(Originally published in ON TRACK: The Transition Honesdale Newsletter, Fall 2012)
It might start as simply as this: “Hey, can I borrow your rake?”
Or maybe it’s like this: “Well, it’s been a great summer, my garden grew like gangbusters – but now I’m absolutely flooded with zucchini here, would you like a few?”
At moments like these, you probably don’t find yourself thinking, “Well, what do you know, we seem to be participating in some alternative form of economic transaction!”
But these are exactly the kinds of moments that, at heart, define a different kind of economy: a “sharing economy.” In a sharing economy, goods and services are exchanged across communities and social networks, not based on monetary exchanges, but on – something else. This “something else” has many names – you could call it “reciprocity,” “neighborliness,” or perhaps simply “relationship.” A sharing economy, unlike a market economy, recognizes that relationships have value in and of themselves.
Here’s a real-life example: my next-door neighbor and I have an informal arrangement. He’s got a lawn mower; I have one of those spiffy ergonomically-designed snow shovels. So, in the summertime, he mows my front lawn when he mows his – and in the winter, I dig out his sidewalk when I dig out mine. We don’t keep track of exactly how many times he mows my lawn, or how many snow days we have – so the exchange might not be exactly equal in any given year, but it’s worked out fine for us so far.
What is needed to create a sharing economy? What makes it run? Trust among the participants is a crucial element for a sharing economy to be successful – and so is an ethos that values “access over ownership,” and confers status based not on how much wealth an individual accumulates for themselves, but how well the individual facilitates the free flow of value amongst the members of the community.
The Transition Movement, generally speaking, does not endorse one particular economic philosophy or another. It cannot be easily pigeonholed as either “capitalist” or “socialist.” (This is just as well, since its explicit aim is to help communities hold themselves together under stress, and different economic viewpoints can be one of the most sensitive of fault lines.)
That having been said, it should be clear that Transition is not about business-as-usual, but about a search for more sustainable and resilient ways of doing things than either market forces or government regulation have been able to provide so far.
Still, we are products of a mostly capitalist system here, and so it may be no surprise to find some Transition-friendly concepts beginning to show up on the radar of the American business community. As much as I might fantasize personally about Transition leading us to some kind of post-capitalist society, where the profit motive is not quite so almighty, the fact is that along the way some folks are going to make money from the process… and that is probably a good thing.
To see what I mean, just do a Google search on the phrase “sharing economy,” and follow the links that turn up. Articles in such magazines as Fast Company and Forbes (yes, even Forbes!) speak in glowing terms of the “expanding ‘sharing economy’ trend” and highlight fast-growing “collaborative consumption” companies such as Zipcar and Airbnb.
The term “sharing economy” is very important in Transition circles – but where most Transition folks may think of informal community-based networks of individuals helping meet one another’s needs, entrepreneurs are seeing a hard truth: such networks, in order to facilitate efficient sharing on larger scales, will require organization, maintenance, administration… and investment.
In other words, they are business opportunities, serving a growing marketplace segment.
As Sarah Horowitz has written in a 2011 article in The Atlantic,
“This new shared market economy is being driven by a quiet revolution: the millions of Americans who no longer want to prop up our faltering economy with endless and thoughtless consumption. They recognize that hyper-consumption is no longer an option, both because it’s not sustainable and because they have less money to spend. Instead, Americans are starting to spend their limited income in a responsible, thoughtful, and connected way.”
So here is one place where we can actually watch the paradigm shifting. It’s not a romantic, revolutionary change, overthrowing one economic order and replacing it wholesale with another – but a gradual shift of perspective, beginning exactly where it needs to begin. Soon, even financiers and multinational CEOs may begin to reappraise some of their most basic economic assumptions.
The sustainable, resilient economic system that eventually emerges, I think, will retain some features of existing economies, though it will be based on fundamentally different values. Don’t worry, we will still need accountants, marketers, managers… and yes, even lawyers. But we and future generations will someday be able to look back, and regard today’s economic institutions with the kind of bemused bafflement we reserve today for, say, feudalism, or the age of the Robber Barons.
A growing number of websites have sprung up to facilitate and discuss the development of the sharing economy.