just don’t work, because their sphere of concern doesn’t extend that far.  It’s more about our city, our neighbourhood, our local businesses, the scale that feels familiar and safe.  We talk about what needs to happen so that their grandchildren will have a world that in any way resembles the world they experienced when they grew up. 

My sense is that we need to lean into the Republican identity and the flags.  We have to meet people where they are. It’s the only way to really make Transition work”.  

This resonates with a recent paper by COIN, A new conversation with the centre-right about climate change: Values, frames and narratives, which identified five key values the centre-right hold in relation to sustainability:

  • Pragmatism – responding flexibly to problems as they arise.
  • A willingness to defend existing cultural and political institutions from change.
  • A preference for socially conservative (rather than liberal) policies.
  • Scepticism towards centralist, state-imposed solutions.
  • Belief in intergenerational duty

Transition Laguna Beach have deliberately tailored their message to appeal to this mindset since the group was formed. What, I wanted to know from Chris’ experience, are the things that are a definite turnoff for Republicans in talks or events, the things Transition Laguna Beach intentionally sets out to avoid? He told me:

It is vital that we find the “bridge language”.  There is absolutely no way we will be able to scale this without bridges.  We have to play the game or we lose the room.  It’s a skill.  And it starts before we open our mouth.  When I go to talk to groups, I look like this …

Chris - after ...

I used to look like this ….

Chris - before

It also is in the fonts that we use on our posters, how we word them, and so on. You have to try and squint your eyes and see yourself as they see you.  They are thinking “is this person on my team or not?”  Like any team, there’s a uniform.  Where I live, you can spot the permaculturists a mile off.  There’s a uniform too.  Patagonia is the only brand people feel able to display for example.  It’s just that because we’re in it, we’re unaware of it. 

You could think of it as being like leopards and tigers living side-by-side.  If you’re a leopard and you want to mix with the tigers, you need some stripes!  Smarten up, put on a tie and jacket, it’s the uniform, the camouflage if you like.  For many Republicans, if you’re not on their team, you’re their enemy.  We have to master the aikido approach and the art of camouflage. 

The problem with many greens and permaculturists is that they operate in a sphere of concern, but not in a sphere of influence.  We decided that wasn’t good enough.  We asked “what are our goals?”, and being really clear about that has made a huge difference to our impact. 

Max Isles, president of Transition Laguna Beach, giving a presentation.

Given all that, I wondered, how do Chris and the rest of the Transition Laguna Beach crew communicate Transition when they give talks? 

“We present it as being about patriotism and security.  We argue that our being dependent on oil means that we are giving millions of dollars every year to companies that can harbour terrorists.  When we talk to the Chamber of Commerce, we don’t talk about relocalisation, we tell them we want to help them to enable local businesses to prosper, and to make and sell more produce locally.  If we are talking about the need for more cycling and so on, we talk about the need for safer streets for our children and grandchildren.  Taking this approach, nuancing the language and approach in this way makes a big difference in terms of traction.

We talk about Victory Gardens.  How during World War 2, the people grew food in order to support the troops and the war effort.  We teach young people how to make Victory Gardens.  Given that people often have a very fear-based mindset, it is more useful to talk about “emergency preparedness” than resilience.  We talk about how we can reduce our dependence on imported oil by making our homes more energy efficient while also saving money.  Ideas for how to save money and make money always go down well! What matters most is that we learn to stand within the conservative mindset”. 

Transition Laguna Beach garden

In Michael Moore’s book Dude, Where’s My Country?, he included a chapter called “How to talk to your conservative brother-in-law”, in which he wrote “you know, there are many things about conservatives that we like and believe in ourselves – even though we usually wouldn’t be caught dead saying them out loud”.  I asked Chris what he felt he had learned from his time with those more to the political right than himself:

“There is a huge amount we can learn from it actually.  They are so much better than greens and the left at doing business.  They have business breakfast networking meetings where people share information on what’s going on. Personally I’ve learnt a lot about how to be a better businessman (Chris runs a building company).  I’ve learnt a lot about marketing and networking. There’s a lot there to be learnt”.  

As the group grows and more and more practical projects unfold, I wondered how, within the group, these two contrasting worldviews sit alongside each other?  How do you manage practical projects where people with such contrasting world views are working alongside each other.  Chris told me:

“For example, we do garden installations once a month, where we mobilise people and create a new productive garden.  We know that people working on that project have very divergent views on, say, Obamacare, but we all agree to disagree.  What we can agree on is that local food is a good thing.  We can all agree on that”.  

Lastly, to return to the COIN report mentioned earlier, it was fascinating to read what it proposes as the “four narratives for engaging centre-right audiences more effectively”.  They are localism; energy security; the green economy/‘new’ environmentalism and the Good Life.  All remarkably close to what Transition advocates.  Perhaps, as Transition Laguna Beach are demonstrating, the gap isn’t as great as some might think it is.