To realise the true potential of sharing and collaborative consumption we need to challenge the prevailing economic model, particularly the excesses of consumer culture and the widening of inequalities that are an inherent feature of modern capitalist societies.
This interview was originally published by SharingLab.dk
What are the current discussions surrounding the ‘sharing economy’ that interest you, and why?
At Share The World’s Resources (STWR) we focus more on the ‘sharing’ part of the sharing economy discourse, particularly in relation to political issues and civil society debates about how to address urgent social and ecological crises. Although the term has yet to be clearly defined, the sharing economy generally refers to activities that take place in the private sector and also includes ‘commoning’ as well as some of the voluntary work that takes place in the third sector. However, the term is not often related to the economy as a whole or the role of governments, even though public policy ultimately determines how a nation’s collective resources are shared for the common good. That being the case, there is a tendency for discussions about the sharing economy to be somewhat depoliticised and disconnected from important questions around why the planet’s resources are so unequally distributed and unsustainably consumed in the first place.
Taking a much broader perspective about sharing enables us to acknowledge the root causes of inequality and climate change, which are largely the consequence of political ideologies as well as economic and foreign policy objectives that have long shaped how we manage the world’s resources and organise our societies. For example, since the 1980s the ideology of neoliberalism (with its emphasis on deregulating markets, privatising the commons and shrinking the public sphere) has dominated economics and policy making. In many ways, this trend is responsible for undermining and even dismantling some of the most fundamental and complex forms of economic sharing that have ever been established, such as progressive systems of taxation and the universal provision of social protection and essential public services. The same set of neoliberal policies have also led to the pursuit of a highly commercialised, profit-oriented and growth-dependent economic model that fuels climate change and is incapable of sharing the global commons in a way that benefits all people.
The sharing economy discussions that interest us at STWR are therefore those that fundamentally challenge the prevailing economic model, particularly the excesses of consumer culture and the widening of inequalities that are an inherent feature of modern capitalist societies. In relation to the private sector, for example, we are following the discourse on how to more equitably share the planet’s finite natural resources, which will inevitably necessitate a massive reduction in consumption levels if everyone is allowed to have a fair share ecological footprint. This is where collaborative consumption can play a key role in creating ”sustainable patterns of production and consumption”, which has been an official objective as part of the international sustainable development discourse since the 1992 ‘Earth Summit’ and the publication of Agenda 21. In a similar vein but in relation to the public sector, we are interested in the debate around how to establish a truly sharing society in which all people have guaranteed access to food, healthcare, housing and basic social protections as set out in Article 25 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights many decades ago. It is surely impossible to transition to a sharing economy (according to its broadest meaning) unless these long held but as yet unfulfilled goals are an uppermost priority in that endeavour.
What can we learn about collaboration from the ‘sharing economy’?
Collaborative activities are increasingly finding expression in the many prefigurative alternatives across the world that attempt to “build the new world in the shell of the old”. Increasingly we are witnessing the emergence of an innovative type of economic activity that is not driven solely by the need to compete or make profits, but by the desire to create the best possible product through a process of genuine collaboration. For example, there is a growing community of collaborators who are contributing to the development of common pools of knowledge (Wikipedia), computing code (Mozilla) and even design for manufacturing (Wikispeed), and these activities are revolutionising our understanding of how value can be created for society. These sharing-oriented models of production and consumption are also likely to be pivotal to establishing a more effective commons sector that can counterbalance the public and private spheres.
More broadly, collaboration is sure to be a central feature of how individuals, organisations and even governments work together to create a more equal and sustainable world in the 21st Century. In many ways, collaboration (or cooperation) is the opposite of competition – an overrated activity based on the notion of ‘survival of the fittest’ that has misguided the evolution of our economic systems for far too long. For decades, if not centuries, policies that prioritise competition rather than cooperation have led to the creation of a highly unequal global economy in which the wealthiest 20% of the world’s population are now responsible for consuming 80% of the world’s natural resources. Therefore any genuine process of collaboration for the common good can be seen as an antidote to the excessive commercialisation and free market activities that underpin economic systems based on competition. Indeed, cooperation holds the key to realising the new social and economic arrangements that must eventually displace today’s unjust and unsustainable approach to managing humanity’s co-owned wealth and resources.
But it’s at the global level that collaboration is most urgently needed, in the form of more effective cooperation between the world’s governments. Despite the establishment of the United Nations many decades ago (which is arguably the most crucial institution for facilitating collaboration ever created) nations are failing to cooperate successfully to address intractable international problems – largely because they remain focussed on aggressively competing for land, natural resources and an ever larger share of commercial markets on behalf of their corporations. As a consequence, nations are failing to agree how to share the planet’s limited capacity to absorb carbon emissions, or how to distribute the world’s financial resources in a way that can prevent hunger and life-threatening deprivation. More effective forms of intergovernmental collaboration clearly have a pivotal role to play in addressing these and other pressing global issues, which is why it is so important that collaborative principles and practices become ever more prevalent and scaled up at all levels of society.
How can we employ the ‘sharing economy’ to empower urban communities?
There are many instances of social enterprises working with excluded communities in urban centres to ensure better access to skills and resources, or even to reinforce mutual aid and support. For example, Food Cycle is just one of many sharing economy initiatives in the UK that actively reduce food waste and food poverty, while also working to build community. Food bank networks also facilitate sharing at a time when it is estimated that around one million people will soon be dependent on emergency food assistance in the UK alone. Although it is deplorable that hunger exists in any wealthy country, this statistic pales in comparison to the 805 million people living mainly in developing countries who go hungry each day – increasingly in overcrowded urban slums.
Interpersonal forms of sharing do have a vital role to play in enabling people to access resources, reduce consumption levels and strengthen community, but they don’t go far enough to bring real empowerment to those who struggle to secure even their very basic needs. In light of tremendous social and economic challenges such as the scourge of hunger in a world of plenty, STWR argues that the best way to create a sharing economy that can really empower excluded communities is to go beyond the private and voluntary sector forms of collaboration that currently dominate the discourse on sharing. To do this, we need a much more comprehensive understanding of what sharing means in relation to how we organise society. Creating a sharing society should be the goal; one in which the public, private and commons sectors are all geared towards ensuring that every person in any given community can access the goods and services they need to thrive, without transgressing environmental limits. But ongoing government spending cuts to public services across Europe, as well as the prevalence of extreme poverty in developing countries, reflects the extent to which we are failing to ensure that our socio-economic systems embody the principle of sharing in any meaningful way.
Perhaps the most effective way to empower people in both urban and rural communities is therefore by encouraging greater political engagement, as this can enable ordinary citizens to influence the policies, laws and regulations that cause inequality and have a real impact on daily life. From this perspective, community empowerment might include a range of broader sharing-oriented political activities, such as mobilising to oppose cuts to welfare and public services that impact disproportionally on the poor and disadvantaged. It could also mean supporting measures to end tax avoidance by corporations and high-net-worth individuals so that funds are available to governments for safeguarding social protection and guaranteeing access to healthcare, housing and education. Such government policy measures are far more effective forms of sharing collective resources than private or voluntary sector alternatives based on collaborative consumption alone, and should therefore be an additional focus for sharing economy proponents.
Innovative online platforms can also be used to augment direct forms of civic engagement and community empowerment. For example, digital sharing economy tools such as DemocracyOS have the potential to reform antiquated political systems by decentralising democratic power and creating more representative forms of governance. Similarly, Michel Bauwens’ social knowledge economy proposals could help empower urban communities by transforming the way information, goods and services are produced and accessed, particularly as this would occur in a localised and commons-based context. According to Jeremy Rifkin, a new sharing-oriented production paradigm – one that includes the localised production of renewable energy and new modes of distributed manufacturing – could also empower individuals and communities across the world and pave the way towards a third industrial revolution.
What is the future of the ‘sharing economy’?
The future of the sharing economy is to grow beyond the limiting notion that sharing is only about various forms of collaborative consumption, especially those that are predominantly private sector activities. As already mentioned, the sharing economy can help pave the way towards more sustainable ways of producing and consuming goods and services. But the principle of sharing embodies much more than this; at the very least, sharing must be recognised as an ageless principle that characterises what it really means to be human, which is why it is a central tenet of many spiritual traditions. Hence the importance of creating national and international systems that embody and reflect the simple spiritual truth that there is one humanity and one planet that we all must learn to share. Unless we do this, it will remain impossible to mitigate climate change or end extreme poverty within an acceptable timeframe. To achieve these urgent goals, we must therefore envisage the sharing economy in much wider terms and recognise the central role that governments and public policy have to play in sharing wealth, power and resources, both within countries and between them.
It’s notable that the systemic solutions needed to create a more equal and sustainable world are based on the ethic and practice of sharing. For example, this is apparent in relation to international climate change negotiations on how to share the planet’s capacity to absorb carbon emissions. The process of sharing is central to both ‘cap and share’ and ‘contraction and convergence’ models for regulating per capita carbon emissions. The concept of ‘fair shares’ is increasingly being used to frame the debate on how to meet basic needs for all without transgressing environmental limits. And under the Common Heritage of Mankind principle, a number of international treaties already exist for safeguarding and sharing certain global commons, such as the Antarctic and the world’s oceans.
That’s why many more supporters of the sharing economy and collaborative consumption need to regard their pursuits as being part of a wider movement for economic sharing and cooperation. At STWR, we have attempted to highlight this need for a more comprehensive understanding of sharing as a principle that underpins the activities of people working in very different fields in our ‘Global call for sharing’ campaign. As we highlight in a report that accompanies the campaign, Sharing as our common cause, the principle of sharing is already central to diverse calls for social justice, environmental stewardship, global peace and true democracy. To quote a paragraph from the report’s executive summary:
“Unless individuals and organisations in different countries align their efforts in more concrete ways (a process that is already underway), it may remain impossible to overcome the vested interests and entrenched structures that maintain business-as-usual. While we face the eventual prospect of societal, economic and ecological collapse, there is no greater urgency for establishing a broad-based global movement that upholds the principle of sharing as a basic guide for restructuring our societies and tackling the multiple crises of the 21st century. In the end, this may represent our greatest hope for influencing economic reforms that are based on the needs of the world as a whole, and guided by basic human and ecological values.”
Image credit: The Searcher, Flickr creative commons