Cooperating in Copenhagen

The headlines this week will no doubt be filled with talk of stalled negotiations in Copenhagen and our increasingly hot and bothered planet. Over the past five years, the climate-justice movement has marshaled an incredibly diverse group of people to push world leaders to do the right thing for our world. Everyone -- from Al Gore to Pat Robertson, from fifth-generation factory workers in West Virginia to first generation college students from Detroit, from scientists to celebrities -- is invested in this issue.

Climate change, while arguably the biggest global threat at the moment, is not unique. The ever-exploding human population is increasingly connected, and our world's most pressing problems are those that affect everyone. Issues like poverty, religious extremism, and the economic crisis cut across party lines and across demographic barriers (class, race, gender, geography). They affect tea-partiers, Free Tibeters, and everyone in between. As such, our future depends on our capacity to resist balkanization -- politically, socially, professionally -- and to continue to learn and collaborate across lines of ideology and expertise.

These issues demand more than polarized debate and salacious sound bites. Pitting ideological opposites against one another in a fit of extremist ping pong, as our cable news networks do consistently, only serves to silo us more. Now more than ever, we need well-intentioned, informed people, sitting across tables and connecting across digital networks to solve the world's most intractable problems. Not because they want to look smart. Not because they're doing it for their political party or votes. But because they recognize that our mutual survival is dependent on our collaboration.

Some people are already climbing out of their ideological silos. The TED (Technology, Entertainment, Design) Conference, run by Chris Anderson and The Sapling Foundation, brings some of the world's most innovative and diverse thinkers together each year to give charismatic, short talks on the ideas they believe could change the world. While the conference itself is still an elite event, costing thousands of dollars to attend, TED talks have been viewed over 100 million times by more than 15 million people online.

Similarly, Aspen Ideas Festival, put on by The Aspen Institute, is another exercise in bringing public intellectuals, activists, and artists together to wrestle with issues like public education, the economy, and health care. It strives to balance out its mostly elite community with scholarship and fellowship programs and leadership development opportunities.

Taking cues from TED and the Aspen Ideas Institute, younger, rougher-around-the-edges organizations like AllDayBuffet are popping up all over the country. Last fall, AllDayBuffet, whose mission is to "change the world through creativity and business," hosted The Feast, a conference on social innovation designed to inspire true collaboration across industries, and it's gearing up for an even bigger meeting-of-the-minds next year.

One might argue that these are just conferences, passing sparks that never quite catch populist flame, but in fact, they have immeasurable, real-world effects. Philanthropists are matched with activists, and organizations are born and sustained. Community advocates and entrepreneurs are re-inspired and influenced to work more strategically and more justly in their respective corners of the world. And friendships and partnerships are formed that connect those disparate corners.

These enterprises are modeling the future of collaborative change, where unlikely bedfellows abound and solutions are less tied to "good politics" than they are to good sense. In part, it's because people are simply sick of partisan politics. We've seen enough money, energy, and goodwill wasted on partisan showboating to know that it doesn't ultimately serve any of us. Sarah Palin's $5 million book deal and publicity tour is the latest example of how analysis of real, pressing problems is often crowded out by very lucrative dog-and-pony (pitbull-and-moose?) shows.

In part, we must collaborate because we're waking up to the complexity of our problems. The environmental crisis is not about a bunch of hippies who want to hug trees; it is about consumption practices, race and class disparities, toxicity, and global health. Terrorism is not about a bunch of evildoers plotting to end America because they don't like McDonalds and reality television; it is about enduring poverty that creates the kind of conditions that make young people vulnerable to violent ideology, border insecurity, and religious extremism (among so much else). Everything is so interconnected and, as such, requires interconnected solutions.

Our problems are urgent, violent, and in need of immediate action, as Copenhagen so undeniably demonstrates. We don't have time to shout at each other across great cultural divides, as we so often did in the past two decades. If we can't find common ground, we won't have any ground left to stand on.