Good & Gasp #3
Social Enterprise in Chinese, EcoMind, Common Wealth, Muppetgate, Human Engineering
Themes that caught my attention, interest or made my eyes roll while roaming the web world of doing good:
- Social Enterprise in Chinese – 3 definitions of “social enterprise” in the same (huge) country?
- EcoMind & Mental Myths – do the “end of growth” pessimists have it all wrong?
- Common Resource Use Charges – should companies pay for polluting (and should we get some of the proceeds of such “common wealth” charges)?
- Goldman Sachs’ Muppetgate – why do GS’ “muppet” clients keep coming back for more?
- Human vs. Climate Engineering – should we consider genetically “making” humans more environmentally friendly?
- The Gist: Cover article for Spring 2012 SSIR on the rise of China with respect to social enterprises. Discusses how the third sector has evolved in this less-than-transparent market, how the notions of private companies doing social good has been difficult to convey, and what the future may hold for the world’s most watched emerging country.
- My Take: A fascinating discussion that I honestly did not expect in that I never thought about how important language and culture play a role in what we name things and how that is being interpreted. In Chinese, a seemingly simple (and clearly over-used) term like “social enterprise” can assume very different meanings depending if one writes it as “social enterprise, “social startup”, or “statup for public good”. In contrast to India, China is also interesting from the perspective that it has a fairly poorly developed NGO sector, as the article argues, for many different reasons.
- Questions: What implications does language and culture really have on explaining the concepts of socially-beneficial, innovative enterprises? Given a weaker NGO sector and the potential for a stronger social enterprise sector despite the lack in NGOs, how will the landscape in China look in a few years? What’s at stake if “business with purpose” type firms outnumber the “pure mission” organizations and how will this affect the development of impact investing in China? Will impact investing lose its appeal in a country where most people appear to either only want to make money or give away money, but do not really seek anything in between?
- The Gist: Frances Moore Lappé’s latest book, “EcoMind”, questions our current mental maps and whether we can somehow change our frame of reference especially with regard to the global environmental and poverty crises. That way, she argues, we may be able to escape the net of fear and powerlessness that we experience in the face of the enormous problems to be solved. She essentially believes that the “end of growth” school of thought (e.g., Richard Heinberg, Tim Jackson, and Paul Gilding) has it wrong and proposes her own way of doubting and resolving so-called “mental myths” that the former keep propagating, such as the notion that we need to make do with less or no growth, that we have to consume less to save the planet, and that we have to find ways to make people act more sustainably.
- My Take: Given my latest literature read and personal positions taken on the the issue of growth, sustainability and what I consider a flawed system of consumption, I was of course very intrigued to discover the EcoMind discussion and Lappé’s promise to take on each of seven “mental myths” in upcoming blog posts on CSR Wire. Reading a previous interview with Ms. Lappé where she gave away some hints of her perspective on processing these myths, I am yet to be convinced of her core points. To the question whether we should consider “growth” something that should be reduced due to its ill effects on the environment, she points mostly to the issue of language. In her view, “growth” connotes something positive, so telling others (who want it badly) that they may have to curb that desire for the sake of *cough* the environment *cough*, the whole debate may be a non-starter and we may want to focus on reframing the issue instead with better language to begin with. To the point that we may want to overcome human nature to save the planet, she argues that it is futile to try to “overcome” human nature. Instead, managing the conditions that enable us to “behave better” should be a priority. These conditions include dispersed power (e.g., democracy), transparency in human relationships, and mutual accountability (vs. polarizing blame). Stay tuned for this series of blog posts and let me know if you get something juicy to debate out of it!
- Questions: Is it true that external problems like “growth” are not our real problem, and that it is all about how we think about it? Is changing our mental frames of reference sufficient to solve the problems of sustainability? Does re-framing of the solution change the fact that ecological problems do exist and that their causes can be reduced to certain concepts like the imperative for economic growth?
- The Gist: If you believe that there are certain things that we all “own” or “share” as a human species, such as the skies and the ocean, would it be crazy to wonder if those who tend to engage in activities that destroy such “common wealth” should be asked to pay for it each time they do? Peter Barnes of Working Assets, proposes an “American Permanent Fund,” in which corporations that consume, pollute or destroy clean air and biodiversity, should pay a fee in proportion to the amount of mercury that they dump or, say, the amount of carcinogens they release. That fund in return should then pay dividends to all citizens who share in this common wealth that is being damaged by some of the “users” (corporations).
- My Take: While the idea of charging for “externalities” (e.g., environmental burden or costs not financially priced in the produced good), such as in the form of carbon taxations and credits, is not necessarily new, I found Barnes’ underlying rationale interesting. He argues that if we believe it is fair that capital holders should receive dividends from the assets that they privately own (have invested in), it may not be far-fetched to wonder why it then is that not everyone equally benefits from the wealth that all of society “owns” – and that is the idea of “common wealth”. In other words, why is it that companies can reap profits through the process of using up (without replenishing) environmental assets such as clean air, but that they only pay back their stockholders and not the people who, say, live in the cities where the company factories create unhealthy emissions? If the Alaska Permanent Fund already directly pays back State citizens money earned from oil revenues through dividends earned from the fund’s stock/bond investments, why can other States (or countries, for that matter) not consider this idea?
- Questions: What are they key objections to the taxation of common wealth, given our common interest in a sustainable global economy and industry? What are alternatives to making companies “internalize” the costs of their environmental impact? Are States nowadays sufficiently well-equipped to administer such funds? How many other international examples can you think of where corporations are asked to share some of that wealth they’re creating as a function of taking away from the common pool of environmental resources?
- The Gist: Never mind the Greg Smith NY Times op-ed debacle, in which a resigning former Vice President of Goldman Sachs blasted the firm’s culture and ethics in the way it treats clients (which GS traders allegedly habitually refer to us stupid “muppets”). Never mind the typical debate around the crooks of Wall Street, or why Smith is considered “toast” and no longer employable in his industry after his public, scathing remarks. Also never mind the ongoing murmurs around Goldman’s CEO Lloyd Blankfein’s alleged replacement in the works. I just want to do two things here. First, I’d like to ask you to read Mr. Blankfein’s and Gary D. Cohn’s public response letter. Second, review this “Muppetgate” article about Goldman’s relationship with its clients.
- My Take: From the first letter, never mind the typical PR language and standard-procedure complete denial of wrong-doings or improprieties. Never mind the 89% of firm respondents to a survey who believe that Goldman is providing excellent service to clients. What speaks volumes to me about this situation (and the broader moral bankruptcy of economic activity in general) is the fact that in the second article, it is fairly clearly identified that “most customers do not really like the firm” but at the same time these customers keep coming back in droves! Not only do these customers not seem to care that they are being called “muppets” in the derogatory sense, but they enjoy coming back for more of the goodness! “Superior trading technology” and “unmatched intellectual capital” are cited as key reasons of the firm’s competitive advantage. This, at its core, is my great frustration with the world of those that believe that “the means justify the ends” – and never mind how hollow these ends are to begin with! As I argued in the past, in our society today, intellectual capital tends to be prized in the most unsuitable way at the expense of moral capital and that is what makes cases like Goldman Sachs’ a prime example of all that is wrong with our “free” market system. Free from respect and moral capital, that is.
- Questions: Having heard about this case, would you go back to Goldman or other banks to give them more work as long as they have the right “assets” in place to make or save your firm more money? Is it really just a “business decision” that drives the majority of clients (who dislike Goldman Sachs according to the article) back again and again? Can you blame me for thinking about the parallels of Muppetgate to the more common (not less unfortunate) abused domestic housewife scenario? What will you condone in the name of economic prosperity for yourself and your company?
- The Gist: As well-put by Ariel Schwartz from this fastco.exist article, people have had traditionally three methods to fight global warming: (1) market solutions (like carbon taxes), (2) behavioral solutions (like asking people to drive electric cars) and (3) geo-engineering (fiddle with the environment directly). In this article, she discusses the fourth, previously unthinkable option: human engineering, i.e., manipulating people at a genetic level to “behave better” with respect to environmental and even social responsibility. Sparked by a recent paper from Oxford and NYU professors about this possibility, the article discusses various ways in which such engineering could indeed lead to improved environmental impact, including making people nicer (altruistic), smaller (consuming less), smarter (less unwanted child-bearing), and making them eat less meat (less cows = less greenhouse gas emissions). Even better, we could even think about making us more resistant to high temperatures so we wouldn’t mind global warming so much!
- My Take: Fair enough, Schwartz dismisses this possibility at the end of the article as somewhat impractical and clearly ethically troubling. For me, however, the issue does not necessarily end by dismissing a crazy idea for what it is. As discussed above and previously on the topic of intellectual curiosity, people will tinker with just about everything in the quest to come up with something nifty. Whether it SHOULD be tinkered with is my greatest concern. The professors conclude their paper by hoping the debate will be taken further. They also consider the idea preposterous but mostly with arguments like “who would want to make their children smaller anyway?”. My objection goes further: “who would give away our moral duty to take responsibility for our actions?” – and with that, our common ironic understanding that we also have to live with (or perish due to) our mistakes?
- Questions: Do you think human engineering is tenable if it can help us indefinitely prolong our species’ survival on this planet? If human engineering could be accomplished with a “quick pill” today, should people have an option of buying and using such pills? What would be the role of government in regulating such pills?