Bringing out our collective best

Published Monday, January 23, 2012 in the New Brunswick Telegraph Journal.

There’s an old expression that goes, “Two heads are better than one.”  It’s a folksy way of stating a simple truth: the best results usually happen when people choose to work together.  In other words, when they co-operate. 

Many heads together
These days, perhaps the world’s best example of working together is Wikipedia, the well-known on-line encyclopedia.  Launched only 11 years ago, Wikipedia has rocketed to become one of the most popular websites on the internet.  One in six internet users wordwide visit it monthly, and the site now has over 20 million articles in nearly 300 languages.

What sets Wikipedia apart is how it was built and is operated.  For its enormous size and complexity, it is run by just 35 people – and they work mostly on software and administration.  The richness of Wikipedia – its content – is supplied by a huge army of volunteers from around the world.  Far from being experts, they are mostly ordinary people like you or me.  Volunteers initiate articles, and then other volunteers edit, tweak, expand and otherwise improve them.  The end result is a collective best effort of a group of divergent people scattered around the globe.  It’s free, searchable and simple to use.  It may not be perfect, but it’s very good.

Wikipedia is a classic example of what’s called an “open source initiative” – open source meaning that anyone can contribute.  It’s a concept that evolved from the world of free computer software (such as the Linux operating system).  Wikipedia has proven that it works for more than just software.

A model for environmental solutions?
Since Wikipedia works so well as a source of general information, could a similar open source model be used to consolidate and disseminate information on a particular topic, such as the environment?  Well, why not? 

Unfortunately, there is no large, all-encompassing eco-Wikipedia – at least not yet.  However, there are numerous wikis specializing in environmental and community subjects.  Here are a few:
• is a climate change information wiki developed by the University of the Third Age, a UK-based group of learners over 50
• debunks common climate-related misinformation.  Lord knows there’s a huge need for that.
• provides information on adaptation to climate change impacts
• provides information on sustainable community development
• provides information about the sustainable use of bioenergy, plus lists numerous other wikis. 

An important requirement
All successful wikis share one common feature: contributors forego personal gain in favour of a collective good.  In other words, they work for free.  Their only gain is the knowledge that they have contributed to something that improves the world. 

That’s an interesting sentiment in an era where everything seems to have its price; where the notion of a collective good seems to have been banished to the back of the bus in favour of individualism, self-absorption and paper wealth. 

Yet sensitivity to a collective good is a critical way of thinking in this era of dawning environmental distress, because everything I read about coming climate change and related problems leads me to one unavoidable conclusion: if we are to be serious about solving the challenges we face, we will need to work together like never before. 

(Perhaps that’s one reason why 2012 has been declared the UN International Year of Co-operatives, which, in the words of Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon, “are a reminder to the international community that it is possible to pursue both economic viability and social responsibility.”) 

All, together
If two heads are better than one, imagine the potential of seven billion heads working together toward climate change awareness and solutions.  Open source models like Wikipedia are one way to make that happen.  Co-operatives are another.  We could use more of both.