The Collaborative Economy and the Planet

Sep282012

Can sharing goods and services help save the planet?  That was one of a number of provocative questions posed by Van Jones in a Master class offered by the Presidio Graduate School.  You may recall Jones as the passionate human rights and green jobs proponent who served briefly in the Obama Administration.  The problem statement with which he launched the class was that consumerism is threatening the planet’s future as we extract more and more resources and throw away more and more things, i.e. waste.  Collaborative economics was described as a “nation of neighbors”, where we share with one another and rely more on our social capital than strictly upon financial capital.  Jones capsulized it as follows:  “do we want to treat our planet as if we are locusts (consuming the planet) or as honeybees (living, building and producing together)?”

Sharing can be part of the solution to the ecological problems that come from excess consumerism.  In the United States at least, we are seeing an explosion of peer-to-peer sharing services.  Companies like RelayRides, TaskRabbit, NeighborGoods, AirBNB, Wimdu, Spinlister, Couchsurfing, Uber and many others (including some now venerable examples like Freecycle and Zipcar) are applying social media to the sharing of transportation, lodging and household tasks.  It is estimated that the sharing economy, as some are calling this overall phenomenon, can be as large as $100 billion+ in a few years.  

What’s the catch asks Jones?  Among the issues he is concerned about are how production and jobs are going to be affected and how those impacts will be offset.  If we are all sharing rides around town, Detroit (and Tokyo and Seoul) obviously won’t need to make as many cars.  There is also the serious question of how a sharing economy is going to fairly accommodate poorer people:  after all, how do people without assets participate in sharing; how do we overcome any lingering racial or cultural mistrust that will impede sharing? 

I would add the question of how do we build a sharing economy that is global in nature when large populations in China, India and elsewhere are either impoverished or newly aspire to all of the trappings of developed, Western nations?  One cab ride across Shanghai will tell you that the impetus for car ownership is very strong in China and sharing may not be so desirable to the average person.  Jones’ noted that one of the challenges facing the sharing economy, even here in the West, is making it “cool”, i.e. making it more desirable to be thrifty or economical than pocketing the latest and greatest gadget.

Social media platforms, of course, are not the only way to encourage collaboration and to decrease the environmental impacts of consumerism.  In California, solar and community advocates have been trying to pass legislation permitting “community solar” where a neighborhood could purchase green energy from an installation on a church, school or even a vacant lot, i.e. not every homeowner or renter needs their own array.  Senate Bill 843 (Wolk) died in this year’s legislative session, but the idea has a lot of promise and is likely to resurface. 

In the same vein, but broader in scope, a European consortium called SPREAD (Sustainable Lifestyles 2050) has been documenting a number of lifestyles and behaviors that can contribute to a healthy future.  Some examples are community gardens and local farming, eco-housing, co-op housing, videoconferencing and solar hot water.  That’s an eclectic mix, some of the ideas being facilitated by technology and some simply involving “smarter” living.  The growing sharing economy is both a trend worth watching and one where smart people of all kinds will need to contribute to solve the accompanying problems. 

What do you think about these ideas as ways of improving quality of life?