November 27, 2011

Could Globalisation be good for Social & Environmental Enterprise?

As #occupy, #socent and the #socmed savvy socialists sharpen their pitchforks and coil up the rope, I rest secure in the knowledge that here, in a friend’s house on the coast north of Byron Bay, it’s too windy for the blazing fires of indignation to stay alight for long.

After all wasn’t this missive:
– delivered via the net
– through a network of electronics
– created by the world’s largest manufacturing companies
– (in partnership with the largest mining and energy companies)
– developed in economic exclusion zones
– that skirted fair labour laws
– so that this missive could be delivered via the net?

It’s not really the point of this article, although

I do gain some measure of perverse enjoyment in my perennial search for righteousness’ irony meter

(There’s a lot more to say about embracing hypocrisy in service to both humour and humanity, but I’ll spare you that … for now …)

Ensconced, as i have been for the past twelve months, in the relatively wealthy and isolated Land of Oz, I’ve had ringside seats to the greatest show on earth.

The global clash of philosophy, culture, politics and economics almost defies comprehension; global financial institutions are crumbling, governments are either being toppled or teetering on the brink of bankruptcy, millenia old religious traditions are waning and to make matters worse, the planet itself is in a state of upheaval hurling floods, fires, earthquakes, volcanic eruptions and tsunamis at us in an everything-must-go look-at-me frenzy worthy of a debutante on her first night of legal drinking.

And in the middle of it all, here we march in the 99% petulantly pointing fingers at our creation and seeking to lay the blame at the feet of the mythical 1% (which, by the way, represents approximately 700,000 people worldwide …)

Can’t we all just get along???

In the past couple of years I’ve watched a number of large institutions serving the common good fail. Just a few weeks ago Rise – a social enterprise that existed to serve other social enterprises in the UK announced it was shutting up shop (read the Guardian UK’s article about it here). This is significant, no doubt, but pales in comparison to the announcement in August last year that ShoreBank (dubbed by the Stanford Innovation Review as ‘Too Good to Fail‘) in the USA was insolvent (it’s assets were subsequently acquired and it has achieved a second lease on life, although in a vastly limited fashion to its previous operations).

And let’s be clear; these are not startups that under-capitalised and burned through capital on a combination of egos, loose cars and fast (wo)men. These are organisations that collectively delivered billions in social, environmental and financial capital.

In short, they were under-capitalised – with a combination of shortfalls in the necessary human, social, intellectual and financial capital required in order to maintain their operations … sound familiar?

As an advisor to social and environmental ventures for over a decade I’ve reviewed hundreds of business plans written by smart, well-connected, well-intentioned folks; some of them have been without any commercial or altruistic merit whatsoever – yet others, despite the brilliance of their ideas and the vast (and achievable) social and environmental impacts they intend to create have struggled to find the funding they need to tip over into project actualisation (Laurie Lane-Zucker has written a few great pieces about his observations and challenges in raising values-aligned capital on good-b.com). In the meantime global giving – both philanthropic and foreign aid – tops $1 trillion a year into projects and ventures that often fail both to report on their impacts (in any meaningful way), or achieve lasting systemic change

No doubt we are in the middle of a global recession which makes it more difficult to gain access to finances than when capital is flowing more freely; beyond that, however,

we appear to be hamstrung by a philosophical objection to using the tools we so fervently believe have destroyed the world to rebuild it.

There are a number of concepts that have become inextricably linked due to a lack of effective linguistic, grammatical or educational support; in brief:

– globalisation ≠ free trade
– free trade ≠ capitalism
– capitalism ≠ democracy
– democracy ≠ government
– government ≠ them

Somehow in our rage at the state of the world we have forgotten that the capital markets are a highly functioning mechanism.

While they may have been corrupted through a lack of effective regulation, the laws by which we are governed are a consequence of our engagement (or lack thereof) with the democratic processes available to most of those exhorting us to #occupy.

This same mechanism – one that currently only facilitates the flow of financial capital – could be used (with a little tweaking, granted) to measure, value and distribute alternative forms of capital as well; while much work has been done on alternative currencies (typically in a hyper-local sense … something Art Brock knows more about than many; his MetaCurrency Project is staggeringly brilliant) little seems to have been done to more effectively marshal and coordinate resources on a global scale.

Those who don’t learn from history are doomed to repeat it‘ is not an epithet we get to hurl as a metaphor-bomb at those we consider ourselves to be intellectually and morally superior to; it’s a message that we – those who are surviving and will inevitably be required to clean up this mess – would do well to heed equally.

Occupiers rarely, if ever, demolish the infrastructure of the vanquished – they use it to propagate their own society; to discard our existing infrastructure in a pique of adolescent rage would be, well, kinda childish dontcha think?

The Autobahns survived Hitler, the aqueducts and viaducts and the roads the Romans; the Mongols fractured and were eventually taken over by the Han, but their postal system – the most extensive in the world – remained in place for a further four centuries.

So while we’re happy to incorporate mechanisms that facilitate the free flow of social and intellectual capital (social media and the multiple web-based tools we use on a daily basis facilitate this quite nicely), perhaps it’s time we looked at how we can revolutionise the flow of financial capital as well.

No, I’m not talking about another ism – globalism, socialism, capitalism are just forms of fundamentalism that history has shown are incapable of adequately serving humanity.

What I’m talking about is a rational, intelligent, regulated approach that permits capital to flow to where it’s most needed; after all, while we seem all too happy to throw our cash at natural disasters (over $2.5 billion was mobilised in service to Haiti), perhaps if we were a little more, dare i say, liberal in permitting capital to flow toward where it can do the greatest good those affected might be more capable of mitigating the risks and resolving the issues arising on a planet we all have to call home.

Let’s be clear … it’s not capitalism or free trade or government or corporations that screwed things up … anybody who really thinks they can identify a linear cause and effect relationship between the infinite variables at play in a complex universe is either a god or insane.

It was us … yes, we the 100% … in our lust for material wealth we (pardon my french) f**ked it all up.

Maybe it’s time we collectively got over ourselves and applied ourselves to the far more complex issue of fixing it using all of the tools we have available to us.

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Mark Ledbetter Dec 6, 2011 5:57am


Back to that “woeful idea and the state of the world”.

Ele type people look at certain parts of the state of the world but tend not to see other parts. For example: The last two decades have seen the freest trade regime (using tariffs as a standard) in human history. During that time, 400 million people have risen out of poverty. I often read these days that businesses are gearing up to serve another 2 billion rising out of poverty in the next two decades.

This mass consumerism and the attendant environmental destruction might look woeful to the privileged classes of the first world, but to the dirt poor masses of the rest of the world, this must be considered the greatest accomplishment in human history. You can’t discount the misery and hopes of those people.

Mark Ledbetter Dec 6, 2011 5:55am


CAM: it's clear that Waylon is interested in stimulating discussion around such matters

ML: The more I see of Ele, the more I realize that. Very commendable.

CAM: if you look to democracy as the vehicle by which citizens are represented…

ML: I look at most democracies as the vehicle by which BUSINESSES are represented, not citizens. When a government, democratic or otherwise, is given great powers to participate in business, business will come to dominate govt. They will become one and the same. Like the faces of the Pigs and Humans merging into each other in Animal Farm. Unlike the vast majority of the rest of us, businesses have the finances, motivation, and staying power to dominate and actually become government.

CAM: and you don't like the representation, you can always have a revolution

ML: Joking, right? There really must be a better and less bloody way.

Mark Ledbetter Dec 6, 2011 5:50am


CAM: Happy to keep having dialog through here.

ML: As am I. Don’t feel bad about terminating at an time, though. And how the heck do you get long replies in? Mine are severely limited in length by the Ele software. I have to break up replies into pieces.

CAM: Free Trade is a woeful idea; anybody who thinks otherwise isn't really paying attention to the state of the world

ML: Count me among the inattentive!

ML: On the Fed… Yes, it’s a good Wiki article. And a good summary of central banking in America. Nothing there that shows the Fed to be private, though. Some of the “functions” might look private, because they make money for bankers, but the institution itself is effectively a govt monopoly. No competition allowed. In fact, the Fed is more an auxiliary govt beyond the control of the regular govt than a private institution.

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Cameron Burgess

Cameron Burgess has been founding, catalysing and advising sustainable ventures for more than fifteen years; he is a sustainable venture strategist, founder of @uncompromise & @connect_well, co-founder of @w1sd0m_net, a speaker, facilitator, writer, agitator and fierce angel. Currently on Australia’s East Coast, Cameron is a digital nomad and moves from location to location, country to country, based upon his own personal interest and the needs of his clients. If you’d like to find out more about Cameron, visit his website here