What is the Role of Social Entrepreneurs? Nothing Less Than Saving the World.

I am a bit more cynical than most social entrepreneurs, but no less optimistic. I started and closed Citizen Effect for financial reasons, however at the end of the day, I wasn’t doing anything other than generating good “I’m saving the world” anecdotes. Let’s be very clear – the role of a social entrepreneur is just that – to save the world, nothing more; nothing less.

We all have to be very clear about the time in which we are living. Climate change, water shortages, food shortages, the threat of wide-spread infectious diseases, and other global threats challenge human life on this planet as we know it. Not in the future, but right now. Actually, yesterday. The difficult truth is we have created an unsustainable economic, social and political system that draws so greatly on the environment, that massive ecological systems human kind has marveled at for millennia are now failing all around us. Our society isn’t unsustainable around the fringes, but at its very core.

That sounds dramatic, but it is something we all (assuming you are not a climate change denier) know to be true. Which is why I find it very troubling that when I ask my friends if they believe in climate change, they say emphatically say “yes!” But when I then follow up with “then you – the hybrid car-driving, TOMS wearing, fair-trade coffee drinking consumer – are the problem,” they get all pissy with me and tell me I am going overboard. And to be honest, I often get this way with myself. But the math, the science and the logic all point to the same place – we, as a species, are killing ourselves off by killing our host – planet Earth. And people you know – you kids, nephews, nieces, grandchildren, etc. – are going to get to experience a big part of it.

The troubling prevailing logic is that we can consume our way out of this problem, as long as the products and services we consume are “green.” This would be laughable if it wasn’t such a widely held belief.

STOP! Just stop. And think.

Albert Einstein said, “We can’t solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them.”

The consumer-based, free market system and the wealth it has created (for some, like those of you reading this blog, and the one writing it) is so all pervasive that we don’t even realize we are using a sledge hammer to try and solve every problem. We know that businesses create negative externalities that cost society dearly (e.g., fossil fuels), yet we are asking businesses to save the world. We have an amnesia that causes us to forget that Gandhi wasn’t a CEO. Martin Luther King, Jr. wasn’t the Director of Communications. And Rosa Parks didn’t own the bus company.

The business sector has an important place in our society, but it is not society. It’s ironic that the three rules of successful investing are diversify, diversify, diversify, yet when it comes to solving the world’s problems, we are now putting all our eggs in the consumer-driven, free market basket. Go to any of the major conferences claiming to address the world’s most challenging problems – The World Economic Forum; The Clinton Global Initiative; The SRI Conference on Sustainable, Responsible, Impact Investing; SOCAP and others – and they preach two things – we must address “root causes,” and social enterprise and corporate social responsibility can address those root causes.

But wait. The root causes is over consumption, so how in the world can more consumption solve the problem?!

So what is a social entrepreneur supposed to do? Simple – break shit. Excuse the language, but that should be the social entrepreneurs mantra. Break the existing system and find ways to create new systems, new ways of doing things. Stop finding ways for people to buy things to address their needs, but eliminate their needs to buy things in the first place. Re-think the market. Re-think the government. Re-think it all. And please, for the sake of us all, re-think education because even when our education system works, we are only educating our children on how to perpetuate the end of their world.


11 responses to “What is the Role of Social Entrepreneurs? Nothing Less Than Saving the World.

  1. Thought this mighr be of interest:

    “What is not guesswork is that the broken – again – capitalist system, be it traditional economics theories in the West or hybrid communism/capitalism in China, is sitting in a world where the existence of human beings is at grave risk, and it’s no longer alarmist to say so.

    The question at hand is what to do next, and how to do it. We all get to invent whatever new economics system that comes next, because we must.”


  2. Hi. came her via Guardian Soc Ent after seeing your comment there.
    So – you and I may be in a similar position, I had to temporarily stop The Living Furniture Project to deal with a private family matter but once had taken the time to stop and breathe, realised there were things that needed tweaking (in particular that there was one of me and I needed maybe two more!) and also far more financial resources required than I could bring to bear at that time in my life.
    Project is indefinitely suspended now while I work out what to do and concentrate on journalism (still writing a lot on inequality, homelessness, human rights etc.) Hope to relaunch at a later date.

    I really like BREAK SHIT, and had never thought to extend it into political systems and also the market itself. I’m interested in alternative business models – bartering, time banking, shared ownership etc. and I think this should be at forefront of social entrepreneurship

    Just to challenge on one point

    “The troubling prevailing logic is that we can consume our way out of this problem, as long as the products and services we consume are “green.” This would be laughable if it wasn’t such a widely held belief.”

    And my question is Why not? The negative externalities you speak of are environmnental – if these products are 100% green, then what’s wrong with selling more of them? Even if they are 95% green, isn’t it better selling more of those and less of the -5% green ones?

    Isn’t it about a mix of using free markets systems, for as far as they will take us, and then pioneering new ones – like timebanking, ridesharing, bartering etc.

    PS “pioneering” might be wrong word, i realise these concepts are old but digital technologies allow us to do them again. and it’s been so long since we did some of them that they might as well be new 😉

    I blog at http://www.unequalmeasures.com would love to swap a post with you at some point

    • Alastair,

      One of the problems with “green” products is that we’ve come to think “better” means “good” – and people actually consume more! (eg studies found that people who bought hybrid cars drove more miles after the purchase and ended up using the same amount of fuel as they had in their petrol driven car!) So we end up with the same production/consumption issues but people less concerned because they think they’re doing good. They’ve found similar pattern in products associated with good causes. Also, 100% green products are almost non-existent – even my organic locally grown carrot came to me by truck.

      I also personally believe that our current views of people as consumers first and foremost, with shopping seen as a leisure activity not a necessary chore, actually diminishes us as people and as a society. The alternate models you are talking about (which are growing at a grassroots level worldwide) change that significantly – the exchanges are much more genuine and communal in nature, nurturing a whole different aspect of our humanity.

  3. A similar argument on spirituality can be found in Tolstoy’s wildly underrated short story (more platonic dialogue) Walk in the Light While There is Light. It may be a little overbearing on the religiosity, but the point is brilliant. To effect true change, no vestige of the established order can be retained, and everything we as a society accept as true and proper is delusional window dressing. Only by a complete rejection of the world and our current condition can we take the first step towards true progress. It is not coincidental that Gandhi’s groundbreaking methods were influenced by Tolstoy’s moral writings in his later years. A peaceful rebellion, was, in effect, BREAKING SHIT in the ways of the early 20th century.

    Should we really be surprised that as children born of a society based on consumption that we would feel an urge to turn to consumption to solve our problems? The logic we can hardly help but to employ is lot like the future humans in Idiocracy – well, of course we need to water plants with Brawndo, it’s got what plants crave.

    I agree with Jeff, asking what to do next and how to do it is the next step, but I’d venture to say the social entrepeneur should not just be required to break shit and find new ways to do things, they should then stand on the front lines and be men and women of action. They must not just be deconstructionists and firebrands, they must be architects and, most importantly, masons.

  4. Dan and Alastair,

    I find myself idling, ticking over, since our founder died on mission.
    I’m often reminded of Dylan’s ‘ten thousand whisperin’ and nobody listenin’ line from ‘Hard Rain’. To me “50 voices” underlines thousands of voices shut out. A hegemony in many ways.

    Our initiative to leverage social enterprise in Ukraine cost us tens of thousands and was brushed aside by what I see as corporate showcasing, The vulnerable children we made our primary focus, too much a challenge for the risk averse.

    Save the world, by all means. I’m, up for it if you agree that we’re all Spartacus in this regard.


    • Jeff, yes, the ability of corporations to social good wash is increasing because many entrepreneurs are branding themselves as social entrepreneurs when in fact it is only a marketing tool for them. Best, Dan

  5. Hi Dan,

    I think one of the hardest things for most social entrepreneurs to grasp is that they need to work with a model of getting people to buy better – not more. And in buying better, naturally buying less. This requires very differently constructed marketing (working with people’s higher values, to ensure consideration of the broader community & the environment in their purchases)

    We also need to stop promoting the idea of social enterprises having to “scale up” to be considered successful. We need to instill the concept of “growing better” rather than growing bigger – and explore what this means. For example, many social enterprises only incorporate social into one or two aspects of their business, such as who they employ & what they do with their profits. they could “grow better” by advancing their social aspects to full social supply chain; circular thinking on product design, use, repair and disposal; investment choices; social & sustainable production and marketing methods; choice of product outputs; distribution options etc


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