As an undergrad at Brown University and a veteran organizer with the Sierra Student Coalition, Nathan Wyeth has his ear to the ground on campus sustainability issues. In this occasional column for Grist, Wyeth will report on what’s afoot at the campus grassroots level and how he and his fellow students are making their voices heard.


A debate has been swirling on Gristmill for the past few weeks over the role of voluntary actions versus government policy in solving climate change specifically, and environmental problems generally. I’d like to stir this pot further and add another ingredient — what might be looked at as an in-between of sorts: social entrepreneurship.

Bill Clinton in the Atlantic Monthly touted a reinvention of charity, and Adam Werbach in Fast Company touted a reinvention of Wal-Mart. This whole social entrepreneurship thing is clearly "the new black." For the purpose of discussing it, I’ll define social entrepreneurship as business that achieves profit through the delivery of public (social or environmental) goods.

I could tell that this was not just a media phenomenon after only a few days back on campus this fall.

At the Activities Fair the first week of school, a leader of the Entrepreneurship Club approached emPOWER, the climate-neutrality campaigners on campus, about partnering. And the Engineers Without Borders group came to emPOWER’s first general body meeting to talk about working together.

Soon after, a housemate rested a foot on the empty keg sitting in our kitchen and told me about his idea for a business that would collect compost from households and sell it to farmers as fertilizer. Another housemate, talking over the gangsta rap pumping out of his iTunes, described a small-scale, methane-capture, waste-to-energy project he is working on. And a friend who worked with a nonprofit consulting firm over the summer is taking corporate finance this semester — for all the right reasons. There’s actually a whole class on social entrepreneurship, popular despite its 9:00 a.m. time slot.

It’s difficult to make a blanket statement about the real and lasting impacts of business changes made as a result of the current media spotlight on the climate. Some companies are going to find new, innovative revenue streams and business models that are environmentally positive, but some are going to make, um, cosmetic changes, or worse, do nothing meaningful and call it something. But I think this social entrepreneurship craze is different, and potentially powerful.

I don’t think that social entrepreneurial ideas and ideals, half-baked corporate do-goodery, old-fashioned greenwashing, or even better-organized markets for public goods — as Clinton refers to in the Atlantic — will replace or out-do regulatory structures and incentives in creating a new clean-energy economy. Rather, in order to build bedrock support for governmental climate action that grows rather than diminishes with time (even when they cause energy prices to go up, for instance), we need to — in the words of a fellow leader on my campus — "ground policies in reality by engaging people in tangible actions."

These actions can’t be the small, voluntary suggestions that Mike Tidwell has argued end up taking the pressure off corporations and government. Even if these things are subtle psychological reinforcements of environmental values, as 22 psychologists wrote in response, they’re the climate equivalent of giving change to a panhandler: taking pity on the climate and changing a light bulb, or being guilt-tripped into not eating meat. These are not the emotional pathways that lead to deep personal change or participation in political movements.

Instead, we need as many people as possible to take part — as entrepreneurs, workers, volunteers, and more — in the actual business of emissions reductions at institutional and community levels, so that they understand these actions as being means to personal goals of success and fulfillment. Once people imagine themselves serving their (perhaps even latent) environmental values through a successful career in whatever field they are drawn to, they’ll be far more likely to follow this up with personal habits and political choices than to reach this through encouragement to engage in peripheral actions like recycling, or counterproductive actions such as buying a third car because it’s a hybrid. Social entrepreneurship should not be viewed as free-market opposition by policy-oriented organizations, but a powerful means to deepen support for their cause.

So there’s an important role for nonpolitical action to play in building a clean energy future, but it doesn’t look like a list of tips from a "green issue" of a magazine. By getting engineers to audit buildings for efficiency, or having business majors compete in business-plan competitions judged on the basis of carbon emissions prevented as well as profits created, we’re hoping on my campus to not only graduate people who attended a climate-neutral university, but who see stabilizing the climate as a central issue in their lives because of the careers that they hope to follow.