Is government action or legislation ever powerful enough to bring about massive social change?

Massive social change is a slow process, and no singular action, be it government, business or civil society, can bring about this change alone.  Usually one body initiates the change, however, social change is at the intersection of all three, so all three forces need to act together in order to affect change quickly. World War II was one example where all three forces act together to create very fast changes.  The US government instigated by supporting wartime spending and creating wartime advertising.  Private sectors responded to wartime product needs.  And civil society, motivated by patriotism, responded by buying government bonds, working longer hours, sending their sons, and doing whatever else they can to support the troops.  The recent earthquake response for Haiti is another example of all three working together to solve a crisis.  Civil Society instigated  with compassion.  Individuals went to Haiti to pitch into the rescue, or helped from afar with effort such as the Open Street Mapping for Port-au-Prince to help on-the-ground workers find victims.  Then governments sent aid, private sectors actioned on the aid, or supported employee efforts to help Haiti.  The solar industry is another example where all three forces eventually aligned to create the momentum we have today. The Germany government initiated by offering feed in tariff.  Individuals passionate about solar started companies, and generated private enterprises that supported the solar effort.  Then homeowners pitched in with investments on solar systems, and word of mouth advertising to their communities.

The examples above were both social changes instigated by government and civil society.  Al Gore's "An Inconvenient Truth" qualifies as a change through civil society by using media. While government and civil society are the likely instigators in social change, there are some examples of businesses as instigators.  For example, Nike started a basketball culture in Africa in order to sell more footware to African men, who traditionally go barefoot.  It is important to realize that business for social change will inherently be bottom line driven.  Some would argue that for-benefit businesses exist.  However, for-benefit businesses, who generate social change for social betterment rather than for bottom line, were started by individuals who believe in a cause.  therefore the fundamental instigator in this case is civil society (individuals), and business is a medium for reaching the social change goal.

When affecting change, it is important to recognize where you reside in the forces.  Tennis player and activist Arthur Ashe states “Start where you are. Use what you have. Do what you can.”  First, recognize whether you can initiate the change through government action, individual action or business action.  If you can change laws then propose a law.  If you can talk to your neighbours, or make a movie, then do so.  If you can leverage your business towards action, start there.  Since all social change require all three forces, it doesn't matter where you start.  However, you must then partner with others who hold power in the other two forces in order to effectively generate momentum behind the social change you seek.