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Reflection from Aspen Ideas Fest: Collective Action in the Land of Rugged Individualism

July 11, 2017

By Sarah Zak Borgman - Skoll Foundation

Like many on the coasts, I’ve been guilty of engaging in ‘armchair anthropology’ these past months, and my recent trip to the Aspen Ideas Festival allowed me the opportunity to binge on this newfound interest. In the days since, I’ve been stuck on one particular notion that seems to inform our divisive current state–the paradox of cooperative living versus rugged individualism.

In classrooms all over America (at least in the 70’s and 80’s when I was in school), we learned about the individuals who helped tame the rough, romantic frontier as we pushed westward. In textbooks, we admired those charismatic individuals (think: Davy Crockett, Buffalo Bill, Annie Oakley) who blasted through boundaries. For better or worse, this grand American ideal is now ingrained in our collective mindset.

Cooperative living used to mean you met once a year with your neighbor to fix the fence line that separated your properties. In today’s context, we still admire the ‘tough’ business leader who makes a company successful despite all challenges–without acknowledging the hard working team around them. Let’s face it- it’s easy to get caught up in that sexy, Atlas-Shrugged-Ayn Rand ideal. Moderation, cooperation, mediation, prudence, and collective identity are just not as attractive as admiring a single, striving person.

But now I’m a grown up. Sort of. And this vision does not square with how I’ve found success and actually, joy in life. Being part of a community, with common expectations, rules, goals and successes, has been where I have found greatest satisfaction. Supporting one another in good times and bad seems, well, right. Self-interest as a guiding principle seems, well, wrong. And it’s not how I see people raising children now either.

While listening to so many smart people in Aspen, I was struck by how America is stuck in this duality, especially with regard to foreign affairs–go it alone or join the global community. One session I attended, “Has American Grand Strategy Gone Missing?”, clearly described this current struggle with scholars and policy experts across the spectrum. If I favored a collective approach to global priorities prior to that discussion, I’m now a confirmed believer in a global community. I know Earth is our collective home, and what we do here affects a whole lot of other communities around the world. The same is true in China, Africa, South America, you name it.

Pandemics know nothing of borders. Rising sea levels will affect all coastal cities. It is not a zero sum game, and if we do not work together, we’ll all lose in this new America-First paradigm. We must navigate these massive issues with this collective, global context in mind, not retreat to our little safe corner of the world.  Many who gathered in Aspen last week, have direct lines to those in power and are crafting arguments that persuade decision makers to see beyond a limited horizon. I am hopeful these rational, moderate—dare I say prudent—voices will become the new heroes of today’s classrooms.

image (cc) Todd Petrie

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