There is nothing novel about the practice of sharing; people do it every day and have done since the dawn of civilisation. But on Global Sharing Day, millions of people in organisational networks that span 147 countries simultaneously voiced their support for the ‘sharing economy’ by participating in sharing workshops and activities across the world. Take note: never before has a coordinated international campaign focussed public attention on the principle of sharing on this scale. In light of the many crises humanity faces today – from poverty and climate change to resource wars – the growing support for economic sharing signals an important shift in consciousness with the potential to rapidly transform the way we understand and address the challenges we face.
As entrepreneurs and investors involved in the sharing economy would attest, sharing clearly makes sense from a business perspective. Finding ways of sharing underused resources between organisations – from skills to office space – can simultaneously reduce costs and bring in additional income. Similarly, providing opportunities for people to earn money from things they’re not using – spare rooms, idle cars, drills, etc – provides a tempting business opportunity for the new wave of environmentally literate and socially savvy entrepreneurs. While sharing those items we don’t use might sound like common sense, this aspect of the sharing economy presents a radical departure from traditional business models, and is one that can simultaneously reduce carbon emissions, save money and strengthen communities. Even the retail giant Marks and Spencer is trailing a new sharing-oriented business model, dubbed ‘shwopping’.
The diverse forms of sharing
The integration of sharing into future business practices is just one of many examples of how sharing is emerging as perhaps the single most important principle for re-organising society in the 21st Century. Digital sharing platforms already drive computer operating systems and websites, and make available a range of free-to-use/open-source services and applications. Outside of the virtual world, the many diverse examples of the sharing economy include food-sharing schemes and other forms of collaborative welfare provision. Most community-led projects fall broadly into the realm of sharing, from time-banks to community gardens. Some of the most poignant recent examples include Occupy Sandy, a local relief effort that distributes resources to help those affected by the hurricane, as well as the Rolling Jubilee initiative to use crowd-sourced money to write off debt, described as ‘a bailout of the people by the people’.
As anthropologists have long reported, sharing has always existed in traditional societies in a variety of forms. Today, systems of sharing still strengthen social cohesion and underpin economic activity in nations across the world. But at a time when harsh policies of economic austerity – and mass protests against them – are sweeping the globe, it is important that we recognise systems of progressive taxation, welfare and public services as complex sharing economies in which citizens collectively take responsibility for securing basic human needs for all. On a worldwide basis, we also have a landmark commitment to sharing resources for the global common good with the establishment of the United Nations. Even though systems of international aid are in need of extensive reform, they represent an important first step in the creation of a sharing economy on a global scale.
These many forms of sharing and redistribution that take place at every level of society are all part of the sharing economy. But it is at the national and global level that the sharing economy can have a truly transformative impact on how we live – especially in relation to global poverty, environmental sustainability and world peace. The critical question facing humanity today is whether we choose to support and scale up these broader systems of sharing, or whether we allow them to be further undermined and dismantled by those who are ideologically opposed to putting sharing at the centre of policymaking.
Sharing to save the world
It is now increasingly apparent that a global economic system that prioritises self-interest and competition is potentially devastating for life on Earth, and benefits the few at the expense of the majority. Humanity as a whole is consuming the world’s natural resources at a rate 50 percent faster than the earth can replenish them. And in a frenzied drive to maintain our consumerist lifestyles, nations are prepared to do almost anything to secure their national interests, including buying up large tracts of foreign land or employing military tactics that inevitably escalate conflict between nations.
By scaling up the global sharing economy we can improve access to essential resources like food, water and health care for the many millions of people who still go without. At a time when around half of the world lives in crippling poverty, this could prevent the needless deaths of some 40,000 people every day. By finding ways of sharing the world’s natural resources more equitably and sustainably, it would be possible to manage the global commons in the interest of all people (including future generations) and regulate consumption patterns across rich and poor countries. Sharing access to the world’s scarce natural resources could also transform our approach to international peace and security, and significantly reduce the threat of further conflict and war.
As a global voice in support of sharing continues to grow, it is essential that everyone who champions the sharing economy see themselves as part of a much larger movement for societal transformation. As many millions of ordinary people campaigning for social and environmental justice may agree, the most compelling incentives for scaling up the sharing economy are not financial but humanitarian and environmental. If we put these urgent priorities at the heart of the global movement for a sharing economy, it may not be long until communities, nations and businesses are all sharing resources more equitably and sustainably – the ultimate global sharing day.