Is it a ‘sharing economy’ when we pass the buck?

An article in The Atlantic earlier this month reviewed the origins of sharing in society and concluded two things – the sharing economy was the norm, not the exception for most of human existence, and today’s sharing economy is not really a sharing economy.

While it appears novel today, sharing in society has been taking place since the times of the hunter-gatherers. Work by Lewis, Vinicius, Strods, Mace, and Migliano (2014) say these societies adopted the social norm of ‘demand-sharing’, whereby food brought into camps were claimed and divided among group members, even those who rarely hunted.

This is explained by the nomadic lifestyle inherent in the hunter-gatherer society. Families who shared while on the move through widely varying climates survived, while non-sharing and sedentary families tended to die off. As civilization migrated to an agrarian society, towns sprung up, trades specialized, homesteads were established and the idea of private property took hold.

Today, globalization is transforming the aspirational futures of millions of citizens of developing nations. These aspirations will help fuel the growth of the middle class in Africa and the Middle East to leapfrog in technology, entrepreneurship, and educational models. The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) forecasts the world’s middle class will grow from 2 billion to almost 5 billion people by 2030, with most of that growth coming from developing nations. The world’s buying power is shifting toward this growing middle class and these aspirations will fuel the demand for assets.

The sharing economy that has emerged recently is remarkable in the face of globalization, but the basic necessity driving social norms that allow ‘sharing’ are little changed from the early days.  It’s survival.  Today the threat is not death by starvation, it’s running out of usable natural resources.

Today’s ‘sharing economy’ is in reality an extension of flea markets, swap meets, garage sales, car boot sales, and second-hand shops.  The difference is that today this system is internet-enabled, accessible through mobile technology, and promoted through social media.  Known as ‘collaborative consumption’, it doesn’t involve sharing in the pure sense, but involves “consumers” and “obtainers”, who do not only “obtain” but also “provide” resources to others.  As the Atlantic concludes, “Ownership is still private; everything is rented, not truly shared. The sharing economy might be a significant step toward more efficiently tapping into the wealth of physical things owned by individuals—as opposed to corporations—but it’s still vastly different from the kind of sharing that defined humanity for tens of thousands of years.”

Today sustainable consumption is forming a virtuous partnership with collaborative consumption for the benefit of mankind.

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