Tuesday, October 19, 2010

(unlike some administrations I could name)

I have very mixed feelings about this story, but at least what Nancy Jackson and her colleagues are doing beats sitting around waiting for everyone in America to suddenly see reason:

SALINA, Kan. -- Residents of this deeply conservative city do not put much stock in scientific predictions of climate change.

"Don't mention global warming," warned Nancy Jackson, chairwoman of the Climate and Energy Project, a small nonprofit group that aims to get people to rein in the fossil fuel emissions that contribute to climate change. "And don't mention Al Gore. People out here just hate him."

Saving energy, though, is another matter.

Last Halloween, schoolchildren here searched for "vampire" electric loads, or appliances that sap energy even when they seem to be off. Energy-efficient LED lights twinkled on the town's Christmas tree. On Valentine's Day, local restaurants left their dining room lights off and served meals by candlelight.

... Town managers attribute the new resolve mostly to a yearlong competition sponsored by the Climate and Energy Project, which set out to extricate energy issues from the charged arena of climate politics.

... If the heartland is to seriously reduce its dependence on coal and oil, Ms. Jackson and others decided, the issues must be separated. So the project ran an experiment to see if by focusing on thrift, patriotism, spiritual conviction and economic prosperity, it could rally residents of six Kansas towns to take meaningful steps to conserve energy and consider renewable fuels.

... The project's strategy seems to have worked. In the course of the program, which ended last spring, energy use in the towns declined as much as 5 percent relative to other areas....

Obviously, on the one hand, I would like to live in a country where vast number of people didn't reject solid science in favor of corporate and Republican noise machine propaganda. But we don't live in such a country. I'd love for someone to tell me how we can get heartlanders to change their views -- but until that person comes along, I can't reject this:

At the outset [Jackson] commissioned focus groups of independents and Republicans around Wichita and Kansas City to get a sense of where they stood. Many participants suggested that global warming could be explained mostly by natural earth cycles, and a vocal minority even asserted that it was a cynical hoax perpetrated by climate scientists who were greedy for grants.

Yet Ms. Jackson found plenty of openings. Many lamented the nation's dependence on foreign oil. Some articulated an amorphous desire, often based in religious values, to protect the earth. Some even spoke of changes in the natural world -- birds arriving weeks earlier in the spring than they had before -- leading her to wonder whether, deep down, they might suspect that climate change was afoot.

Ms. Jackson settled on a three-pronged strategy. Invoking the notion of thrift, she set out to persuade towns to compete with one another to become more energy-efficient. She worked with civic leaders to embrace green jobs as a way of shoring up or rescuing their communities. And she spoke with local ministers about "creation care," the obligation of Christians to act as stewards of the world that God gave them, even creating a sermon bank with talking points they could download.

And it worked.

My feeling about just about every idea in progressive politics is that you've got to do something like this. You've got to work to get buy-in from the broad public -- in other words, you've got to get the consent of the governed. That means you have to stop assuming that everyone in America had college board scores in the 99th percentile and got a top-tier college education and maybe a graduate degree or two. It means learning to communicate with ordinary citizens, in part by learning what their beliefs and assumptions are, and starting more from where they are than from where you are.

Many of the advances we're most proud of came as the result of coalitions built with people who clung to some very bad ideas. The Constitution was possible only because of compromises wikth slaveowning states. The New Deal coalition included Southern Democrats who fought to preserve Jim Crow.

In order to make the transition away from fossil fuels, yes, I'll be happy to form a coalition with people who believe global climate change is a myth. Maybe, if we could make the transition effort seem like simple Americanism, the transition could actually take place -- and, ultimately, the skeptics might gradually lose their skepticism.

In any case, searching for ways to sell progressive ideas to non-progressives is what the Obama administration never does. It's what the Democratic Party never does. Left organizers don't do enough of it, either. And until we bring some of these heartlanders around, we're going to keep losing, on everything.

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