Tuesday, February 5, 2008

Unreasonably Great

I just read the Economist's review of The Power of Unreasonable People by John Elkington and Pamela Hartigan. It's actually more of an editorial than a review, but I love the Economist for that. Not afraid to speak their minds, and not afraid to let everyone know they're not afraid to speak their minds.

Anyway, the book is about what main stream businesspeople and policymakers have to learn from social entrepreneurs. The authors argue that it will be social entrepreneurs and their commitment to the unreasonable that will usher in the dawn of a new world economy. The Economist counters by dropping some facts and scientific data (sorry; couldn't help it) and reminding us that social enterprise hasn't made it anywhere close to big.

The review ends with this paragraph:

The greatest agents for sustainable change are unlikely to be the well-intentioned folk described in this book, interesting though they are. They are much more likely to be the entirely reasonable people, often working for large companies, who see ways to create better products or reach new markets, and have the resources to do so. Ratan Tata, with his one-lakh car, may improve more lives than any social entrepreneur has done. And he might even make money from doing so.

Fine. But someone's got to build the NGOs, start the green businesses, write the Congresspeople, change the consumer outlooks, and thus prime the markets. Someone's got to make the small changes that create the new opportunities that attract the attention of the Ratan Tatas of the world.

Does laying that groundwork make social entrepreneurs "the greatest agents for sustainable change?" It doesn't matter who we consider the "greatest" of the agents. What's important is that more and more of us participate, unreasonably or not, in making the change.


Prairie Dogg said...

I certainly wouldn't disagree with you that social entrepreneurs are a net-positive force, but I have to agree with the economists point about the cheap Indian car. In response you said:

"Fine. But someone's got to build the NGOs, start the green businesses, write the Congresspeople, change the consumer outlooks, and thus prime the markets."

I don't think that any of that primed the market for the low-cost Indian car. How did green business "prime" the lower-middle class or poor Indians to be ready to buy a car? Seems like the one and only barrier to entry for them was price. Not trying to player hate here, I'm just sayin'.

Jake de Grazia said...

Yeah I did get a little overzealous with connecting all those market priming activities to the one-lakh car. I was trying to use it as representative of any big business play that has positive social consequences.

I guess I'm thinking more along the lines of One Laptop Per Child pulling Intel into the low cost, low energy computing space or Toyota, et al cashing in extra big on hybrid technology after An Inconvenient Truth came out.

My point is just that NGO work and for-profit social entrepreneurship nudge the big companies into new spaces because they connect with pieces of the market and educate them to a point at which there's clear demand.

In the Tata Motors case, I think what the unreasonable market-primers did was show Tata that they have a much bigger market than just the bottom of the pyramid if and when they want to play up
great gas mileage and low emissions and sell the NANO to everyone everywhere. Maybe they would have seen that without activists screaming about global warming. Maybe not.

steve said...

Perhaps the Economist would like to explain how it makes the jump from "agents for sustainable change" to talking about a cheap car that runs on fossil fuels? Guys... this is the EXACT OPPOSITE of sustainable change - it speeds up the consumption of non-renewable resources and the pollution of the globe.

It is an egregious error to conflate sustainability with basic capitalist principles like pricing, but what would you expect from The Economist, who can only view the world through the lens of money transfer? Sustainability won't really mean anything to them until someone puts a financial metric on the damage non-sustainable practices create.

Jake de Grazia said...

I 100% agree that we should seek to put financial metrics on damage done to natural resources (like the air we breathe and the weather patterns on which our societies have evolved to depend). Paul Hawken has been lobbying for an economy based on natural capital for over 15 years now (crazy how his early '90s ideas are equally if not more relevant today).

At the same time, however, I have a hard time opposing the one lahk car.

It's tough for me to stomach it when the developed world reprimands developing economies for adopting technologies common in developed economies. Ideally, of course, India, China, Brazil, Russia, etc. would leapfrog all dirty technologies and take more informed development paths. The reality of the situation, however, is that they can't always afford to leapfrog.

The one-lakh car is sort of a leapfrog technology in that it's way more efficient than an old Buick. But, you're right; it's certainly bleeding edge either: it's still gonna spew a lot of CO2.

Then again, maybe Tata Motors is an agent of sustainable change simply because its cars have turned so many heads and scared so many people. Maybe seeing that making even a quite fossil fuel efficient vehicle available to the developing world is a potential carbon emissions disaster will convince people and businesses and governments that we can't afford to wait to make big investment in clean transportation technology.

Jake de Grazia said...

Hey Steve.

Here's an article I bumped into today in support of Tata Motors.

It's not my favorite thing I've ever read on the subject, but it made me think about a word that Bill McDonough has instilled in me: ABUNDANCE.

I think we need focus on abundance. I think we need focus on providing healthy, dignified, technologically rich lives for the developing world. So I think we need to focus on innovation. That one lakh car is innovation. It's not perfect innovation, but it's a step in the right direction.

I reckon our time would be better spend improving upon it that resisting it.

Thanks so much for your comment. I look forward to hearing from you again.

Take care.


steve said...

Hi Jake,
Don't get me wrong - I think the one lahk car is a wonderful thing, in terms of the possibility and opportunity that it opens up for many, many people.

I simply take offense to the way the Economist conflates ideas. The one lahk car is efficient (relatively speaking), inexpensive and innovative. It is not sustainable. That's a fact.

I believe in the role of journalism as watchdog, keeping private interests accountable to the public. As such, I also believe that they need to avoid using logical fallacies in their opinion pieces. When they (seemingly) intentionally conflate two different concepts (sustainability and selling inexpensive cars), they just seem like a mouthpiece for established business interests.

Jake de Grazia said...

You're right. The Economist should have called the car what it is: "efficient (relatively speaking), inexpensive and innovative." And they should have left it at that. If they wanted to get serious about why that efficiency-focused innovation might lead us to sustainability, they should have laid down the economic logic.

I think my eco-capitalist tendencies led me to fill in The Economist's logical blanks with my own thoughts, so perhaps I'm seeing agreement with them when I shouldn't.

I don't know.

I'm going to have to pay more attention to this. The Economist claims to be interested in LONG TERM economic prosperity. If by long term they mean centuries, then isn't it obvious that the only way to make that happen is through environmentally sustainable economic activity?

I guess it's a question of priorities, a question of procrastination. Hopefully it won't take a last minute economic panic to get the vested interest money people to start caring.