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Can the sharing economy solve global hunger? It all depends...

Adam Parsons STWR
07 June 2013

An article published recently on the avant-garde website Co.Exist poses an important question that is worth repeating: can the sharing economy solve global hunger?

The question is important not only because of the seriousness of the subject of hunger, but also because – as the comment piece acknowledges – global issues are rarely the preserve of current ideas behind sharing, which are almost always limited to a local context. Few thinkers or practitioners who are promoting the sharing economy are considering the application of this versatile concept to the most pressing challenges of our time, which includes international inequality, geopolitical instability, global governance or, as in this instance, global hunger.

This may be completely understandable, as it is one thing to talk about sharing a power drill with neighbours, swapping clothes or sharing a car ride to a summer festival, and it is quite another thing to think about sharing in relation to difficult political issues or social injustice. Yet this is oftentimes a discouraging sign for the current discourse on economic sharing, because there is a lot more to this emerging conversation than at first meets the eye.

Millions of people across Europe and North America in particular are becoming excited by the possibilities of economic sharing as a compelling alternative to the excessive consumerism that dominates life in developed societies. Granted, many proponents of the sharing economy are also passionate about the relevance of sharing in relation to climate change and environmental sustainability. But so far very few people are catching on to the dramatic potential that sharing holds for helping us to understand, simplify and bring down to earth interrelated global issues and complex economic thinking.

If properly understood, the principle of sharing can act as a simple guide to solving multiple global problems, and it inherently reflects the moral values and ethics that should underpin the fabric of society. By applying this age-old principle to the field of political economy, it can also enable us to navigate between the divisive ‘isms’ that still drive much of the debate on economic and social rights.

For these reasons and many others, it is encouraging to see an article that asks what lessons can be taken from the local to the global economy with respect to the concept of sharing. The question itself is a moral imperative with dramatic implications for current economic arrangements, even though, in this particular article, there was no mentioning of the power structures and politics that are integral to solving the problem of hunger. Without an acknowledgement of the important role that governments have to play in securing basic needs for all within environmental limits, we run the risk of limiting the emerging conversation on global sharing to the idea of charity.

This is not to disparage the short comment piece by Bradley Kreit, research director at the Institute for the Future, who has inadvertently laid down the gauntlet to all exponents of the sharing economy. In his words, there is “a longer-term question and opportunity for thinking about how to move emerging efforts around sharing from primarily local to becoming more broadly global”.

But perhaps the real question is: will the evolving ideas and practices related to the sharing economy remain depoliticised and limited to the local and national level, or does the practice of sharing have much greater application as a solution to major crises on the global and inter-governmental level? And if so, then what are we – global civil society – going to do about it?

Photo credit: sterile, flickr creative commons