Worldbuilding is no longer a dweeby technical term for science fiction readers. The popularity of genre fiction has taken worldbuilding from the specialty shelves to general parlance. Moreover, the concept is catching on in the real world as well, and not a second too soon. With A World of Three Zeros: The New Economics of Zero Poverty, Zero Unemployment, and Zero Net Carbon Emissions Muhammad Yunus (“the father of micro-lending”) proposes that we take concrete action to rebuild our own world, and offers specific plans and means to do so. A World of Three Zeros is a book brimming with joy, good news and smart ideas about remaking this world by re-thinking both how we define ourselves and our economy.
Yunus begins by describing the problem with our concept of the “economic human.” Our default description assumes that the economic human is motivated solely by selfishness; we want more stuff. But in actual life, Yunus writes, humans act selflessly as or more often than they do selfishly. Selflessness accounts for a large portion of what we do, for our family, our city, our peers, our country, even this world. Yunus has created a model for what he calls a “social business,” which is economic (and human) activity aimed at solving social problems (poverty, hunger, malnutrition, unemployment, etc.) that offers investors the return on their original investment without a “profit.” Social business scales extremely well, from the microcosm of a rural village to the macrocosm of a cosmopolitan city, and by solving seemingly intractable problems, everyone benefits.
With these arrows in his quiver, Yunus takes aim at three problems that they can solve; poverty, unemployment, and carbon gas buildup. Each problem gets its own chapter, with detailed examples of working solutions and social business success stories. It’s inspiring stuff, pragmatic and suggesting that what we need most overall is a change in perception. For example, Yunus suggests that humans are not naturally divided into a majority of “worker bees” best managed by a minority of “boss bees.” Who knew? Instead, he believes that we are by default all entrepreneurs, ready (as we graduate from college or a village) to create jobs, not simply seek them. He describes global surges in small business creation where you [might] not expect them (Uganda, Bangladesh). We read engaging specific examples of social problems solved by small investors looking only to recoup their investment. These are gripping stories of real-life problems and solutions.
In the final section, Yunus looks at the three forces he believes will be primary to the coming change; youth, technology and “Good Governance And Human Rights.” In all things, Yunus unites optimism and pragmatism. It’s a delicate balance and hard to pull off, but strong ideas and real-world experience in the hardest conditions ensure that Yunus does not simply score points; he inspires action.
Not surprisingly, Yunus is inspiring as all get-out in person as well. I had the excellent fortune to sit down and chat with him, thanks to the good folks at KQED and his people at PublicAffairs Books. He started by telling me the parts of the micro-lending story I had not heard, and from there, we went on to discuss the virtues of science fiction, which he loves because the genre offers writers the potential to remake the world. It’s a skill he deems essential. You can hear the entire in-depth interview by following this link to the MP3 audio file, or engage your peers, gather round the console and listen below.