October 2008 Archives
October 02, 2008 |
How does positive change happen? Some say it’s mainly driven by science and technology——solar power, for instance. For others, the work mostly comes from our inner being. We must, in Gandhi’s phrase, "be the change we wish to see in the world.”
There’s another approach to enacting change -- transforming the systems and processes that determine what can get done, and what does get done, and how it gets done.
Rewriting the rules to favor progress toward sustainability is no picnic. Institutional inertia, red tape, and the politics of ego are just a few of the obstacles that need to be addressed. It requires persistence and patience, and there’s not much glory, but that isn’t keeping cadres of quiet heroes from driving change.
One system that’s attracting special attention is how we organize our, er, organizations. There are currently three institutional sectors——private, public and non-profit. This structure is so embedded in our consciousness that it’s easy to view it as fixed and unchangeable, like our need for oxygen. This is an illusion. "People created our current organizational forms and people can change them too,” says Heerad Sabeti, co-founder and co-chair of the Fourth Sector Network, a volunteer group that has done seminal work in this area.
The need for transformation is obvious. As presently structured, our organizational forms keep people from, to paraphrase the Army, being all they can be. The for-profit form -- especially for publicly traded companies -- requires people to focus solely on profits. Executives can even be sued for subordinating the maximization of profits to a social purpose.
By contrast, the non-profit sector has historically depended on grants and donations, which fosters a mindset that discourages initiative and innovation. As for the public sector, one word says it all: bureaucracy.
People are much more complex and multi-dimensional than these rules of the road allow for. They want to be entrepreneurial and heart-centered. They want to prosper and serve. Our current organizational forms require them to choose Column A or Column B. They deliver half a loaf. Neither people nor the planet fully benefit.
Despite these institutional obstacles, people are rapidly building hybrid organizations that are both profit-driven and have a social purpose.
They have their work cut out for them. "We currently force social entrepreneurs to choose between being a for-profit or non-profit, although this is often a make-do and make-work solution," says Alan Abramson, senior fellow at the Aspen Institute and a professor at George Mason University, This has brought people to a basic question: "why not create a new legal space that has been designed to help social entrepreneurs flourish?"
Momentum is building for a fourth organizational sector that combines the best of the for-profit and non-profit forms, and the potential payoff is immense.
This is the promise of the Fourth Sector.
The concept has gotten surprisingly little press, the one notable exception being a major article in The New York Times. It’s captured lots of underground attention, though, attracting professors, students, lawyers, foundation executives, social entrepreneurs and, yes, the occasional snake oil salesman too.
A wealth of Fourth Sector-related activity is bubbling up in the United States and across the world. Harvard, Stanford, and Duke are among the universities that have established social entrepreneurship centers in their business schools. Venture capital firms for social enterprises are springing up. Certification programs for social enterprises have been launched. Vermont has enacted a statute that confers formal legal status on some types of social enterprise, although the jury is still out on whether there’s steak there or just sizzle.
This boom is growing out of multiple on-the-ground vectors. The trend for businesses to be more socially conscious has been growing. This is reflected in a multitude of new terms: socially responsible business, green business, the "triple bottom line” (financial, social and environmental), and so on.
Meanwhile the non-profit sector has become more business-like in its operations. Foundations are increasingly demanding metrics; more and more non-profits are creating for-profit subsidiaries to fund their operations. A fourth organizational sector comprised of hybrid organizational forms is the logical culmination of these trends. It has the potential to take root across every industry.
This is a hydra-headed movement without a strong gravitational center. If there is a center point, it is the Fourth Sector Network, which has received funding from the Aspen Institute and the W.K. Kellogg Foundation and will be convening the first major Fourth Sector assembly in 2009.
If anyone warrants credit for the Fourth Sector vision, it is Network co-founder Sabeti, who’s been working for years behind the scenes to bring the concept to fruition. Sabeti brings a strong distaste for the spotlight to his work. This is reflected in his views on how best to nurture the Fourth Sector.
"The movement needs to be collectively owned and created,” Sabeti says. "The old models of command-and-control organizing and charismatic leadership will just perpetuate the problems we’re trying to solve. Instead, we need to develop structures that distribute leadership, facilitate massive collaboration, and advance systemic solutions.”
Names have special power: they organize energy around a shared perception. The Fourth Sector is, among other things, a luminous descriptor. It shines a higher-level spotlight on what all the current on-the-ground activity is pointing towards -- a new and sustainability-friendly organizational sector. It helps change agents understand the sea they’re swimming in.
So here’s another spin on how positive change happens. It happens when we can see and understand it. It happens when it gets a name.
Carl Frankel is Senior Writer at Matter Network, and an entrepreneur specializing in sustainability. He is also the author of Out of the Labyrinth: Who We Are, How We Go Wrong, and What We Can Do About It.
(Image courtesy Wikimedia commons.)
It’s an alluring argument. After all, it’s hard to imagine a cash-strapped consumer springing for an eco-friendly party kit over a less sustainable plastic one. Similarly, car buyers faced with lower gas prices due to decreased demand will have less incentives to focus on buying efficient cars, leading to increased levels of carbon and smog-forming emissions per mile traveled. This problem is further complicated by the higher cost of most hybrid vehicles, which are often saddled with high-end gizmos to run up the price.
But the thing is, many bearish economists aren’t simply predicting a decrease in consumer spending; they’re predicting a decrease in available consumer credit. While it seems like a petty distinction—there’s no real difference between paying for something with an ATM card now, verses using a credit card and paying for it at the end of the month—less credit could actually have a significant beneficial impact for the environment by hitting the economy in two of its least green-friendly sectors: cars and housing.
Unlike biodegradable party sets, cars and homes are seldom bought all at once. They require consistent repayment of a debt, and thus are harder to come by in times of tight credit. This mean less incentive for people to simply buy new cars when older ones begin to fall apart. Keeping and old car running has long been touted as more eco-friendly than buying a hybrid, and without easy credit for loans, consumers may have no choice but to keep their old jalopies kicking.
While older cars create more (and worse) emissions, the knowledge that they can’t be easily replaced may reduce miles driven, and lower turnover means fewer cars in landfills and less energy expended building new machines. Tight purse strings at lending institutions might also force consumers into smaller, less expensive cars when they do purchase a new vehicle, even if gas prices are depressed by the weak economy.
Similarly, lack of available credit will steer homebuyers away from larger, less efficient homes. While sustainable touches can do wonders for the resale value of a house, it’s a drop in the bucket compared to the allure of raw square footage. Tough-to-come-by mortgages might also encourage renting instead of home buying, which generally places multiple households into a single, large building, more efficiently conserving energy spent on heat.
So while it may make conspicuous, sustainable luxury a thing of the past, the impending credit crunch is far from a death knell for the burgeoning sustainability movement.
Photo by Flickr user SqueakyMarmot
“Are we paying too much attention to uncertain long-term climate predictions - dominated by greenhouse gas-driven global warming,” asks Professor Mike Hulme, “whilst taking our eye off the more immediate weather futures which will determine the significance of climate for society over the next years and decades?” Professor Hulme’s recent BBC editorial questions the current focus on carbon emissions, citing irregular weather patterns that are becoming all too familiar in Europe. “We will never know empirically on any useful timescale whether or not we have accurate climate predictions for 2050.” He continues, “We may end up just as maladapted and just as exposed to weather risks as if we had ignored global warming entirely.”
Could this really be true? Global warming doctrine states that temperature change will occur gradually and imperceptibly until it is too late, most famously illustrated by the boiling frog in Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth. Yet many cities, even in developed nations, seem to be battening down for impending impacts. London has already announced a water management plan to prepare for heavy flooding, while in the U.S., the city of New Orleans continues to re-evaluate its storm protection systems. Clearly, while the temperature increases themselves may not be directly perceptible to humans, the impacts these increases have on the weather system are very real.
So is it time to start selling people on the immediate effects of global warming, rather than prophesying an unsustainable future some distance down the road? I’m not entirely certain, but I find myself leaning against it. Immediate effects are something that people can understand and endure. In a way, this makes them useful tools; walk instead of drive to the corner store and your basement won’t flood. But that might just encourage people to build more houses without basements.
Even worse, it might make people who do not yet suffer any of the consequences of global warming to continue in their unsustainable daily routines; my basement’s not flooding, so why should I care? The long-term goal of climate change prevention through emission reduction plays off people’s fears that their grandchildren’s basements will flood—and it will be their fault.
Most importantly, the focus on warming over flooding or overcast days attacks the problem at its root. Sure, short-term preparedness will save lives and keep the economy moving, but in the long run, our dollars will be better spend ensuring that today’s preparedness measures remain strictly short term.
Photo courtesy U.S. Geological Survey via Flickr