After WWI, President Woodrow Wilson said, “the highest and best form of efficiency is the spontaneous cooperation of a free people.” Where is the evidence of spontaneous cooperation in our world today? Historically, it seems that the cause of war — Pearl Harbor, Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait and September 11th — will catalyze a society and nations to cooperate. Must we have our backs to the wall, or is it possible for a compelling vision to create spontaneous cooperation?
The Critical Question

In 1969, Dr. R Buckminster Fuller (most well known for geodesic domes and Buckyballs) developed a World Game simulation to explore global resources and trends. It posed the critical question, “how do we make the world work for 100% of humanity in the shortest possible time through spontaneous cooperation without ecological damage or disadvantage of anyone?” In other words, how do we provide a decent living standard for everyone in an environmentally sustainable way? The part about “through spontaneous cooperation” always remained a puzzle to me. How does positive change happen spontaneously on a global scale?

The premier strategy of Fuller’s global simulation was the interconnection of electric power grids between regions and nations with an emphasis on tapping abundant renewable energy resources around the world. Electricity provides the foundation of our modern society, and power grids act as freeways that deliver the electricity to power our homes, businesses and industry. During the 20th Century, transmission lines delivered electricity from large, centralized plants that burned fossil fuels and nuclear energy. Today, developers of wind, solar and geothermal resources in remote locations are plugging into these expanding grid systems — decentralizing power production while increasing grid integration.

But spontaneous cooperation? Hardly. Any project developer will tell you all the hurdles they face due to regulations, interconnection and siting issues. In the energy industry, the time lag between project proposal to actual commissioning can be 10 – 20 years.

Yet quietly — below the radar of most observers — Fuller’s vision of using power lines to link nations across borders has recently been energized at a pace never seen before.
Nations are linking up

In the past few months, Russia and China agreed to large-scale power grid interconnections that will benefit both economies. Additionally, the Chinese have signed deals with Tajikistan and Vietnam to build transmission lines across their respective borders. The South Koreans have offered to extend their grid into North Korea and modernize the North Korean network as a part of the negotiations to scrap the North’s nuclear program.

In Central Asia, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Afghanistan and Pakistan have proposed a transmission line among their states. Calling it a “win-win situation”, the Krgryz Energy Minister Liaquat Ali Jatoi stated “we want to bring benefits to the common man because if there is economic activity and prosperity, it will be shared by the people of these countries.” Moreover, all 10 nations of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) have pledged to interconnect the grids of its members.

In Africa, NEPAD (New African Partnership for Development) and the African Development Bank are supporting the Kenya – Ethiopia agreement to supply power to each other. Modeled after the 12 nation South African Power Pool, 14 ECOWAS (Economic Community of West African States) nations are planning to link their energy grids.

The Middle East has seen an wave of integration. Lebanon will be linked to the regional electricity grid that includes Egypt, Jordan, Syria and Turkey as of the beginning of next year. This interconnection project also involves the joining of Libya and Iraq. Last month, former enemies Iran and Iraq agreed to build four cross-border power lines to transfer 1000 MW of power.

Mexico’s Mesoamerica Initiative plans to integrate the energy grids all Central American nations. The World Bank and the US DOE are partnering with the Central American Integration Secretariat to encourage clean energy development, emphasizing renewables over fossil fuel projects.

Most of these projects have been planned by engineers for years. The economic benefits — load leveling, reliability of supply, emergency backup — are all proven. Yet international transmission requires agreement between ministries of energy and state, financial institutions, local utilities and property owners. Cooperation must overcome the combined barriers of multiple stakeholders.
Emergence through emergency

So what’s happened in the world to cause these nations to work together? Buckminster Fuller said that society will often “emerge through emergency” — because when times are good, any change at all is difficult. For many developing nations the challenge is dire: 1.6 billion people have no electrical services – no refrigeration of food or medicine, clean water or lighting. For the rest of us, scientific consensus on climate change clearly places the cause on our ‘addiction to oil’ for transportation, and burning coal and natural gas for power production.

Today, half the nations on the planet are linked with a neighbor, but half remain electric energy islands. The emergencies of our time: poverty, climate change, peace and population growth are in our face daily. These issues and their solutions transcend political boundaries. National leaders are seeing the benefits of mutual interdependence over trying to go it alone.

Woodrow Wilson spoke of spontaneous cooperation in a post WWI context. Now we’re seeing spontaneous cooperation spread around the world — shaping international relationships from the old “us vs. them” paradigm to a one based on mutual benefit. In power transmission between nations, sharing means having more. That’s synergy — and what’s needed on every continent.