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How to Change the World?
Alex Steffen, 16 May 04

I will no longer be using the term "social entrepreneur."

Social entrepreneurs -- individuals with drive and insight who seize upon new solutions for societal problems and implement them in the real world -- are hot now. The theory goes that successful change relies on new ideas, good timing, adequate resources, but absolutely demands effective leadership, "good people doing good things." If you want to change the world, the theory of social entrepreneurship goes, get the right people involved and set them free.

Sure. But despite some real strengths, the idea of social entrepreneurship, like its symbiant "venture philanthropy," seems to act like a magnet for fuzzy thinking. Beyond the category error involved (social change is not a business, and philanthropy is not an investment, and taking these terms as more than analogies can lead to really poor decision-making -- points we'll come back to), the term "social entrepreneur" is being slapped on all sorts of people and efforts who are not in the slightest way innovative or dynamic leaders, much the way the "change agent" or "catalyst" were last decade.

I think "social entrepreneur" has officially lost its usefulness.

David Bornstein's the leading writer on the subject. The author of the fine book "How to Change the World: Social Entrepreneurs and the Power of New Ideas," Bornstein studies social entrepreneurship and what he calls the "Citizen Sector":

"Consider: Virtually all of the development work in Bangladesh is today handled by 20,000 non-governmental organizations, the vast majority of which were established after 1985. In the former communist countries of Central Europe, between 1988 and 1995, more than 100,000 citizen organizations opened shop; many are responding to the problems left behind by five decades of communism. Twenty years ago, Indonesia had only one independent environmental organization. Today, it has more than 2,000. India has over a million citizen organizations - doing everything from alleviating poverty to protecting the environment to promoting the rights of the disabled. And in the United States, even with its long history of social entrepreneurship, 70 percent of registered nonprofit groups are less than thirty years old. Indeed, what has happened in recent decades is that, across the world, the arena of society historically concerned with the creation of 'social value' - an arena that, until very recently was run like a command economy (top-down institutions, centralized decision-making) - is beginning to resemble a market economy, populated by millions of diverse, decentralized and flexible institutions founded by self-motivated entrepreneurs.

"As the "Citizen Sector" has emerged, it has become clear that it has more in common with business than government. In particular, like business, the citizen sector is an operational sector which thrives on a healthy mix of collaboration and competition and draws its energy and dynamism from a diverse array of talented entrepreneurs. In fact, social entrepreneurs serve the same functions as business entrepreneurs: they envision new opportunities, gather resources, build management teams and organizations, overcome resistance and market their ideas.

"In business, centuries of experience have demonstrated that the most effective way to promote systematic innovation and adaptation is to foster conditions that encourage entrepreneurship and healthy competition - and then to invest significantly in the best performers, while allowing the under performers to go out of business in such a way that they 'fail forward,' preserving the gumption to try again. This same process can be applied to social entrepreneurship. Indeed, the most powerful thing that can be done today to accelerate social innovation and improve problem-solving is to create a framework of economic and social supports to multiply the number and the effectiveness of the world's social entrepreneurs. The benefits will be shared by all."

Well, perhaps... but. The problem with all this, again beyond the category error (that social entrepreneurs are doing new things, some people in business do new things, ergo, social entrepreneurs must be like business) is that the myth of the entrepreneur in American business (singular, bold, visionary, sweeping aside the stale verities of the past -- which is really what we're talking about as the model here) is not a particularly helpful model for how innovative leaders ought to manage their affairs when looking to change the world today.

Because changing the world today is all about the network. It's about playing well with others. Certainly one needs boldness and inspired leadership to undertake any worldchanging mission. But one also needs new models, new visions, willing allies and ready resources. And I would submit that these things far more often emerge from collaboration and networks than they spring from the foreheads of Fountainhead-style visionaries. When doing social change work, the strength and quality of the connections matters at least as much as the leadership zeal of any particular node.

That being the case, business (at least business as it functioned in the 20th Century) is in fact exactly the wrong model for leadership development. You don't want to train a whole mess of egotists who excell at making funding pitches to boards. What you want to do is train people to collaborate effectively, to build networks of innovation and communication, to spread tools and swarm problems and maximize the impact of available resources. Nourish the network!

That doesn't mean that they idea of trying various approaches and supporting those which prove effective is a bad idea -- of course it's not -- but framing this as competition for "performance" can quite often be poisonous.

Competition has its uses. But its important to distinguish competition within a framwork of collaboration from a war of all against all. Open source programmers compete fiercely for prestige, but they do so within a context in which all are made more effective.

And because the most important aspects of any truly innovative approach to social change are almost always intangible, almost always about relationships, trust, morale and the kind of conversations that forster genuinely insightful thinking and action, an obsession with performance metrics (and anything which means funding or its lack quickly will become an obessesion) distorts the entire project, since the most important parts of it are only tangentially measurable at best.

We're beginning to learn what makes collaboration work well. We're still only groping towards how to help collaborative leaders do better work, and we're barely out of the wrapping when it comes to crafting effective philanthropy for networked, collaborative efforts. But that's the work we need to be doing now, and I'm afraid the rhetoric of entrepreneurship is now more harmful than helpful in getting that work done.

We've talked before about the transcommercial enterprise model. What we're talking about now is its social change analog. Finding and growing that new model for social change will really change the world.

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Good article! The same sorts of things might also be said about the term "social capital".

Regarding open source: I think there's a fundamental difference between an open source leader and a traditional leader (or entrepreneur). A person like Linus Torvalds doesn't set bold plans, decide the next big thing, and so on. Instead what Linus does is review a great many patches and ideas, picking out the good ones for inclusion in Linux.

Same sort of thing applies to web sites. The best people to run big web sites are probably the ones that are good at filtering and filing, not being original.

Posted by: Paul Harrison on 16 May 04

Sometimes, the task of a leader is to promote a vision and let others figure out how to get there. The website I co-founded with a friend,, attempts to do precisely this for the big idea of democratic global government.

Posted by: Jane Shevtsov on 16 May 04

Great article Alex - hey I thought you guys didn't post "negative" articles here? Though I suppose the tone was mostly positive in the end.

Anyway, I'd like to point out a couple of things:
(1) Al Gore's push to "reinvent government" was based on a model of creating an environment of competitive entrepreneurship for government services (some things can be privatized, or retained as government departments but with a service/metrics-oriented attitude). As we've seen with the Iraq war, there's a very wrong way to go about privatization. But I think in principle this was a good idea, and a good response to the critics of government inefficiency - if Congress had let it go very far.

(2) In fact, rather than business and entrepreneurship being at one pole, and government and philanthropy at the other, I would argue the two real poles are "small organization" vs. "large organization". Large organizations, whether business, government, or non-profit have a strong tendency to bureaucratize and sclerotize with time, and start to strongly resemble one another. They tend to seek monopoly advantage and optimize on subsidiary pursuits (self-preservation, stock price financial wizardry, good-ole-boy networking and "cronyism") rather than be truly effective at their original intended purpose.

Small organizations can get distracted too, but the "marketplace" for whatever it is they are doing can act as a strong selector against ineffectiveness, at the small scale, and it's much easier to replace them. For example our own corrupt local town council (it's been in Republican and mob-connected hands for decades) is finally being replaced now the people have woken up to abuses; and there was always the option of moving to another town...

But there is a real challenge there in creating and ensuring fairness in our comparison of organizations, and as you say, Alex, a lot of what they really do isn't measurable by a quantitative metric. It is in itself a constantly changing problem.

How does the "network" help? I see it as providing new ways for organizations with just a few paid staff or leaders to effectively organize and lead very large groups of self-selected volunteers: for example the way "Meetup" has worked. I.e. the network allows small organizations to do some really big things. And that's good.

By the way, Jane - I like your space emphasis, but we already have democractic global government - through the UN and various other international treaties. We don't think of it that way much, but really our world is now a loosely federated democracy, with some oligarchic influences at the largest scale. We don't need to establish a new global government, we need to improve the one we've got. Borders won't go away - states in the US are themselves quite distinct entities, and the nations of the world aren't going to disappear any time soon.

Posted by: Arthur Smith on 17 May 04

By strict definition an entrepreneur is not necessarily an idea person/visionary, but an organizer and catalyst, so I would argue with your assumptions about what the term represents, Alex. Perhaps rather than dropping the term we should promote a vision for entrepreneurial activity in a network society - it's just as important to change the way business works as it is to adopt network models for world-changing organizations.

Arthur, re. "reinventing government" and privatization: it didn't work because private visits optimize for efficiency, but regulatory bureaucracies have to adapt to legislation no matter how inefficient. I.e. you can't ignore the laws that drive your processes simply because they don't support efficiency. When I was a government worker in a past life I saw more than one situation where private sector folks during the "reinvention" phase stepped into government bureaucracies certain that they could eliminate inefficiency and do the work of government better than the bureaucrats that preceded them, because they hadn't considered the inherent constraints on processes that result from legislation. Their attempts to "fix things" were disastrous.

Posted by: Jon Lebkowsky on 17 May 04


Thanks for your thoughtful article. It's stimulating as usual. I've been giving some thought to social entreprenuership and venture philanthropy and believe that you have spotted some genuine issues. This is true of the "category errors" and especially the fact that "social change is not a business." (Although runnning a social change business might be...) I also agree that both notions are magnets for fuzzy thinking.

A few reactions:

Changing the world today is about changing the network. The network is the "value space" that social change intiatives occur within. In my mind's eye, this is like the value net that Brandenburger and Nalebuff use to map a company's market space. It includes not just customers, but suppliers, complementers and subsititutors. Fountainhead-style visionaries (consider that meme out and on the loose) often see just customers and competitors (substitutes).

To change the network, push strategies (such as training, and empowering with new tools) must be matched with pull strategies (changing customer wants/values, supplier products, and complementer capabilities).

I am struggling with how to get my head around this topic as a non-philanthropic funder with a public-benefit mission. I appreciate your thoughts, keep writing!

I look forward to other comments.

Posted by: David Rankin on 17 May 04

Paul - I think your point about open souce leaders is a good one. Obviously, the parallel between Linux and other collaborative efforts isn't an exact one, but that said, it'd be worth exploring collaborative leadership in greater depth.

Arthur - certainly large and small organizations have different characters, but I increasingly think that it's not very accurate to say that civil sector organizations are just businesses with a different ROI. A small NGO may need some lessons in how to function as a business -- in our systems, all organizations need to keep accurate books, have a cash flow, etc. -- but the whole set of aims which a good NGO seeks to serve must be evaluated and pursued in ways which almost never make any business sense if they are to create real change. It's the failure to recognize that the most important parts of NGOs missions are non-monetary, even non-measurable, that I think accounts for the relative ineffectiveness of many BINGOs.

And I think the network does what you suggest -- allows small NGOs to harnass the power of a much greater number of volunteers and supporters than would have ever even known about the cause before -- but it also does something to my mind more important: it allows a huge variety of "small parts, loosely joined" to come together rapidly and solve particular problems, break up and reconstitute themselves to solves others, and so on... and it's being networked that makes this possible.

Jon - "Perhaps rather than dropping the term we should promote a vision for entrepreneurial activity in a network society - it's just as important to change the way business works as it is to adopt network models for world-changing organizations." This may be exactly right. I'd like to kick this around more.

David -- This "Changing the world today is about changing the network" made my brain go "ping!" I'd love to hear more about what you mean.

Posted by: Alex Steffen on 17 May 04

Alex - you wrote:

the whole set of aims which a good NGO seeks to serve must be evaluated and pursued in ways which almost never make any business sense if they are to create real change. It's the failure to recognize that the most important parts of NGOs missions are non-monetary, even non-measurable, that I think accounts for the relative ineffectiveness of many BINGOs.

But.... the monetary aspect really isn't the central aspect of a (small) business organization either. It's a component, but many businesses run with little or no profit for a long time, and yet their owners are quite happy. Look at your typical business "mission statement":
- if it was really just "maximize profits" for every business out there, we'd be in a rather sorry state. Businesses aim to provide goods or services that people need; each one is pretty much unique in at least some aspect of this. Governments and NGO's aim to do something quite similar - the main differences they have from businesses are that the services or goods they provide are in areas that are needed, but people have trouble paying for directly: "public goods", etc.

Even with a "bottom line", entrepreneurs can easily have missions that are as difficult to measure as that of a government or NGO. A company I know quite well has promotion of a space-faring civilization as part of its founding philosophy, but what it actually does is quite prosaic: still it provides for-free services to space advocacy organizations. How do you measure that impact? Only in the owner's satisfaction in what he does, I think. Pretty much the same goes for the "entrepreneur" behind an NGO.

Posted by: Arthur Smith on 17 May 04


Ok, I'm going to be a contentious git here. I think that, fundamentally, capitalism works incredibly well and should be learned from.

Although nobody *likes* it, nobody can replace it or do without it. The regimes which did were, with only one or two exceptions, the worst murder-states in human history.

Different places harness or constrain Capitalism to different degrees and there's evidence that - like fire - it's a good servant (hello Sweden) but a bad master (hi, America). But, fundamentally, if you have enough food to eat, you're almost certainly in a capitalist country.

I'm beginning to feel that capitialism is like Churchill's quote on Democracy: "absolutely the worst system of government, apart from all the others."

The "myth" of the American entrepreneur isn't. 80%-90% of American companies are family-owned, including 37% of the Fortune 500.

This model actually works incredibly well.

Now, you can say "but the network works better" - and I'd agree. Once you *have* a fully developed capitalist-type infrastructure, the network begins to perform much better than pure-competition models. But I've yet to see evidence that, without that infrastructure, networks function very well at all.

But if you plant oaks right after a forrest fire, they die. You need the infrastructure built by opportunist organisms which stabilize the soil, provide shelter and alternative grazing etc. first.

Knocking, or talking about replacing, capitalism is very fashionable... in capitalist countries. Everywhere else, people are pushing for it as hard as their governments will allow them to.

So, firstly, some props for Capitalism. It build the tools we use, when all other systems had not, and probably could not.

And, secondly, if we're talking about changing the world, Capitalism is doing it, right now, and being incredibly effective in meeting it's goals. Networks are still, largely, theory. The Fortune 500 is practice.

Posted by: Vinay on 17 May 04

Oh, and FWIW, the open source software movement is, actually, not a democracy, not a meritocracy, but a feudalism.

Projects are roughly equivalent to Kingdoms, and the project leaders divvy up responsibility to those Able Knights (programmers) who've proven their worth by deeds (Patches).

If the King becometh a Tyrant, those Knights may rise up and Fork, creating a New Kingdom (project).

Some projects have a "democracy" in as much as a group of developers or a foundation rules the roost, but under open source licenses, "FORK!" as the basic political act.

A *democracy* - a rule by the people - would require projects to have some notion of "enfranchized citizens" who voted. Don't confuse "anybody can participate" to "will of the people prevails" - they're amazingly different.

Feudalism may, in fact, be the right political model for rapidly colonizing new territories. I have nothing against it, per-se, by the way.

Let's just be clear: the leaders of open source projects are not constrained by the will of their users, or their developers. Nobody can tell them what to do, and the only political act which the "constitution" (license) of an Open Source project provides is the right to fork. This is not democracy.

Posted by: Vinay on 17 May 04

Heh. Yeah, and sorry if I'm in contentious git mode this morning. Just one of those days. I'm sure I'll be more polite later!

Posted by: Vinay on 17 May 04

Vinay, you contentious git, you ;)

If you heard me saying capitalism has to go, you heard wrong. Indeed, I'm all for business entreprises which provide needed goods in a socially-responsible way.

But businesses, as currently operated, are not the only, or frankly even the most effective, model for the pursuit of social change.

As for the myth of the entrepreneur, the myth part is not that there are entrepreneurs, but that they function in isolation, as heroic individuals. Heroic individuals do exist, but they're thin on the ground: most leaders are parts of groups and networks of people who are working towards an end.


(Um, and I don't remember claiming that collaboration = democracy...)

Posted by: Alex Steffen on 17 May 04

Point taken. But if one more person holds up "Open Source" as a democratic insitution....

Here's a question: do you feel that networks are *more* effective than business-style organization in a context without pre-existing, massive business infrastructure?

Do you feel that the top-down nature of business helps, or impedes, Getting Things Done?

I'm less contentious now, but I'd really like to dig down on this a bit. I look at the 2 million people on Friendster, and yep, by god, that's a big network... and then I look at General Electric...

Perhaps we've been approaching this from different ends....

Posted by: Vinay on 17 May 04

Vinay, as a failed open source King, let me say: Kings and Knights is a bad model. I'm sure it happens all the time in open source, but those projects that use it don't get very far. Trying to tell programmers what to do is like trying to herd cats.

But, I agree that open source is not a democracy. Eg, Guido van Rossum of Python fame has the semi-serious title of "Benevolent Dictator For Life". I think this attitude is pretty common, and works well.

Maybe a better metaphor is a Queen and her Court. The valiant Knights of the Court forever quest in search of gifts that will earn them the favour of their Queen. :-)

Posted by: Paul Harrison on 17 May 04

Paul, either way, it's feudal, not democratic. I suspect it varies from project to project. I also didn't mean to imply that people took *orders* from the project leader, but rather to point out how "ownership" of a project is goverened.

Posted by: Vinay on 18 May 04

Thank you for the thoughtful critique of "social entrepreneurism," Alex. I have been thinking about this quite a bit.

Perhaps one reason this concept is so attractive right now in the U.S. is that long-standing practices for finding funding are falling apart, in part due to the economic downturn, and in part due to subtle but systemic overhaul and eradication of state and federal funding sources for secular, progressive community-based work. A lot of great organizations with vital missions are probably going under while the funders and the NPOs wrestle with what comes next. Entrepreneurism does not answer the financial question for many NPOs.

Posted by: Emily Gertz on 18 May 04

A couple of little points.

Vinay, you write that capitalism works 'amazingly well' - but for whom? I'm dubious if it works well for those billion people or whatever on less then a buck a day. I think we need to make some distinctions when we make such statements.

I've just started reading Hernando de Soto's "The Mystery of Capital: Why Captalism Triumphs in the West and Fails Everywhere Else". His main argument seems to be that the West has devised ways of 'creating' capital from assets - such as land (ie deeds) and that the Third World does not have the processes and legal mechanisms to create capital - thus the wealth of the third world is not recognised in a formal market system.

As Alex writes "It's the failure to recognize that the most important parts of NGOs missions are non-monetary, even non-measurable..." As far as I can see this problem exists beyond NGO activities. Both capitalism and also the modern nation-state require something to be measurable before they recognise it's existance -- let alone it's worth.

Posted by: Zaid Hassan on 18 May 04

Hrm. Zaid, I think that functionally most of those 3bn people are still living in basically feudal cultures.

Also, the process of unionization is incredibly important in the distribution of wealth created by capitalism: in, say, Britain, there was always the threat of "Trouble Up At The Mill" resulting in the owners of said mill being lynched by the workers who lived all around them. It kept the game honest.

But when the owners are protected from the workers by thousands of miles and the US Military, the prospect of an uprising seems remote, and people seem doomed to the pre-union standard of living, forever. The workers have no possibility of effective use of force against the owners now, and that greatly alters the flow of events as cultures adapt to factory jobs.

However, if the system works for only half of humanity, that's still incredibly important. 3bn people making a good living and enjoying relative prosperity is still far, far more than ever before.

Posted by: Vinay on 18 May 04


Yes, open source is feudalism. I have not disagreed with you on this. Though there is no vow of fealty, there is an implicit social contract and standards of behaviour. Members of a project do tend to defend their leaders.

The word "ownership" i disagree with. The open source movement is all about giving up ownership of information. What that leaves is that some people are listened to, and others are not. As you say, there is always the right to fork. One may say "listen to me", and people will listen or not.

I think this forking feudalism model is a good one, not just for "colonization" but for the long run. It is not democratic, but democracy is not the ultimate ideal government, it is (was?) just "the least worst form of government".

Posted by: Paul Harrison on 19 May 04

Feudalism on an infinite plane is, indeed, interesting as an idea, and it might be appropriate to this part of the "homesteading of the noosphere" or whatever we want to call moving the ownership of the critical means of production into the hands of the workers^H^H^H^H^H^H^H people.

The freedom to choose your leaders, not by voting for one or another, but simply by following whoever you choose is interesting.

Posted by: Vinay on 19 May 04

Vinay. I find it so interesting that when anyone uses the past as a barometer.

That the past was worse than the present or the future is to me debatable. Regardless of the truth of the matter - we're not heading into the past - so why use it as a baseline? How is it useful except in a psychologically comforting sense of 'oh well at least it's better than living in the Soviet Union.' It doesn't make sense to me because no one here is proposing that we return to such systems. If the past were our sole measure for progress and we assume that things are so much better then why strive for something better than the present? Why not go fishing?

It reminds me of Nehru's speech when India gained independence. "The ambition of the greatest man of our generation has been to wipe every tear from every eye. That may be beyond us, but as long as there are tears and suffering, so long our work will not be over."

Posted by: Zaid Hassan on 19 May 04

The past is important because it gives great reason for optimism: things really are, by and large, getting better rather than getting worse, I believe. That may not always be so, but it's largely so right now (from my point of view). If you don't think so, the rest of this is going to be nonsense.

Wealth - real wealth - is increasing very, very rapidly, and even if trickle-down is broken, life still improves. How much was a bottle of penecilin worth in 1850? How much would a 4'x8'x1" slab of diamond cost today? My bet is that, before I die, a 4'x8'x1" slab of diamond will cost less than the equivalent sheet of plywood.

I don't believe in "micro-robots" style nanotech, or complex assemblers, but I do believe diamond-sheet for less than twenty bucks. Within my lifetime.

Conversely, I use the past as a baseline because it's an excellent indicator of the future for many things. Perhaps not all, and we can't know *which* things it's an excellent indicator, but through most of known time, trends have been progressive when not interrputed by discontinuities, which tended not to come all at once. Most of the time, most things are only a little different tomorrow and yesterday.

I really believe that looking at the past tells us that life is getting better, rapidly, for a lot of people. We can argue about psychological suffering in the west/north vs. psychological wholeness and pnysical malaise in the medieval peasant, but I think that's largely technoangst: life is by-and-large better in the north than the south, and in the present than the past.

Those are blunt statements unencumbered by the million provisos which should be there, averaging across decades and billions, but that's how I see it. Given the choice, I'd live now, in America, over any other place on earth. And I do. Any American who wants to leave can, and few do, where as millions upon millions come to American from Mexico, or try and win green card lotteries - or pay body smugglers to get them in.

People want what we have here, this Northern Modernity.

Knowing that, we can then say "well, if the present is working better than the past did, why?" - look at the changes in conditions which have helped, and those which have harmed, and attempt to export what was useful. The peasant farmer in Bangladesh or China or Mali lives in conditions substantially like those of the peasant farmer in 14th century france. What the modern european has, which the farmer in Mali does not - food security, health care... All of that is modernity.

The past matters because it's an incredibly important way of understanding not just trends, but the present in which many people live.

William Gibson said something to the effect of "the future is here, it's just not evenly distributed" and that's a really core concept for me.

One of the most important insights into the condition of the world came to me when I realized that Americans are, in fact, Aliens. Our whole mythology of little guys with super science, incredible technology, who travel between planets in flying saucers is a myth which helps us understand who we are to the rest of the world.

What do I mean by that?

Consider the core points of the Alien Narrative:

* super-advance science
* incredible technology
* travel from incredible distances
* transport in flying metal vehicles

All of this applies to Americans visiting pre-Industrial Revolution peoples, be they Jungle dwellers, or peasant farmers, or (frankly) many slum dwellers. All of our cultural feelings about Aliens: fear, curiosity, wonder, envy... all of our speculations about invasions, or hybridization of culture or genome, or trade for goods we don't understand...

All of it is echos of ourself, the American Cultural Mind processing things on a mythic level.

We are the aliens. We are from the future. The better we understand our past, and the past of others, the more likely it is we'll act appropriately.

$20 (adjusted for 2004 value) for a 4' x 8' x 1" thick slab of diamond before I die. Anybody want to take that bet?

Posted by: Vinay on 19 May 04

Hi Arthur,

You wrote, "we already have democractic global government - through the UN and various other international treaties." The UN and other such institutions are certainly valuable but they are neither democratic nor government.

The UN represents nations, not people. We do not vote on who represents us -- in fact, we usually don't know. And the Security Council, with its anachronistic veto, is profoundly undemocratic. Complicated proposals for democratizing the UN have been floated, but keep in mind what George Monbiot said about two such proposals in his recent book _The Age of Consent_: "If a government announced that it intended to abolish parliament or congress and replace it with a union of the country's thousands of local councillors (many of whom know nothing of national politics), which would seek to legislate either as a vast and sprawling body or by means of even more obscure subcommittees, that government should expect to be overthrown. If it were to suggest that the task of representation should be handed instead to a forum of voluntary organizations, either self-selected or chosen by some all-powerful ombudsman it would never recover from the ensuing ridicule."

The UN is not a government because its decisions are not enforceable. In the rare situations that such enforceability is possible, like Security Council resolutions, the only options are sanctions or war. That's not how a government works. Governments make laws and then hold INDIVIDUALS accountable. That's the key difference between government and everything else -- and only global government can eliminate war. A global government may well be based on the UN, but it would be a UN redesigned almost beyond recognition.

You're right that borders won't go away. That's why the site's name is World Beyond Borders, not World Without Borders. The idea is to transcend nations, not destroy them.

Posted by: Jane Shevtsov on 19 May 04

Optimism is largely a psychological matter - and I have no need to derive it from the past and nor do I feel a need to combat any feelings of hopelessness at the state of the world. Mainly because I never feel hopeless. Those that do, for whatever reason, require psychological mechanisms from which to derive optimism.

This doesn't mean I'm dismissing the past - on the contrary, I believe it's entirely reasonable to live your life in the present but orientated to the past (in the West we are trained to live our lives in the future orientated to a future that never arrives).

I think the US is the last place on the planet that I'd like to live - no offence intended. I'd much rather live in Zimbabwe or South Africa or Brazi or Egypt. The US is a bell-jar - it's cut off from reality and to think that it can remain cut off forever, is a fallacy. I feel the need to be connected to whatever it is that's unfolding in the world and that connection drives me to make change.

As for the sheet of diamond wager. Ummm I might be missing something...but so what?

Posted by: Zaid Hassan on 20 May 04

On the sheet of diamond: it's relevant because, frankly, it's technology like this which is going to dig us out of our environmental hole. The materials technology behind solar panels, LEDs, wind turbines, lightweight cars - all of that stuff - is critical to our current environmental efforts. Better technologies will, eventually, lead to much lighter environmental impacts for a given standard of living.

How would our environmental impact change if it was possible to pull carbon out of the air directly into consumer goods made from diamonds?

How long before that becomes a reality? 30 years? 50 years? 200 years? The answer is probably not "never."

The game can change, radically, through advances in science, engineering and manufacturing. And the people paying for those advances are western consumers. Solar panels, I believe, came out of the space industry.

As you know, I'm a huge fan of my own particularly weird vision of appropriate technology, or of rolling first-world style amenenities out to the villages. A lot of that is about cherry-picking first world technologies (FM radios, LED lights, small solar panels) and deploying them. The rest of it is about using first-world science and local materials and skills (the filtron, the pot-in-pot refrigerator, wood gas stoves).

The pot-in-pot refrigerator could have been discovered any time after the invention of pottery. But it wasn't: it took knowledge developed in the west, through the mechanisms of science, to make it. I'm all for people claiming science as their own, and integrating it into their cultures, but credit where credit is due: western culture is where this capability was incubated and nurtured over something like six hundred years. That breakthrough is what has made it possible for so many people to have such high material standards of living.

Like it or not, we're masters of the material universe in the west.

Our cultures are devoted to understanding, mastering and exploiting the material world for our own wellbeing, comfort, and psychological gratification. And little else.

It's caused horrendous problems, and there's certainly worse to come, but that doesn't mean that the rest of the planet can't learn from what we've achieved, which is the highest standard of physical wealth in the history of humanity.

I'm working towards a future which tries to replicate the best of what has been achived in the west, but without the exploitation, and the gross overuse of material goods to subsitute for psychological needs.

Western science, local skills and materials, and use of ultratechnology (vaccines, solar panels, turbines, fuel cells) where appropriate.

America certainly is in a bubble. But what comes out of that bubble into the rest of the world!

Yes, you can say "my god, the overconsumption, the war" - and it's all true.

But also the immense investment in medical research, the enormous support of environmentalism at a grass roots and academic level, the huge science, the containment of horrendously worse regimes (the former soviet block, China, North Korea).

It's a big, stupid, oafish country. But it's also the place where the technologies of the future are being prepared and paid for, and we are going to need that stuff if we're going to be able to sustain a human population of more than about a couple of billion people at any standard of living higher than medieval farmers.

Posted by: Vinay on 20 May 04

On feudalism etc. - very few organizations, whether business, NGO, or government department, are themselves actually democratic - most have relatively rigid pyramidal hierarchies, semi-feudalistic "staff" arrangements, etc. Individual open source projects are like any regular organization in this respect. But collectively, the free and open competition they foster leads to a profound democracy of ideas and implementations. This basically ends up the same as the free and open competition between NGO's and other "social entrepreneurs" and activists for the resources they need to change the world. But the competition is against a background of government grants and wealthy corporations and others who may have their own agendas... I'm not quite sure where that leaves you...

Jane, on the UN - a weak government is still a government, and a partial democracy is still a form of democracy (what we call democracy in the US and other modern nations is "representative" - we don't all meet and decide on all the issues, we elect people who do that for us). The security council members' veto power, which somewhat resembles the early power of the kings of England in its evolution to a democratic state, is certainly a problem. But in principle, the general assembly acts on majority vote, and the majority of the people of the world now live in nominal democracies, and elect representatives who in turn decide who will represent the nation at the UN. The general assembly resembles the US Senate with one representative from each nation. An even more democratic form for the UN would include a representative legislature, with people elected proportional to population, rather than one per nation.

But the UN isn't the only piece of our current world government: the WTO, World Bank, the IMF, NATO (de facto armed forces for at least a third of the world now) etc. operate outside of UN auspices but in effect determine world-wide policies and regulations on a wide range of issues. Again these bodies are quasi-democratic, being staffed by people selected by, for the most part, elected leaders of the nations.

Certainly it could be more democratic, but we'll get there by evolution, not revolution.

Posted by: Arthur Smith on 20 May 04

Vinay, you certainly express the reigning worldchanging worldview eloquently. I've had plenty of discussions with Alex about this but I'm not convinced on the massive gamble we're making that technology will get us out of the deep, dark hole that we've dug for ourselves. My frustration and hope is that we can learn to be a bit more humble about our abilities - especially in the face of the fact that as 'masters of the material' we may well have driven the world down an apocalytpic path.

I wonder if the West is making the tech bet because it really doesn't have faith in itself to change its own nature. Or is it a case of 'give a man a hammer and the whole world looks like a nail'? - ie we don't have the skills of changing human consciousness and behaviour so we opt for using whatever tools we're more familiar and comfortable with, that is, a simpler technological solution.

Simply mitigating the negative effects of technological development - even it were possible - isn't going to change destructive behaviour. People will still be shooting each other, shooting up and vegging out in front of televisions regardless of the 'environmental sustainability' of such actions.

Re revolution versus evolution. Those who find the current situation unbearable will opt for revolution - in the West life is largely tolerable and so we can preach a slower evolutionary path. This isn't good enough for many in the developing world and we need to at least recognise that reality.

Posted by: Zaid Hassan on 20 May 04

Hi Arthur,

Yes, a weak government is a government, but even a weak government has power over individuals. The UN, WTO, etc don't. They deal with nations and, in a few cases, groups like corporations. Still, that's theory. The real question is what sort of world political system you would like to have.

I expect a combination of evolution and (hopefully non-violent) revolution. But I'm only pointing out a destination. I don't know how we'll get there.

Posted by: Jane Shevtsov on 20 May 04

Zaid, I'm hardly a conventionalist, even here!

My long term picture of the world has almost the entire population living in relatively low-tech, stable equilibria - peasant farmer with high-tech amenities like solar panels. A few high-tech centers produce the vaccines, panels etc and everybody else eats what was grown in bicycleing distance from home.

That's what a sustainable planet looks like with the technologies we can *reliably* bank on having: technologies we have today, or small extensions of current technologies.

However, the flip side of that is that we don't know how much of the whole nano/bio/whatever revolution will come, and when it comes, how much difference it will make. I think there's well over 50% chance of cheap, plentiful diamond components in my lifetime, and I think that's an educated guess. But it's only a guess.

In fact, I think the most important environmental work I see right now is this:

1. Figure out the sustainable harvest of the planet.
2. Divide by the number of human beings.
3. Design a pleasant lifestyle on that yeild.

Because, fundamentally, anything other than this is going to be nonsense, as far as I can see. We need to figure out what our means are, and how to live inside of them.

There's a lot of running around yelling about 50 MPG cars, which is fab and all that, but we're still screwed when a billion new vehicles get added in the industrializing world. It's "bargain thinking" - "we saved 50% so who cares how much it cost!"

The notion that we can somehow gradually reduce our impact is basically nonsense, as far as I can see.

Posted by: Vinay on 21 May 04

Right :-)

I heard the other day that India spends $3 billion per year storing surplus grain. While it sounds a little high, the point is that I'm not sure we know quite what's needed. I figure we can start by taking responsibility for what's close to us.

My feeling, mind you its just a feeling, is that we operate on the basis of a number of facts that are in fact assumptions.

But I agree with you in principle.

Posted by: Zaid Hassan on 21 May 04

I think a big issue is that people are measuring using the wrong yardstick all the time: they say "15% reduction in CO2 emissions" rather than "drop from 15 times sustainable levels to 11 times sustainable levels".

It's a huge, pervasive perceptual problem: it makes people feel like they're doing well, while concealing just how far away we are from our goals.

And you're probably right about the facts/assumptions. There are a lot of dodgy numbers going around...

Posted by: Vinay on 21 May 04

Interesting article. I run a non-profit called the Global Ideas Bank and we specifically focus on social INVENTORS rather than social entrepreneurs. People with genuinely new, creative ideas for improving the world we live in. They get recognised far less than either technological inventors or social entrepreneurs, but are just as important. I also have issues with the whole concept of "social entrepreneurship"....there's a lot of interesting stuff going on in the UK about the third sector at the moment: "community interest companies", Oxfam starting coffee shop chains and music download sites, the blurred edges between non-profit, charity, business, enterprise....and so on.

Posted by: Global Ideas Bank on 28 May 04



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