|At the closing session
of last Decembers 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. Heres my response
(and I suppose you could say Im 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, were 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
doesnt cut it.
Lash had it right in saying were change agents. We arebut
were change agents in a hurry. A big hurry. And that makes
us revolutionaries, even if the notion makes us squirm. I mean,
lets get real here: how else is one to characterize a group
of people with goals as transformative as ours? Its just that
these old associationswith outsider status, with violencedont
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 fastall 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-cant-refuse,
or rather, a whole host of offers-they-cant-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
cant 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
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. Yesterdays institutions have never been any good
at meeting tomorrows needs, and tomorrow keeps coming at us
faster all the time. Doing something about this is one of the sustainability
communitys great challenges. In all three major sectorsbusiness,
government and the social sectorpeople are trying to goad,
tweak and otherwise persuade institutions to revise their strategies
and aspirations. Its 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.
Theres 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,
theyre pretty inelastic. We need deep changes in our institutionspublic
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 dont 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
An answer to this question is emerging. It hasnt occurred
sooner because Big Ideas often emerge out of extended bouts of experimentation,
and thats whats 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? Its 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? Its 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 ownits inability to respond vigorously to
any but the most immediate and palpable threats, for instancebut
thats 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 possiblesince 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 Carolinas 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.
Theres a third component of the revolution, too, and this
may be the most difficult one of all. Its about languageabout
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 didnt 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?
Finallysaving the most radical example for lastis bioterror
really about anthrax or about the propagation of genetically modified
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 sunclipseit was the earth that
A single question underlies all these inquiries: Whats 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 were
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:
Whats really going on here?
And whats 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 (heres 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 email@example.com.