by Inyan Kara & L. Portnoy
Few things are truly vital to human life, breathing is one such thing. The average adult takes approximately 20,000 breaths each day and in doing so inhales and exhales an extraordinary number of molecules. So many molecules that each day every one of us inhales molecules “from the breaths of every person who has ever lived” says Bill Bryson. It’s an interesting juxtaposition then, that society has ground to a halt and our very livelihoods now rest on the fate of a virus that rides on our collective breaths but is itself not alive.
As society waits impatiently for new signs of life, there is a growing divide between those who aim to restore the comfortable rhythm of status quo and others still who seek a new cadence. A stark divide between the dire circumstances we face as a society where one in four is unemployed and an opportunity to redefine our economy and our entire existence. In the face of uncertainty a new metric for success has emerged, one that is for benefit instead of for profit. And some industry leaders and grassroots organizers are coalescing around a new model called the Fourth Sector.
The current structure of our economy holds three sectors of industry: private, public, and nonprofit. Each sector serves a distinct purpose, with different models of operation, and different methods for profit. What is proposed here is a fourth sector, a sector that generates revenue similar to public or private organizations and focuses on purpose driven initiatives similar to nonprofits. However, in this Fourth Sector, each organization is singularly focused on decreasing gaps in inequality. This sector exists solely to work for the benefit of all. In this way, the fourth sector models our shared molecules working collectively towards a more sustainable future for all.
The idea of a Fourth Sector is not a thought experiment. It is a palpable solution that existed far before our current pandemic which illustrates the power of a for benefit mindset where enterprise is driven by purpose over profit. Look closely at the trailblazers who have launched a trillion-dollar movement transforming global value chains and advancing an economy that benefits all stakeholders. Others still are creating everyday environmental heroes, harnessing over 150,000 people from 165 countries to join in cleaning our planet for benefit to all. The difference now is that the imperative to make fourth sector work a reality has never been more urgent.
In our current situation we see similar impulses as hotels that once hosted conferences are now housing the homeless. Local craft distilleries pivot from making double IPAs to manufacturing disinfectant and organizations are amplifying the voice of our collective compassion. What’s more, solutions to many of our most pressing environmental problems of today and tomorrow could be found from the technologies of our yesterday and today. Scientists have found ways to protect the precious molecules of air we breathe by converting CO2 into cement blocks for more sustainable architecture. This solves the issues of both carbon emissions and sustainable design with a single solution for benefit to all.
In each instance the very solutions we seek are guided by principles of adaptation, not domination. And in this way, the very thing humans have in common with the molecule that has rendered our species helpless is our ability to adapt. The question remains, will we continue to adapt once the current conditions improve? Each new innovation paves the way for a society that reflects the best within us — a society that operates on for-benefit motives, subsuming solely for-profit pursuits. Acknowledging the shared molecules we breathe, we see that the way forward is not an us versus them, it is instead a society of we. Because after all, those molecules too are a part of us.
Now here’s the bad news: If we are looking to our leaders in industry and policy to guide us from this collective calamity, we are looking in the wrong direction. The current exclusively for-profit mindset that has driven our progress up to this point will not do anymore. This is a mindset that relies on an unhealthy dose of the rights of a singular individual without demanding social responsibility in equal measure. The old ways driven by fear or ignorance will not create the generative solutions needed to sustain our society in the future. In a fourth sector approach, industry initiatives share in a purpose that is for the benefit of all.
The current global crisis has brought out the best and worst in each of us. Yet this pain offers us an opportunity to become more mature about who we are and what our roles are in society. Will we create a fertile space for future generations or continue in the consumptive vein in prioritizing me over we?
“Acknowledging the shared molecules we breathe, we see that the way forward is not an us versus them, it is instead a society of we.”
That maturity could lead us towards a more sustainable future once the current threat has passed. What if in every action we collectively take — from buying groceries, using gadgets, or commuting to work, we commit to acting for the benefit of all? It is a small adjustment to our daily actions but it can be transformative. Me is included in We — it is just a different way of looking.
Like the molecules we share, the ability to sustain our collective livelihoods rests solely on the ability to forge a new path forward. These shared molecules connect each of us to one another in the present but also to our collective past and potential future. The mission now is to create a generative society where industries thrive through sustainable solutions for benefit to all. Are you ready to join? There is a seat at this table for everyone. Together we can work to transform our world and ensure more shared breaths in our shared future.