In response to criticisms that the sharing economy appeals mainly to white middle class populations, it must become more inclusive and closely aligned with other fundamental forms of sharing in economic and political terms, argues STWR’s Rajesh Makwana.
Below is an edited transcript of a talk given at an event organised by the People Who Share as part of their monthly Global Sharing Economy Network meetings. An accompanying blog reflecting on the event can be viewed here.
For those of you who are not familiar with Share The World’s Resources, we are a civil society organisation campaigning for a fairer sharing of wealth, power and resources within and between nations. As the name suggests, the principle of sharing is central to our advocacy work, and we have been following the development of the ‘sharing economy’ movement with interest over the past few years. During this time, it’s been very encouraging to witness the emergence of a more visible public discourse on sharing as a new economic model, and I am sure all of us here are now quite familiar with the transformative potential that has been attributed to the sharing economy.
However, we are also aware of the critique that the sharing economy has been subject to: that it is not living up to its full potential, and it is often being co-opted by purely commercial interests and stripped of its potential to pave the way for a more just and sustainable economic alternative. This increasingly polarised debate is of real interest and concern for us at STWR, as our focus is on how sharing within the private, public as well as the emerging commons sector is pivotal to addressing some of the world’s most pressing crises.
So in the context of today’s event, which considers excluded communities and the future of sharing, I would like to take a brief look at whether the ethic and practice of sharing really can create fairer, more sustainable and more democratic societies. And if so, what can proponents of the sharing economy do to play a more effective role in this transformative process? To help answer these questions, we firstly need to be clear about the nature and extent of the crises we face, not just here in the UK but globally.
Let’s look firstly at global poverty. From a systemic perspective, there has actually been a dangerous shift away from the practice of sharing across the world, as illustrated by growing levels of hunger, poverty and deprivation in both rich and poor countries. Of course, extreme poverty is far more severe in the Global South, where around 95% of people survive on the equivalent of less than $10 a day. As Oxfam reported earlier this year, the global situation is getting ever more extreme, as the richest 1% of the world’s population will soon own as much wealth as the rest of us combined.
So there is clearly an urgent need for more effective forms of economic sharing, especially in terms of the measures needed to end extreme poverty and life-threatening deprivation, no matter where in the world it occurs. The question we should perhaps ask ourselves is how we can talk about supporting the practice of sharing - in the truest sense of the word - when so many people go without access to the basics. Every day, around 40,000 people die due to lack of access to nutritious food, clean water and essential healthcare. Surely these people are part of the many communities that really are excluded from the sharing economy in any of its forms.
Let’s also touch briefly on the scale of the ecological crisis. It’s often said that humanity is consuming natural resources 50% faster than the planet can replenish them. Indeed, the average person in the UK has a ‘three-and-a-half planet’ ecological footprint, which highlights the extent to which all of us here would need to reduce our consumption levels if we wanted to live sustainably from a ‘one planet’ perspective.
But the challenge of sharing the planet’s finite resources is further complicated by huge imbalances in consumption patterns across the world. Currently, the wealthiest 20% of the world’s population consume 80% of global resources and are therefore responsible for the vast majority of climate change and environmental destruction. Again, that would probably include all of us in this room. Unless we make some radical changes to the way we extract, produce, distribute and consume goods and resources, we are clearly heading for a devastating rise in average global temperatures of up to 6 degrees centigrade by the end of the century.
Finally, let’s also consider conflict over scarce resources. Resource wars are perhaps the most dangerous consequence of our failure to share in economic terms. As we know, historically the powerful have always waged war to gain control over land and resources. Between 1965 and 1990, 73 civil wars over resources occurred in which more than a thousand people a year died, and at least 18 international conflicts have been triggered by competition for resources since then, including the invasion of Iraq in 2003.
Unless communities and nations find ways of sharing rather than competing over scarce resources, a number of factors all but guarantee a further escalation of resource wars in the near future – including a rising world population, soaring global consumption rates, rapidly disappearing energy supplies, and of course climate change. It goes without saying, therefore, that a viable resource security strategy for the 21st century must be based on governance systems that facilitate cooperation and sharing on a global scale.
So what do all these rather grim and worrying statistics mean for the future of the sharing movement? There can be little doubt that we need radically new social and economic models that can address these crises, and economic sharing clearly has an important role to play in this process. But it needs to be a genuine form of sharing that reverses the rampant commercialisation and consumerism at the heart of social and environmental problems, and it must also address the power structures and politics that maintain the status quo.
This presents a real challenge to those working in and supporting the sharing economy. If the sharing economy movement is to be truly transformative, we will have to move beyond the solely personal, community and commercial view of sharing, and embrace a much broader understanding of this timeless principle. As the following points highlight, there are many ways in which systems of sharing could become more effective at reaching those in excluded communities:
- Strengthen sharing businesses models
In order to really disrupt the business-as-usual economy, sharing enterprises should at least be set up as not-for-profits or cooperatives, which could mean that no single individual or finance group drives the company for their own benefit. Instead, business models and practices that truly embody the principle of sharing should ensure that ownership is democratised and income is fairly distributed among employees.
- Avoid ‘sharewashing’
If sharing economy enterprises are going to remain genuinely aligned with the principle of sharing, then it does mean that the movement must resist co-optation by the big corporate sector. As we well know, this sort of co-optation is already well documented in relation to social and environmental issues through the various methods of ‘greenwashing’ and ‘whitewashing’ a company’s activities. A similar process is now evident in the sharing sector as businesses rebrand themselves under this trendy new meme.
- Scale up sharing in the ‘core economy’
A truly sharing economy is often free and not commercial, and has always included the unpaid care, support and nurturing that bonds us as human beings. The transformative power of interpersonal sharing lies in scaling up these non-economic dimensions through, for example, strengthening networks of mutual aid, pooled skills and community support.
- Build the commons sector
A vibrant commons sector could function independently of markets or direct government involvement and include many sharing economy activities. To help build this sector, we need what P2P theorist Michel Bauwens refers to as the ‘partner state’ - a reformed governmental apparatus that builds on the welfare state model and actively supports the development of the commons.
- Broaden our definition of economic sharing
On their own, interpersonal forms of sharing will never be enough to deliver social justice and environmental sustainability. A much broader definition of the sharing economy is therefore desperately needed, along the lines of the one Benita mentioned earlier. A truly ‘sharing society’ would include, for example, systems of universal social protection, effective public services, as well as accessible public spaces – and a lot more besides. We can even relate the concept of sharing to democratic forms of governance in terms of how equally power is distributed throughout society.
- Support efforts to share internationally
We must also support efforts to share on an international basis, as this global aspect of sharing is the most crucial with regards to addressing the underlying causes of inequality, climate change and conflict over resources. Almost by definition, sharing resources on a finite planet is a process that must take place globally, yet it is rarely discussed among proponents of the sharing economy.
- Recognise that sharing is a common cause that unites us all
If the sharing economy movement is to make a real difference to the social and ecological crises we face, we are going have to join forces with the millions of people around the world who are calling for a wide range of political and economic reforms that embody the principle of sharing. As part of our global call for sharing campaign, STWR has recently released a report called ‘Sharing as our common cause’ which demonstrates how a call for sharing has long been fundamental to demands for social justice, ecological stewardship, true democracy, and even global peace.
I hope these brief points will stimulate some thoughts about how to make the sharing economy movement much more inclusive in the future and more aligned with other fundamental and radical forms of sharing. To wrap up, I’d like to mention that we have also launched a campaign statement that individuals and organisations can sign in order to demonstrate their support for the principle of sharing in relation to their work and activities. Since you all broadly support the sharing economy movement, it would be great if you could add your signatures by visiting www.sharing.org/global-call
Image credit:Tobias Leeger, flickr creative commons