What does it actually mean ‘to share’? This might seem like an obvious question, but the concept of sharing is increasingly being debated, discussed and redefined in our modern age of rapid technological change and planetary crises.
The rise of the sharing economy in recent years has given particular impetus to this debate, in which many academics are now analysing how sharing is a conflated economical concept that has been co-opted by corporate interests. It’s interesting to observe how savvy young progressives are resisting against this trend, while many social activists and environmentalists are beginning to chart a new direction for (and entirely new understanding of) the sharing economy – not as a profit-oriented business model, but as a potentially transformative mode of social exchange and economic activity.
For example, a community-building innovator based in New York, Lee-Sean Huang, has coined the term #WeWashing to help identify and critique the abuse of terms like “sharing”, “community” and “we”, which are often debased through online technology platforms or manipulated by corporate marketing techniques. Yet these words are meaningful, writes Huang, and “reminders that we are part of something greater than ourselves. As community members and citizens, we share common bonds and common interests. We are more than consumers.” Huang therefore argues that we need to “preserve the meaning of altruistic sharing and the bonds of community beyond narrowly-defined economic transactions”.
In a similar vein, the environmental news and commentary site Grist recently published a new series on “the real sharing economy”, asserting that sharing “has been appropriated and stripped of all meaning by people trying to sell you things, much like sustainability was.” In contrast, ‘real’ sharing goes far beyond “profit-seeking smartphone apps for unregulated taxi services (Uber) and vacation rentals (Airbnb)”, and could allow “humanity as a whole to consume less, hopefully shrinking our economy’s voracious appetite for materials and energy.”
An article by Sam Bliss at Grist gives a neat overview of how sharing can help us achieve economic degrowth in consumption and production, while “maintaining quality of life, or even improving it with more social interactions and stronger community relationships”. A real sharing enterprise, he argues, is not driven by profits for shareholders but wider concerns of equity, fairness and worker participation. He also acknowledges the potential of sharing wealth and power on a bigger scale, which is the only way to decrease global inequality, achieve true social justice, or fix a broken political system dominated by vested interests.
He even goes on to cite STWR’s report that explains how, in his words, “sharing can be the idea that brings together social, economic, and ecological movements in a grand alliance. Imagine Black Lives Matter, the fossil fuel divestment crusade, and the smoldering embers of Occupy joining forces to fight for a real sharing economy.”
No doubt the divergent perspectives on economic sharing will be openly debated at the upcoming Ouishare Fest 2015 in Paris, which has a wide variety of speakers from Charles Eisenstein, Michel Bauwens and Rob Hopkins to Lisa Gansky, Arun Sundararajan and Jeremiah Owyang (as well as a panel discussion with STWR on the environmental impacts of collaborative consumption – not to be missed for anyone attending!).