on Transition Towns

prepared remarks for a panel discussion with David Korten and Tina Clarke On Building Local Economies at NY Green Fest 2011 on August 6, 2011

 

Looking at some of the major trends of the past twenty years paints a bleak future for our country. Those trends include the consolidation of mass media; the exporting of our manufacturing base; the Democratic Party’s abandonment of it’s New Deal compact; the bi-partisan embracement of military as well as financial imperialism; the re-emergence of immigrant scapegoating and the mainstreaming of racism since Obama’s election.

As those who rule America grow ever more isolated, ordinary people find themselves voiceless. As jobs disappear and homes are foreclosed, Americans are not only left powerless, other than the ‘Tea Party’, they don’t even have a forum to express their frustration. This is a recipe for social disintegration.

Many among us have been working hard in support of single payer, ending the wars, marriage equality, minority rights and against hydrofracking. These campaigns are critical for the survival of our civil society. But for the most part, they are single-issue campaigns with a strong, national component.

We need to think broader and smaller. To prevent society disintegration or to minimize it, we need to explore different models of building grassroots activism.

One option is Transition Towns. Transition Towns provides a model for local communities to positively address the declining availability of oil and the effects of climate change. Transition Town initiatives do not have to be bound by municipal boundaries; they are established within neighborhoods and on a regional basis. The beauty of Transition Towns is that each initiative sets it’s own programs and goals.

Transition Towns creates the opportunity for members of the community to meet, many for the first time, and work together to support local agriculture, promote local businesses, to develop alternative modes of transportation, to promote cultural activities as well as to work with existing organizations such as athletic associations, churches and civic groups.

The polarization of the national political discourse has resulted in a society that neither respects the opposing view point, nor acknowledges the shades of grey in-between. On a local level, Transition Towns can help re-build and nurture respect and trust within a community.

Earlier this year two score of us took the first steps to implementing a regional Transition Towns initiative. Those efforts have yielded groups working on aging in place; time-banking and working with a local municipality to find a cost-effective, environmentally friendly option for upgrading their sewage treatment plant. Other on-going projects that TT members participate in are community gardens and developing walking and hiking trails.

All of us here this evening are committed to improving our environment. Many of us here this evening are also committed to helping build the Green Party. All of us need to become engaged with or help start a local Transition Towns group where we live. Doing so will help build both of our causes.

Looking Backward to Go Forward

address to the annual state convention of the South Carolina Green Party, May 14, 2011

 

A generation ago, America and the rest of the world found itself in un-charted territory.

1980 saw the birth of Solidarity. Founded in the shipyards of Gdansk, it stood as a beacon of hope for ordinary working people in Poland and throughout the Soviet Empire. In less than 10 years time, not only had the Berlin Wall fallen, but the Soviet Union was forced to retreat from Afghanistan. Other than Romania, the regimes of Eastern Europe fell for the most part bloodlessly.

While the 1989 protests in China were drowned in blood, what we best remember from Tiananmen Square is the anonymous man who for a few brief moments, stopped the tanks, armed only with his bravery.

Two years later saw Boris Yeltsin facing down the tanks of an attempted military coup in Russia.

An African-American, Barbara Clementine Harris was consecrated as the first female Anglican Bishop in the world. Douglas Wilder and David Dinkins respectively became the first African-American Governor in America and New York City Mayor.

In 1990 Nelson Mandela was not only released from a lifetime prison sentence, but despite the decades long repression and bloodshed that began at Sharpville in 1960, his release led in the end to a peaceful transition to majority rule in 1994.

With the Good Friday Peace Agreement of 1998, the Irish Republican Army agreed to a ceasefire, which with exceptions from breakaway groups, still holds today.

It truly was a time that anything seemed possible. The world was ready to find new ways to work in harmony. What happened instead was that our leaders failed us. World-wide, our civic, religious, military, political and governmental leaders shrank back from the unknown and have ever since retreated into an ever growing restrictive cocoon of fear, prejudice and tribalism.

In The Future of Man, the French philosopher Pierre Tielhard de Chardin wrote about the spiritual evolution of mankind, describing it as a ever-narrowing spiral, reaching towards a peak of perfection, i.e., God. He termed this spiritual envelope that surrounds not just the individual, but the entire world, as the Noosphere.

Since our leaders stepped back from the brink of the unknown, Chardin’s evolutionary spiral has been spinning backwards and since 9/11, gathering steam.

Civil liberties in America are being eroded beyond recognition, especially if one is, or looks like, a Muslim. Or a Latino. Or, as ever, an African-American. The Patriot Act remains intact. Guantanamo is still open for business. There is an American Military presence in virtually every country on earth. Armed militias have patrolled our border with Mexico, with little Federal opposition.

Many of the nations that appeared out of the former Soviet Union, have quickly slipped from potential democracies into one party or one man rule. Russia itself remains a democracy only for those who remain in Vladimir Putin’s good graces.

In France it is now illegal for a woman to wear a face veil. In Italy it is legal for the Prime Minister to have sex with teenage girls.

As the Catholic Church has yet to come to terms with over 20 years worth of reporting of sexual abuse by it’s clergy, the Anglican Church is poised to split by the issue of the ordination of homosexuals.

The traditional friend and champion of the working person in America, the Democratic Party, has climbed as deeply into bed with Corporate America as the Republican Party. As they’ve put on a brave face in Wisconsin, the Democratically controlled legislature in Massachusetts has passed a bill eerily similar to what Wisconsin Governor Scott walker has proposed.

The Democratic Governor of NY ran in 2010 on an anti-union platform. The Democratic Majority leader of the NY State Assembly continues to approve rebating the stock transfer tax which in 2010 amounted to 16 billion dollars, which means the 10 billion deficit the state faces has been artificially created. By Labor’s friend.

In West Virginia, the Democratic-led Government has become a shill for mountain top removal.

As the twin perils of climate change and declining oil resources become ever more apparent, our political leaders refuse to seriously address either because to do so would threaten the profit margins of those they are beholden to. Publicly they talk about the need to preserve jobs, as they continue to support a decade-long trend to export manufacturing jobs overseas.

Hidden in the background is the struggle of ordinary Americans attempting to deal with rising health care costs, declining employment opportunities, under-water mortgages, school budgets cut to the bone, all of which lead to divisive social movements.

Perhaps most disturbing are two growing, but not so recent, trends. First, we have become an impatient society, one that expects and demands instant gratification. Only the latest smartphone; wi-fi enabled TV; sneakers or stilettos; breaking scandal or ‘Snooki’ status can satisfy us.

Secondly, and even more dangerous to our societal unity; we no longer respect those with whom we disagree. Without respect, there can be no compromise. Without a willingness to listen to others and find common ground, our backbones and principals stiffen as we grow ever more isolated within our cloistered circles.

These two trends only make the task more difficult for those seeking long-term solutions to making America a more just and equal society. These trends have altered the primary focus of our political leaders, whether they be in Washington, Columbia or Albany. The focus is no longer on finding solutions, rather it is gaining or retaining political power. With rare exceptions, all else fades into insignificance.

One striking example of the thirst for power at the state level occurred in June 2009 in Albany, New York. For decades, New York had a ‘divided’ government; a Republican controlled State Senate; a Democratically controlled State Assembly; with the Governorship switching hands. As a result of the November 2008 elections, the Democratic Party captured the Governorship and held a two-seat majority in the State Senate. Within days, five Democratic State Senators from the NYC area threatened to caucus with the Republicans unless various demands were met. While they were eventually brought back into the fold, or should I say, bought off, that June a ‘coup’ occurred when two of the “gang of five” switched sides. Why? Money.

Traditionally earmark spending in New York has been split 90% to the party in power of it’s respective body (State Senate or Assembly), with 10% to the minority. Within days of the announcement that the newly Democratically controlled State Senate would follow precedent, the Republican ‘coup’ occurred. As a result, governing came to a complete stop for months in the State. Finally a compromise was arrived at; a 75-25 split in earmarks. So much for equal status for all New Yorkers.

All the while the Governor David Paterson, the lamest of lame ducks, continued to talk about the growing budget deficit and was met with resounding silence as the legislature engaged in their schoolyard fight.

Is it any wonder that the two established political parties are held in such disdain?

So what does all this mean for the future of the Green Party?

First of all, let us remember that the Green Party as a national organization is only 10 years old. For those who remember the heady days of Ralph Nader’s 2000 Presidential campaign it might seem that our party has fallen mightily.

However, the predecessor of the national party, the Association of State Green Parties, held it’s founding meeting in November of 1996. So if we choose to date the national party from this meeting, the Green Party as a national organization has been in existence for only 15 years.

To put this in perspective, our predecessor, the Association of State Green Parties was only in existence for four years when Nader ran as a Green in 2000. Yes, the number of states that have ballot status has fallen, as have our vote totals and the number of registered Greens. While our size is indeed smaller today, the Green Party continues to exist and run winning candidates at the local level, with 135 Greens currently holding office nationwide.

For a political party that refuses to accept corporation donations, we should be celebrating our continued existence, and our legacy of local success.

We cannot and must not be dismayed by the normal ebbs and flows of politics. In the wake of Obama’s historic election, the pundits were writing off the Republican Party. Within two years they took back the house.

While many of us are dismayed by our inability to break through at a state or national level, let us take inspiration from our northern neighbors. Not only has Elizabeth May become the first Green MP in Canada, but the New Democratic Party, became the official opposition. While the NDP has been the ruling party at one time or another at the provincial level, it has taken fifty years for this social democratic party to achieve broad-based national success.

Will we have to wait fifty years? Let’s hope not, but let us not give up either.

Recently I’ve come to believe that Nader’s run in 2000, while of immense short term benefit for our party, may in fact have been a hindrance to our long-term growth. The ASGP had little, if any, national infrastructure to support a major campaign or the skill sets necessary to maintain it’s rapid growth, post-election. With such a meteoric rise to national recognition, the ASGP, followed by the GPUS, had little place to go other than down. It’s also easy to forget that every political party goes through cycles of growth and decline.

While many party activists, such as myself, became Greens because of Nader, it is time to put behind us the internal divisions left in the wake of being labeled a “spoiler party”. We Greens have far more in common with each other than we do with those who currently rule our country.

Do I wish that Nader had not run as a Green in 2000? Not at all. Not only have I voted for Nader more than once, he was the person who inspired me to run for office. It was only after listening to him speak many times on the importance of citizen involvement in local government, that I decided to seek office. To this day, I remain unsure if I was inspired or guilt-tripped. If it weren’t for Ralph Nader, I would not be standing here today.

As stated earlier, if the Green Party can be said to have a legacy, it is in our success at the local level. We must embrace that success and build upon it.

But what path shall we take?

Among the movements that Greens are active in are the environmental, anti-war, civil rights and health-care reform movements. These movements are important and it’s right that we’re engaged in them. These movements would seem to be a natural ally, but in many cases the activists in these groups are either deeply committed to the Democratic Party, or do not believe in engaging in electoral politics. So we need to look beyond the traditional left-wing, protest movements.

We cannot walk away from participating in mass movements. Nor should we. But to grow our party, each local chapter needs to find it’s own path to local integration in it’s community. Those paths can include community gardens; food-co-ops; local athletic associations (imagine the impact a GP sponsorship board hanging on the little league outfield fence could have), support networks for the elderly or youth, and of course, churches.

These are not sexy groups, but they are the foundation of a successful community. Participating in community volunteer groups such as these, will bring us into a broader circle of people than those engaged in ‘political’ movements. In time, we will not only earn their respect, but also earn their votes. The more connected we are, the more candidates and volunteers we can recruit.

With the number of union endorsements of Green candidates we saw in 2010, Greens who are Union members should also be active in their locals. As the Democratic Party continues to shift to the right, the greater the opportunities for the Green Party to work with those who helped build the modern Democratic Party; labor, women, African Americans, immigrants and the gay & lesbian community.

One group that is a natural constituency for the Green Party is Transition Towns. Founded a few years ago in a small English town, Transition Towns is a model for guiding local communities who wish to deal pro-actively with climate change and the declining availability of oil. Unfortunately there doesn’t appear to be any existing Transition Towns groups in South Carolina. So it’s time to get one started.

Why local?

We need to build upon our strength. In the long run, the stronger our local chapters are, the stronger the state and national parties will be.

We need to start thinking of our local elected officials as being part of a farm system. Where appropriate, we need to encourage them to use their experience to run for higher office. Each step up the elected ladder is an individual and party success.

As we develop strong community ties, it will become normal for our candidates to address civic groups such as the Lions, Elks, Rotary Clubs and volunteer fire companies. No, these organizations will not offer endorsements, but their members vote. With strong community ties, we will not be calling as strangers to arrange speaking engagements, but as friends and colleagues.

As a party with a skeleton structure and even smaller treasury, we must be creative in developing an audience beyond those in the ‘movement’. It is only with ‘non-movement’ votes that we will be able to win state and federal campaigns. Must we water down our message? Absolutely not. What I’ve outlined above is a different paradigm for growing our party, not an argument for diluting the message.

There is a second reason for building strong, local chapters. That is to try and prepare our communities for the twin effects of climate change and declining oil. It’s doubtful if these two trends will lead us to a rosy future. The greater sense of community, trust and resiliency that can be nurtured now will help prevent a slide into chaos in the future.

The revolts that have swept across North Africa into the Middle East this year all began as popular revolts. While America does not share the same level of political repression, we do share some of the same issues that fueled the revolts; unresponsive government, lack of well paying jobs, ever-more expensive health care and crumbling infrastructures.

To say that such revolts can never happen here is pure foolishness. To predict when and how they will erupt here is impossible. However we can be certain of this; a popular revolt will be met here with force, and soon after one begins, someone will attempt to direct it. Let us try and put ourselves in a position where we can have influence.

The presence of a strong Green Party chapter may be enough to keep a local revolt rooted in non-violence.

While Hamas and Hezbollah have a long and violent history which as Greens we condemn, they along with the Muslim Brotherhood also have a firm commitment to community building. We are a long way from being large enough to develop similar community building programs, but unless we dream big, we’ll never reach beyond where we currently are.

In the aftermath of the 2006 Israeli invasion of Lebanon, I can remember watching Fox News with my late mom. After one report about Hezbollah helping to rebuild homes, schools and hospitals, mom said in a very puzzled way “aren’t they supposed to be the bad guys?”

Ordinary people appreciate and trust those who contribute to their local communities, especially in times of trouble. Let us build the Green Party into such an organization.

An action plan for local candidates

As stated above, it’s important for our candidates to reach far beyond what are considered our natural allies. Considering that most Americans are deeply dissatisfied and distrustful of government and politics, our potential audience has never been higher.

Those considering a run for office should consider the following…

  • Attend as many meetings as possible for the position you’re considering running for
  • You must be prepared to discuss with the media and in debates the issues being addressed by that board
  • By attending regularly, should you be elected, you will be prepared for the process and it is less likely that you will be frozen out
  • Talk before and after the meetings with the local reporters. When it’s time for you to run, you will have already established a relationship with the press
  • If you run for an executive position, the last thing you want to face is having to chair a meeting without having previously attended one

Run on the issues that are relevant for that office. If you’re running for Mayor or council, an anti-war position should be far down the platform. If you’re running for Congress, likewise issues such as local control of schools or the level of property taxes are irrevelent.

Pick out two or three issues that are of prime importance and be prepared to discuss them in depth, and most importantly, offer solutions for them. Solutions that can actually be met.

If your community lacks a League of Women Voters or some other group that organizes debates or candidate forums, reach out to your opponents and ask if they would be willing to participate in such a forum organized by the local civics or government studies class in the high school.

Approach the civic organizations mentioned earlier about addressing them. Most of these organizations have monthly luncheon or dinner meetings and are always seeking speakers. Doing so will earn their respect, if not their votes.

All press releases should be written in such a way that they sound like news stories, and they should be delivered electronically. Weekly and neighborhood newspapers are always looking for material; copy and paste is often one of their favorite reporters.

I would like to close these prepared remarks with these points.

First, we need to nurture not only candidates, but staff as well. We need to encourage our younger members and followers to seek internships and jobs as staff members with non-profits, government agencies and elected officials irrespective of political affiliation. What is the use of working to elect Greens to state or federal level positions if we cannot support them once in office.

Secondly, once in office, a Green can best build our party not by engaging in overt political work, but by doing the best possible job as he or she can do. Nothing can do more to earn respect and votes for the Green Party than for our elected officials to be seen as serious officeholders, who not only listen, but lead.