Trimtab* tactics to move civil society on climate

*A ship’s trimtab is a small narrow rudder on the trailing edge of the much large rudder. To start turning a huge ship, the trimtab is deflected, which initiates the process of turning the ship
by making the larger rudder easier to shift and which ultimately changes the ship’s course.
It was an analogy used by Buckminster Fuller as to how he regarded his own work.

by Richard A. Shirres

As the hope of the Paris Agreement recedes, with the UN reporting1 we are on track for a 2.8°C global temperature rise, and as the distant thunder of ever more amplified climate impacts mercilessly rolls on towards us, here in the UK serious government ‘climate action’ languishes, its credibility further undone by the ‘kick-the-can-down-the-road’ fig-leaf of its globally unjust target of ‘Net Zero’ by 2050. At COP26, the UK committed to reducing its emissions by 72% of 1990 levels within 8 years (2030). The current prognosis in the UK for local climate action, if stirred by civil society, suggests the 2030 target would be missed unless our civil society malaise around engagement about climate is systematically challenged.

Our, at best, casual approach to citizenship and civil society engagement in the UK has degraded considerably in the last four decades. Factors in that degradation include our neoliberal governance, with its stress on the individual, and the fuelled growth of consumerism partially enabled by our car-planned culture, which can be set alongside the loss of community interaction opportunities. On the latter, for example, we can point to decades of ‘house-box’ making with bleak-‘lets escape’- streetscapes and poor quality place-making meanwhile about 20% of libraries have closed in the last decade.

A recent public opinion survey2 suggests only 13% of the UK public do fully understand that climate change is entirely caused by human activity. This is an indictment of messaging by government at all levels and the main stream media [MSM] as a whole. Crucially, the relentless, and unquestioning, reinforcement of the growth paradigm across all MSM and leading political parties defies reality. After WWII, rates of total global material extraction began increasing exponentially. But since the start of the 21st century, global levels of extraction3 have shot past ecologically sustainable limits and now annual rates of extraction are increasing on an ever more rampant exponential trend (With direct implications for both emissions & global ecosystems). Ultimately in real life, exponential trends crash.

Yet around the planet, and even in the UK, there are communities reaching for a different paradigm; understanding that there is ‘another world’ but it needs to be this one; to paraphrase Paul Éluard. Climate scientists, western activists and, especially, indigenous peoples truly understand already the insidious impacts from global heating and ecological destruction. Most of the UK population clearly does not.

Whilst those who are focussed on the climate & ecological crisis mostly cross-fertilise knowledge and actions within our bubbles, we cannot turn our ‘huge ship’ towards implementing societal transformation unless there is a common understanding across the majority of civil society about the causes of the crisis, its actual status and the imperative to act. Only a culture of empowered communities and active citizenship can ultimately provoke a political shift towards the urgent societal changes needed. The first step is to achieve a common understanding by the majority of civil society about the nature of the crisis and actions needed.

The presentation: Towards a Systematic Inception of Civil Society Discourse: The Conjoined Envisioning of Global Climate Impact & Local Community Response, was first given at the Co-operative sponsored Ways Forward Conference in October 2022, in Manchester. Providing some useful graphics, it attempts to outline background and tactics that may help to bring communities together, so to begin adding to the crucially necessary civil society engagement because hope now lies in actions.


1. United Nations Environment Programme (2022). Emissions Gap Report 2022: The Closing Window — Climate crisis calls for rapid
transformation of societies. Nairobi.
2. BEIS (2021). BEIS Public Attitudes Tracker (March 2021, Wave 37, UK). Published 13 May 2021, Figure 4.
3a. Bringezu, S. (2015). Possible Target Corridor for Sustainable Use of Global Material Resources. Resources 2015, 4, 25-54;
3b. Krausmann Fridolin, Simone Gingrich, Nina Eisenmenger, Karl-Heinz Erb, Helmut Haberl & Marina Fischer-Kowalski, 2009. Growth
in global materials use, GDP and population during the 20th century. Ecological Economics 68(10), 2696-2705.


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