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green@work : Magazine : Back Issues : Mar/Apr 2002 : Frankel-y Speaking

Frankel-y Speaking
You Say You Want a Revolution

Well, yes, but it's not about violence. It's about creativity.

by senior columnist Carl Frankel

At the closing session of last December’s Sustainable Enterprise Summit, hosted in Washington, DC, by the World Resources Institute (WRI), the spirit descended on your humble columnist and he spoke up. From my usual place toward the rear of the auditorium, I averred that, in my opinion, we were all revolutionaries in that room. (A representative from ExxonMobil, excuse my language, was present, but I was speaking generally.)

When Jonathan Lash, president of WRI, made his concluding remarks, he returned to my observation and said he disagreed. We were “change agents,” he noted, and that was different.

That was the end of the dialogue. Until now. Here’s my response (and I suppose you could say I’m Lash-ing out at him): “What we sustainability advocates want, writ broadly, is to transform the global industrial economy and to do so in a space of 20 or 30 years or so. This is a massive undertaking, and a radical one. What is this if not a revolution?”

That said, I think I can understand where Lash was coming from. When we think of revolutions, we tend to think of change imposed from outside the system: the mullahs in Iran, Fidel upending Batista. The sustainability community is trying to make change happen from the inside. Ergo, we’re not revolutionaries.

There may be another reason why Lash pulled back from the R-word. Historically, revolutions have almost always been violent. That is anathema to those of us whose souls have been curdled by the blood of the last century. For just about everyone in the sustainability movement, violence is unacceptable, period. The guillotine just doesn’t cut it.

Lash had it right in saying we’re change agents. We are—but we’re change agents in a hurry. A big hurry. And that makes us revolutionaries, even if the notion makes us squirm. I mean, let’s get real here: how else is one to characterize a group of people with goals as transformative as ours? It’s just that these old associations—with outsider status, with violence—don’t apply any more. These times really are without precedent, and familiar words have fundamentally different meanings now. Starting with revolution.

In a sense, violent revolutionaries had it easy. They could change things very fast—all they needed was a certain political caginess and a talent for ruthlessness. In foregoing violence, we sustainability advocates have imposed a major design constraint on ourselves: Dramatic change without violence. How can we possibly do it?

There is an answer to this question, and it is one the sustainability community is actively pursuing: by replacing violence with creativity. Collectively, we are trying to put together the proverbial offer-they-can’t-refuse, or rather, a whole host of offers-they-can’t-refuse, not by threatening the powers that be godfather-style, but by making the offer so appealing, so logical, so all-over irresistible that they can’t possibly say no. We are trying to drive the revolution by charming them in their hearts and minds and wallets.

This new revolution, which is at heart a design revolution, has three components.

The first is technological. Our carbon-powered global industrial machine is spewing pollutants and greenhouse gases into the air at record rates, devastating human health and the environment in the process. This will end. Fuel cells, already well on the way toward commercialization, are the first step toward the pollution-free hydrogen economy that awaits us sometime in this century. How quickly the transformation will occur remains unknown, but it will happen, as they say in FedEx-land, absolutely, positively.

The second element is structural. Collectively, we are trying to make our institutions more responsive to the unique requirements of our time. Yesterday’s institutions have never been any good at meeting tomorrow’s needs, and tomorrow keeps coming at us faster all the time. Doing something about this is one of the sustainability community’s great challenges. In all three major sectors—business, government and the social sector—people are trying to goad, tweak and otherwise persuade institutions to revise their strategies and aspirations. It’s rough going, but progress is occurring. The boundaries of business are stretching as concepts like “sustainable business,” “socially responsible business,” and “cause-related marketing” let in fresh air. Similarly for governments, which are trying to get less bureaucratic and more effective, and for the social sector, too, where innovations such as venture philanthropy and economic sustainability are emerging.

There’s a problem here, though. The boundaries of these three sectors can be stretched only so far. The track record of the last 10 years has delivered a double message. First: these institutions do have a certain amount of “give.” Second: darn it all, they’re pretty inelastic. We need deep changes in our institutions—public corporations that are as committed to public benefit as they are to shareholder return, governments that are as kick-ass entrepreneurial as businesses, non-profit organizations that don’t rely solely on the kindness of foundations. How, to reprise a theme, do we bring about these deep-level structural changes while practicing non-violent revolution?

An answer to this question is emerging. It hasn’t occurred sooner because Big Ideas often emerge out of extended bouts of experimentation, and that’s what’s been happening here. The essence of the Big Idea is this: rather than re-invent the existing sectors to meet our needs, why not design an entirely new sector that fills the bill precisely? It’s a way around the so-called “legacy” problem, a computer-industry term for the headaches that come from having to build new systems on top of old ones. Ever wonder why Windows can get so moody? It’s the legacy problem: Windows XP rides on top of, hang onto your Pentiums now, that prehistoric artifact, DOS. (Come to think of it, homo sapiens has some legacy problems of its own—its inability to respond vigorously to any but the most immediate and palpable threats, for instance—but that’s another matter.)

Business, government and the social sector are all burdened by overwhelming legacy problems. Clearly, we need to patch them up and improve on them as much as possible—since when was damage control not necessary?—but we need to do something more than that as well. We need to specify the design criteria for a sector that can effectively address the sustainability crisis, and then bring that sector into being. A Frankenstein monster? No. The Linux of sustainability . . .

This is the aim of the Fourth Sector Network, an informal and still-embryonic network with roots in North Carolina’s Research Triangle area and participants around the country. The Fourth Sector, whose birth the Network is aspiring to midwife, would be entrepreneurial like business, and dedicated to the public good like government and the social sector. Its legal duties and capital structure would support, not obstruct, its mission. Specifically what these parameters would look like remains to be seen: this revolution is still under development. But it is a direction we need to move in.

There’s a third component of the revolution, too, and this may be the most difficult one of all. It’s about language—about words and the meanings we impute to them. Jonathan Lash objected to my use of “revolution,” I suspect, because he read into it things I didn’t mean. I had in mind the scale and rate of change required; he was associating the term with Bolsheviks and such. (Or so I believe.)

It is worth asking on a regular basis, as a sort of ongoing meditative practice, just how much our assumptions about the world conform to the world as it really is. This, in turn, requires us to keep updating our understanding of what words mean. What, for instance, does “revolution” really mean? Is “advertising” about selling products or about molding consciousness? Is CNN a news outlet or a purveyor of morality tales? Is creativity something artists have, or is it an aptitude we all have that can be super-charged through a combination of specialized techniques and conscious intention? Finally—saving the most radical example for last—is “bioterror” really about anthrax or about the propagation of genetically modified organisms?

The legendary inventor Buckminster Fuller used to ask audiences if they'd ever seen a sunrise. No, he'd correct them, they hadn't! It was actually a ‘sunclipse’—it was the earth that was moving.

A single question underlies all these inquiries: What’s really going on here? People have been asking this since time immemorial, and it is the root subversive question. It is how we make our way through the mists forged by language and our hankering for hand-me-down realities: how much easier it is to accept the world we’re presented with than to accept the responsibility, never mind solitude, of coming up with answers on our own! Yet we seem to have a longing for truth as well as comfort, and so we keep asking the question: What’s really going on here?

And what’s really going on here, at this particular point in history, is that we are in dire social and ecological peril. To counter it, we need a revolution. In the energy technologies that drive our industrial system. In our institutions (here’s to the Fourth Sector Network!). And in the meanings we ascribe to words.

Carl Frankel is a writer, journalist and consultant specializing in business and sustainable development. He can reached via e-mail at

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