Earth Overshoot Day — Mother Earth is exhausted — and who wins the discourse battle...
Today is a nice day at The Hub Vienna. It's a regular Wednesday and we are discussing the progress of our thesis and eating peach brownies. But something is not quite what it should be. The brownies, the train ride to Vienna, the electricity for powering our computers - all is theft from future generations.
Yesterday was Earth Overshoot Day and from today, through the rest of the year we are living on borrowed resources. Since the mid 1970s we're using up more than Mother Earth can provide. Globally we're consuming 1.5 Earths on average each year! This is a sad day, a day that makes us think - and a day of action – because we are moving to slow!
So how are Mother Earth’s limits connected to the master's thesis on social entrepreneurs, which we are writing? Well, more and more people recognize that we can't go on like this. They say that we have to start living according to Earth’s limitations. That it's time for a change, time for business as unusual, time to apply an inclusive and holistic view of the world incorporating social and environmental aspects when conducting business – when leading our lives. Some of these people call themselves social entrepreneurs; they say that they are exercising social entrepreneurship. But what does that mean? And who are they really?
Researchers and practitioners worldwide agree that the terms social entrepreneur and social entrepreneurship are extremely fuzzy and inconsistent. Most of us practitioners have felt the consequences of this fuzz when trying to use these terms to explain what we are doing. As it turns out, few people really know what it is about – and those who do know seem to have radically different views. Some argue that Yunus's definition of social business is true social entrepreneurship – others argue that the local non-profit activist advocating healthy food, or the small business making a nice profit on up-cycled fashion is the real deal.
Like most social entrepreneurs trying to make the world a better place we were until recently unaware that the various descriptions of Yunus, the activist and the small business are part of a much larger discussion. In fact, they represent different aspects of defining a new paradigm. What we observe is an ongoing struggle between social actors who promote different discourses, and all of them want THEIR definition of social entrepreneurship to become the generally accepted one. One professor, Alex Nicholls, has described these two combating forces as representatives of the American-style hero entrepreneur driven by Ashoka, Acumen fund, Skoll foundation and others vs. the European communitarian, grass-roots entrepreneur represented by various for- and non-profits.
These two movements are trying to control or even manipulate the discourse to gain credibility and justification for their definition by heavily pushing their own narratives. And there are strong indications that the hero entrepreneur with their powerful organizational and financial backing and sophisticated marketing is winning this battle. Aren’t we all sharing success stories and using words like scale, philantro-capitalism, professionals, leadership, result-orientated, pragmatic, risk-taking, visionary and passionate instead of social value, social justice, social change, advocacy, grants, donations, localism, cooperative and third-sector right now? According to Alex Nicholls the latter words are often used by organizations representing the communitarian entrepreneurs and the former are used by organizations representing the hero entrepreneur. A clear sign of combating discourses – which, with all our contributions, eventually will determine a new paradigm of how to live and prosper within the limitations of Earth.
However, in this fragile pre-paradigmatic state we are right now it is important not to rush to conclusions but to discuss and act based on our believes in order to eventually establish a definition together. Thus, letting the hero discourse win the competition of who gets to define the field of social entrepreneurship already now has several serious ramifications. For once, it leads to a narrow and exclusive view of what social entrepreneurship is, excluding aspects, opinions, and ideas presented by others. This narrow and exclusive view is also the result of a process called reflexive isomorphism, which means that you base your view of the world only by looking at yourself. This pattern is typical for fellowship organizations where the organization first defines what social entrepreneurship is, then promotes this view to attract potential fellows who think alike and finally selects fellows based on this view who in turn promote this view further. We arrive at a closed circle of reflection leading to mistake your own output for the feedback from others easily.
Second, a premature definition can lead to being forced to leave beneficiaries without help, since what you do is no longer classified as social entrepreneurship. Thus, you may end up loosing market share, grants, donations or whatever you need to sustain your venture. Third, a premature definition can even lead to the whole field of social entrepreneurship loosing its validity and justification since only a small elite has agreed on the actual meaning of terms. This leaves out and deprives a whole community of grass-roots activists, businesses and programs of labels and legitimacy, and ignores the fact that they practically conduct very similar or even the same things as the elite.
What to do in this tricky situation? How to prevent the discussion from submerging prematurely and leaving us with a definition that might be insufficient, exclusive and not representative for those active in the field? What does Alex Nicholls say? He thinks that adopting a broader view of social innovation could be a way of avoiding getting stuck in the battle between the discourses. He promotes social innovation since it is regarded as a dynamic process, free of prejudice, innovative in contrast to being based on a few success stories only. Taking this view into consideration we could understand social entrepreneurship not as a separate movement or an industry of its own, but as an integral part of both the economy and business pursuing a new paradigm.
Where does this leave us now? First of all, we do like organizations like Ashoka, and we also like heroes. In fact we tremendously appreciate all the great work they and the other not so much known guys and gals in the field do. They are all legitimate and important actors who contribute invaluably to shaping the discourse. Thus, we urge those who have both power and means to shape definitions in the field to not stop listening, to keep an open mind for other perspectives, to embrace discussion, and to develop the field together. And those who feel under-represented and insecure whether they are part of this whole movement to not give up their genuine approaches but to claim their share of the definition.
Back to Mother Earth’s limits again. While we discuss these fundamental issues, the clock is ticking. During the hours it has taken to write this blog entry we have claimed even more resources from our children. Definitions are important for understanding what we are doing and where we are going – but action is even more important to save Mother Earth and ourselves – isn’t it?
Michael Bauer-Leeb and Evelina Lundqvist