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Time to Activate the Trim Tabs

It is an unusually mild morning in February, and the enormous cruise ship moves slowly towards the iceberg. Large and bright, the ice is one of the last of its kind and a reminder to passengers of the rapid melting of the Earth’s polar ice and glaciers: The desire to see remnant ice has created a profitable market for Arctic ecotourism. Suddenly the alarm sounds; a group of scientists on board has discovered a small and unusual error, a miscalculation that was not picked up by the satellite navigation system. Instead of passing the ice on the starboard side, the ship is heading directly for it. A collision appears inevitable.

The scientists are calling out over the loudspeakers, informing the passengers that there is trouble and that action is needed. They explain the problem and assume that everyone understands and will respond accordingly. At the same time, the engineers and technicians are searching for solutions and quick fixes that can save them from danger. Politicians are reorganizing the deck chairs so that they can debate the policies and incentives that will get first-class passengers to agree to change course (at the same time convincing them that it will not disturb their plans for photographing the iceberg).

Civil society is pointing out that the first-class passengers are responsible for the situation because they insisted on this route, merely for the experience of taking photographs of ice. They demand justice because second and third class passengers are likely to suffer the most. The children and youth on the ship are sending messages to each other through their cell phones, suggesting some good ideas for turning the ship, and wondering why no one will take them seriously.

The business community is in a meeting, looking over their extensive investments and considering how to eventually renovate the boat and build a cleaner, greener ship that uses the best of technology, but at an affordable cost. Then there is the group of skeptics and deniers, sitting comfortably in the lounge, ignoring the calls from the scientists. They insist that the instrument readings are wrong, and that the ship should sail on its due course; besides, they have other, more important interests to discuss, including the increasing accessibility of the Arctic’s rich resources.

The media are reporting on the impending disaster, making sure that they spend as much time in the lounge talking to skeptics as they spend talking to the scientists. Meanwhile, the disaster risk management community is making sure that the lifeboats are prepared, that food has been secured, and that passengers are ready to heed early warnings and evacuate.

Passengers are getting confused and don’t know what to do, so they go upstairs to find the captain. Surprise – there is no captain steering this ship! There is a minimal crew, streamlined by the tenets of new public management and lacking the expertise to deal with contingency planning. Leadership is absent, and the ship has been set on autopilot, with the assumption that the free market and technological developments will steer it in the best possible direction. All looks quite lost, and disaster appears inevitable.

Then a very creative and intuitive passenger – an artist – leads a small group down to the engine room. She points to the rudder, and a tiny piece at the end of it called a trim tab. It is a miniature rudder. The artist gently pushes it in the opposite direction of the rudder. Moving the small trim tab builds a low pressure cell that pulls the rudder around, and without great effort, the ship starts to turn. This gentle action has created a substantial shift, placing the ship on a new trajectory. Amazingly, none of the passengers on the ship realize what is going on; they are too immersed in their roles and identities to even notice. The small group recognizes the power of the “trim tab”; and it occurs to them that perhaps small, subtle moves can have significant consequences. Trim tab work, they realize, may be key to responding to complex problems such as climate change.

Climate Change: Turning Things Around
Scientists from many fields have been working together to “connect the dots,” bringing together research results that show how and why the Earth System is changing as the result of human activities. In doing so, they are painting a frightening picture of the future: global temperature increases of up to four degrees Celsius in the coming century, the potential for rapid sea level rise due to accelerated melting of ice sheets, changes in the amount and distribution of rainfall, and acidification of oceans due to increased atmospheric CO2, all of which are likely to be dangerous for humans and other species, and potentially disastrous for humankind. Scientists optimistically estimate that we have only decades to turn things around, and some say it must happen in the next decade.

Turning things around is never easy, particularly when things seem fixed or entrenched, such as CO2 emissions, increasing patterns of consumption, and global poverty. Moving backwards is seldom a desirable option, and romantic notions of “the way we were” often disregard important cultural changes, including greater curiousity about the world, wider and more inclusive perspectives on what constitutes the “we”, and a recognition of interconnections and interdependence.  Turning things around more often means changing direction and heading for a different target. This could include moving intentionally along a more sustainable path – pursuing normative visions of the future that contrast with the realists’ visions of likely or probable futures.

Turning things around involves more than trivial changes; it involves transformations in structures and systems that produce the outcomes that are no longer considered desirable, such as rising atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases. Whether such changes are perceived as viable depends on beliefs and worldviews, and currently there is no global consensus on whether it actually possible to respond to climate change without first incurring tremendous losses. Some consider it technically feasible to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, but politically impossible. Others have a more positive outlook, pointing to the potential for green development and technology to solve problems. However, such changes seldom address social vulnerability, which is considered a prerequisite for adapting to inevitable changes, including changes in extreme events.  Creating a future that is both socially and environmentally sustainable is potentially the greatest challenge for humanity, and it suggests that individuals and groups must work together to turn things around quickly.

The Role of the Trim Tab
The potential role of individuals in “turning things around” is often neglected or underplayed in global climate discourses. Although leadership is emphasized, it is often in reference to traditional authority figures. Individuals are left with symbolic action, such as bicycling to work, recycling their waste, or turning off lights. But those with understandings of innovation often point to another important and less visible role for individuals as agent of change – the role of the trim tab. As described by inventor and futurist Buckminster Fuller, the potential for Trim Tabs is great:

“Something hit me very hard once, thinking about what one little man could do. Think of the Queen Mary – the whole ship goes by and then comes the rudder. And there’s a tiny thing at the edge of the rudder called a trim tab. It’s a miniature rudder. Just moving the little trim tab builds a low pressure that pulls the rudder around. Takes almost no effort at all. So I said that the little individual can be a trim tab. Society thinks it’s going right by you, that it’s left you altogether. But if you’re doing dynamic things mentally, the fact is that you can just put your foot out like that and the whole big ship of state is going to go. So I said, call me Trim Tab.” (R. Buckminster Fuller)

What is actually the work of the trim tab in relation to climate change? Perhaps it is to push gently and intuitively against existing leverage points, creating “low pressure” cells that attract innovative and energetic people that affect change in the larger system. The trim tab does not forcefully try to convince through appeals to reason and logic, but rather connects through the heart to people’s deepest values – the values that resonate with the authentic self, which is often cleverly disguised by fixed identities, or camouflaged by shadows and projections.

Trim tab work is about transformation, but not in the ordinary sense of the word, which focuses on outward changes in composition, structure, or appearance. It is about transformation from both the inside-out and from the outside-in. In other words, it recognizes the connection between personal transformation and systems transformation, and acknowledges the importance of addressing the beliefs, assumptions, and interests that in some cases create change, and in other cases reinforce a resistance to change.

The work of the trim tab is not linear. It calls for what is referred to as “adaptive work” – acquiring the skills and capacities to deal with personal challenges, in order to assist others through the difficulties and disequilibria associated with transformative change.  Characteristics of disequilibria often include anger, frustration, confusion, struggle, perceived limitations, self-sabotage, disempowerment, discouragement or paralysis. This suggests that instead of “pushing” against resistant forces, trim tabs look for the “Aikido” moves that align forces to change outcomes. Trim tab moves do not directly counteract the prevailing current, but instead harness its force to induce the desired change.

Succesful trim tab work has two requirements. First, the key leverage points must be correctly identified, so that efforts and energy do not push things into the wrong direction, exacerbating problems instead of alleviating them. This calls for careful analsyis combined with intuition and wisdom. Second, individuals and groups who can carry out the trim tab work must be mobilized, energized, and supported. Identifying, understanding and negotiating strong forces, entrenched interests, and powerful resistances to change requires self-understanding, compassion and wisdom. The urgency of addressing climate change suggests that a “more of the same” approach is unlikely to create the desired results, and that it is time to activate the trim tabs.

(This perspective appeared in Norwegian in SNU – BREV TIL KLIMAGENERASJONEN, a 2012 book project by the Norsk Klimanettverk , edited by Aleksander Melli and published by Cappelen Damm)

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