Bruce Usher on Books for Budding Social Entrepreneurs

Who's on his dream team to tackle today’s most pressing issues? An alien.

Sabina Lee
September 03, 2019

What would the world be like if it ran on renewable energy? In his recent book, Renewable Energy: A Primer for the Twenty-First Century, Professor Bruce Usher, a co-director of the Tamer Center for Social Enterprise at Columbia Business School, explores the coming energy transition and its global implications.

Columbia News caught up with Usher to chat about climate change, his dream team to fight our socioeconomic challenges and a list of inspiring books for budding social entrepreneurs.

Blue book cover with title renewable energy

Q. As fires rage in the Amazon rainforest, what are your thoughts on their impact? Is the damage irreversible? 

The damage is irreversible without a serious global attempt to tackle climate change. The question isn’t whether we are going to suffer from climate change, but by how much? And when? The frustrating thing about climate change is that we already have the tools to significantly limit the damage—the technology solutions and the capital to implement them—the only missing factor is the political will to do so. Sadly, the lack of political will almost certainly can result in far worse damage, both environmental and economic. That’s ironic, and a good reason to be angry about the situation.

Q. The world faces many socioeconomic and political challenges amid unprecedented prosperity and innovation. To tackle the most pressing issues today, who would you have on your dream team and why?

An alien? Seriously, someone who could approach our socioeconomic challenges without the political and emotional baggage that weighs down many of today’s participants from both sides of the political aisle. Not surprisingly, I find that business leaders often have the best potential to tackle these issues as they tend to be solutions-focused. But many of today’s business leaders are unwilling or unable to stand up for these issues, or do so in only a small way. I would love to see a great business leader such as Jamie Dimon, Mary Barra or Jeff Bezos show leadership by making a truly hard decision that demonstrates a trade-off of material short-term profits for long-term social benefits.

Q. Do you have a list of must-read books for budding social entrepreneurs?

I counsel budding social entrepreneurs to focus on the business aspect of their venture because that is where most of these ventures fail, so my recommendations are usually specific to the sector they are working in. More generally, I’m a fan of The God Species by Mark Lynas, and David Bornstein’s early book on social entrepreneurs, How to Change the World. Georgia Levenson Keohane’s book on Capital and the Common Good is an excellent introduction to impact investing.

Q. Who, or what, do you like to read for inspiration?

For inspiration, I read fiction. There are so many powerful writers out there today, but I don’t feel qualified to pick one above the others. That’s why I write non-fiction.