The theme of this year’s Blog Action Day has a particular resonance for me in that 13 years ago, a chance conversation on the web introduced me to a man who would change the direction of my life.
In our conversation about the Ignorance and Want allegory of Dickens’ Christmas Carol he’d introduced me to his radical suggestion, that business should be about people. It was in a paper he’d written on the subject, which ended:
“There is nothing wrong with individuals becoming wealthy. It is only when wealth begins to concentrate in the hands of a relative few at the expense of billions of others who are denied even a small share of finite wealth that trouble starts and physical, human suffering begins. It does not have to be this way. Massive greed and consequent massive human misery and suffering do not have to be accepted as a givens, unavoidable, intractable, irresolvable. Just changing the way business is done, if only by a few companies, can change the flow of wealth, ease and eliminate poverty, and leave us all with something better to worry about. Basic human needs such as food and shelter are fundamental human rights; there are more than enough resources available to go around–if we can just figure out how to share. It cannot be “Me first, mine first”; rather, “Me, too” is more the order of the day.”
Seeing the Information Age as the opportunity to propagate this alternative to capitalism, he published his synopsis online, free for others to use.
As we began to work together over the next decade, until his death last year, the term he’d used to described this concept, a people-centered form of economic development could be heard in the from others. In 2009, with the term having been used both by the UN and the Vatican, I was inspired to blog You, Me, We, Ethics and People-Centered Economics as a chronology of events.
Sharing information and knowledge online is a key part of the P-CED approach and founder Terry Hallman was particularly adept as an actiist blogger. In 2006, with what was described as a ‘shocking and insightful report’ he lifted the lid on childcare in Ukraine’s Death Camps, For Children , a blog which would set out an economic development strategy, a 21st Century Marshall Plan, in full public view.
Though he didn’t live to see his vision of placing all children in a loving family home fulfilled, the influence on government policy was clearly evident, as was his assistance in helping create a scientific education centre and joint production of medical isotopes at a former weapons development centre.
In 2008, Bill Gates announced his intention to apply capitalism to social objectives and it was then that Terry again drew attention to the potential for social media to go beyond connecting with each other as a force for human benefit, saying:
“The corporations involved in this almost fantastical deployment of the machines and communications infrastructure that we now rely on profited for themselves and their shareholders, and certainly produced social and economic benefit around the world. Those efforts were and are so profound in influence as to transform human civilization itself. That is the Information Revolution, and it is nothing short of astonishing.
So it is safe to say that all these players in the Information Revolution — the enterprises that created it — have engendered almost immeasurable social benefit by way of connecting people of the world together and giving us opportunity to communicate with each other, begin to understand each other, and if we want, try to help each other.
It is that last phrase — “try to help each other” — which is what the phrase “social enterprise” is getting at. As Bill Gates said in 2000, “poor people don’t need computers.” and rejected a business approach to alleviating poverty. That statement served to mark the clear distinction between what traditional capitalism did and did not do. Gates’ aim at that time was to profit from people who could afford his company’s products, while those who couldn’t were largely or completely ignored. That has been the accepted limit of traditional capitalism. It has been a marvelous means of social benefit and economic advancement for many people. Nevertheless, those excluded are just left out.
The term “social enterprise” in the various but similar forms in which it is being used today — 2008 — refers to enterprises created specifically to help those people that traditional capitalism and for profit enterprise don’t address for the simple reason that poor or insufficiently affluent people haven’t enough money to be of concern or interest. Put another way, social enterprise aims specifically to help and assist people who fall through the cracks. Allowing that some people do not matter, as things are turning out, allows that other people do not matter and those cracks are widening to swallow up more and more people. Social enterprise is the first concerted effort in the Information Age to at least attempt to rectify that problem, if only because letting it get worse and worse threatens more and more of us. Growing numbers of people are coming to understand that “them” might equal “me.” Call it compassion, or call it enlightened and increasingly impassioned self-interest. Either way, we are all in this together, and we will each have to decide for ourselves what it means to ignore someone to death, or not.”
In his presentation for the Economics for Ecology conference at Sumy the following year, he’d say:
“Thus the issue of ecology economics is not only ‘the third bottom line’, it might be more aptly renamed the economics of survival of the human species. That includes everyone, regardless of one or another economic hypothesis or theory they might prefer. We can endlessly debate and discuss von Mises/von Hayek free market economics/capitalism which proved successful except for the times it failed, and then study why it failed – repeatedly, the most recent failure in September 2008. We can endlessly debate and discuss opposing Keynesian government interventionist economics/capitalism, which proved successful except for the times it failed. That has been an alternating pattern for the past eighty years in Western capitalism. We can discuss the successes and failures of various flavors of communism and fascism. At this point, the simple fact is that regarding economic theory, no one knows what to do next. Possibly this has escaped immediate attention in Ukraine, but, economists in the US as of the end of 2008 openly confessed that they do not know what to do. So, we invented three trillion dollars, lent it to ourselves, and are trying to salvage a broken system so far by reestablishing the broken system with imaginary money.
Now there are, honestly, no answers. It is all just guesswork, and not more than that. What is not guesswork is that the broken – again – capitalist system, be it traditional economics theories in the West or hybrid communism/capitalism in China, is sitting in a world where the existence of human beings is at grave risk, and it’s no longer alarmist to say so.
The question at hand is what to do next, and how to do it. We all get to invent whatever new economics system that comes next, because we must.”
His life ended as he’d lived it, with a focus on those in greater need, speaking on his death bed only of the children he’d hoped to rescue.
Sharing his work on this new way of doing business online paid dividends lat week, when Sir Richard Branson declared hi intention to join the cause, with the B Team.