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ELCA World Hunger

Get ready for the economy of sharing

I used to wish for a giant returns counter where I could exchange stuff I didn’t need  for stuff I did need. Behind the counter would be a system for redistributing, reusing, or recycling goods, so that no “returns” were ever junked. We’d all get what we needed, less perfectly good stuff would sit idle in closets and garages, and a lot less new stuff would have to be made.

My dream is coming true. It’s called “collaborative consumption” – a trendy new term for the timeworn habit of sharing.

For more details, watch this fabulous TED talk or read this Sunset magazine article on the economy of sharing. But the bottom line is, a world with too much stuff is an opportunity for people to share, swap or pool instead of buying more and more. We are born and bred to share and cooperate, says Rachel Botsman, the young economist leading the TED talk. Hyperconsumption interrupted that pattern, but the internet is bringing it back in a big way in three new forms:

  1. “Redistribution markets” that are moving used or pre-owned items from where they aren’t used to where they will be used. Think Craig’s List or, whose slogan is “turn what you have into what you want.” (The 3 Rs are now five: reduce, reuse, recycle, repurpose and—implementing my returns counter—redistribute!).
  2. “Collaborative lifestyles,” in which people work, live, and stay intentionally. Are you familiar with coworking, where independent workers share an office space and creativity? Couch surfing, which matches budget travelers and homeowners with rooms or couches to spare? Landsharing, which matches gardeners and small farmers with underused yards and acreage? They are fast becoming household terms!
  3. “Product service systems” like car sharing that let people pay for the benefit of a product without having to own it  outright—a great option for things with “high idling capacity” like cars and power tools. The typical homeowner will use a power drill for 13 minutes in its entire lifetime. Says Botsman, “You need the hole, not the drill!”  So why not rent it from or to someone else?

Collaborative consumption built this community cooker in a Nairobi slum

Does this trend benefit only rich folks with video games to spare? No. Collaborative consumption relies on trust and has always been practiced in communities rich in trust and relationship. Check out this trash-burning community cooker developed in a Nairobi slum, and think about the state of our trust, relationships, and communities.

Collaborative consumption sounds like a basic Christian practice. It’s our job to give away our extra coats and sponsor food pantries. But I wonder whether all that giving keeps us locked in paternalism: I have something, you don’t, you can have mine and I’ll feel good. Collaborative consumption invites us into a more mutual model: I’ve got something, you’ve got something, let’s trade. We’re equally gifted: let’s share.

On the ground, hunger programs are brought to life less by money than by people’s dignity, resourcefulness, and willingness to work hard. Their assets contribute to a process you could call “collaborative construction.” But it’s funny how other people’s gifts vanish when we talk about hunger in congregations. We stick to the same old trope, contrasting our abundance with other people’s lack. We have money, they don’t; therefore they are needy and you should write a check.

I’ve got something, you’ve got something, let’s trade  or I’ve got something, you’ve got something, let’s create something new together frees us to see new, more collaborative ministries. Collaboration is harder. It takes a lot more time than writing a check. It changes the relationships between the people involved. It also changes the stories we tell about one another. (David explored this in his post contrasting two videos—one focused on a little boy playing in the dirt with a bleach bottle, and one in which “underprivileged” Native American teens named their strengths.) And it changes us.

The collaborative consumption concept is changing my vision of the giant returns counter. Now I see that showing up with a toaster I don’t need is just the first step. I have to be able to vouch for the condition of my toaster. I have to trust the person offering whatever I swap it for, be it a working radio, five pounds of green beans, or an hour of sewing. If I choose the hour of sewing, I might have to get to know someone new. And it will be slower than buying in the drive-through lane or pulling $20 from an ATM machine….but I think it will be a whole lot more satisfying.

Anne Basye, Sustaining Simplicity: A  Journal