By Graham Peebles
Graham Peebles highlights the green shoots of a culture of sharing around the world and argues that, through sharing, justice and the dissipating of tensions between wealthy countries and the developing nations may eventually be realized.
Emerging with growing momentum among the evolving values of the new time is the unifying principle of sharing. Sharing has become fashionable, the Economist reports. According to Mark Levine in the New York Times, “Sharing is clean, crisp, urbane, postmodern; owning is dull, selfish, timid, backward.”
The sharing craze has spawned new books and sharing initiatives, schemes and groups abound, from the international to the individual. The internet offers a platform for creative sharing opportunities that many are developing. News and communication are being revolutionized, the sharing of images, film, knowledge, ideas, opinions, etc. is transforming notions of participatory democracy, expanding free speech and freedom of information. This is of particular value to those living in developing countries who have for so long been isolated. Thanks to improving access to the internet nations are being empowered, connected, interconnected and integrated into the world community.
Sharing in action
The internet encyclopaedia Wikipedia, launched in 2001 by Jimmy Wales and Larry Sanger, is a sharing phenomenon. There are currently, according to Wikipedia itself “over 22 million freely usable articles in 284 languages, written by over 34 million registered users and countless anonymous contributors worldwide, and visited monthly by 14 per cent of all internet users”. [emphasis added] In a further sharing initiative, Wikipedia states that “in late March 2012, the Wikimedia Foundation announced Wikidata, a planned universal platform for sharing data between all Wikipedia language editions”, creating an expanded integrated resource for data and information, freely available to everyone, potentially anywhere in the world.
In a positive sign of the times, the United Nations has recently established a website for the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) that champions positive development programmes. According to the UN, the aim of the website is to give local communities in developing countries the skills and know-how to better manage the natural resource in their environment, and to strengthen partnerships between groups working on sustainable development projects. This ground-breaking forum offers groups working in associated areas the chance to share their knowledge, research and experiences. Those “working on environmental issues in developing countries can submit content, as well as share their expertise and experiences with peers”.
In a further move, the UN Department of Peacekeeping Operations and the Department for Field Support is cultivating sharing in their work, as is made clear on their website. “Best practices and case studies from the field are shared with all missions through a dedicated Community of Practice and dedicated training. We also use resources from our partners like UNEP and the Swedish Research Agency.”
The UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) is also offering a toolkit for sharing on their website, stating that non-governmental organizations “may partner with the UNHCR in joint planning and information-sharing to ensure coherence in operational approaches”.
International and intergovernmental cooperation and sharing of data is most evident on environmental issues. The Intergovernmental panel on Climate Change was set up by the United Nations Environment Programme in 1988 and involves 120 countries. Thousands of scientists work on a voluntary basis, writing and reviewing papers that are summarized for key policy makers.
Sticking with the environment, “carpooling” is a brilliant travel scheme based on sharing. People travelling to the same destination share a vehicle and the travel costs. This idea began in America, where in 2009 around 10 per cent of commuter journeys where shared. It is another internet-based scheme, functioning via websites and smartphones. The website is one of the largest and operates throughout Europe and claim to “transport a million people every month”. The idea is simple, as most sharing schemes seem to be, and has many benefits. As www.carpooling.com explains, “by sharing a ride, people save gas and money, reduce auto emissions and meet new friends. Pollution, traffic, parking and road maintenance are reduced. People can share experiences and help each other.” There is even a British charity, Carplus, which promotes car sharing and car club schemes throughout the country. Following on from Velib, the successful bicycle sharing scheme started in 2007, Paris is the first city to set up a car sharing scheme. As the Guardian reports, “Annick Lepetit, in charge of transport at city hall,described it as “moving into another culture, the culture of car sharing”. We could perhaps expand this and say the culture of sharing is upon us!
Sharing between students and teaching staff is finding a place within many educational institutions. Group work within schools is the model increasingly being employed, helping to build relationships, encourage cooperation and balance somewhat the divisive effects of competition. The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development) in its 2009 teacher evaluation report, concludes: “The expectation is that teachers engaging in reflective practice, studying their own methods of instruction and assessment, and sharing their experience with their peers in schools, becomes regular and routine part of professional life.” As this becomes the norm in schools, children will increasingly adopt the habit of sharing, encouraging broader social responsibility.
The breakdown in the current, unjust economic system, which is based on competition and separation, has led to some radical experiments in social living, with sharing being a key ingredient.
Heidemarie Schwermer is a 70-year-old German former schoolteacher who, after seeing large numbers of homeless people in Dortmund where she lived, founded in 1994 Give and Take Central, Germany’s first exchange circle. Two years later she gave away all of her belongings and has lived without money for the last 16 years. A remarkable achievement, made possible by various demonstrations of sharing. In an interview with Share International in April 2012, she explains the idea:
Anyone can participate in “give and take” – even if one has no money. In the interim there are many such centres where people can exchange services without money playing a role: a haircut in exchange for a car repair, babysitting for window cleaning, counselling or office work for baking, and much more.
This extraordinary story has been replicated in a more modest fashion in Britain by Mark Boyle, also known as “the moneyless man”. Mark lived for a year without any cash and founded the Feeconomy Community and the online sharing website. According to Wikipedia “The Freeconomy Community has over 25,000 members in over 150 countries… allows people to share, moving away from exchange economies towards pay it forward philosophy.” “Freeconomy” functions through individuals offering skills and support to other members of the community for free, or in exchange for help they need. The community is completely open and operates through the internet. Pay it forward describes the process of, having received a good deed, one performs an act in kind to someone else, not paying the deed back but paying it forward, thereby sharing generosity of spirit through an act of gratitude expressed as kindness. This is a central idea within the “freeconomy” philosophy, based as it is on sharing.
Sharing “stuff” and democracy
Anyone who has spent time in developing countries and returned to the West recognizes the waste and overconsumption that has driven capitalism for decades, entrapping the human sprit in the process. As a result, many in the (so-called) developed world are simply awash with “stuff”. Instead of throwing away things no longer needed, websites like Freecycle and Freegle offer a mechanism for reusing unwanted items, by passing them onto someone else. As the Freegle site says, “Don’t throw it away – give it away”. The community consists of around 1.5 million members in Britain and around 350 “reuse groups” as they call them. The Freecycle Network, originated in Tuscon, Arizona, in the USA in 2003 and now has a presence in 85 countries worldwide with almost nine million members in 5,000 communities. The first Freecycle group in Britain was set up in London in October 2003, there are now 540 groups with 2,500,000 members. To reuse is to share. It is an example of the pay forward economic idea, based as it is on the virtue of generosity.
Another example of community-generated sharing is Food Swap, founded in America by five women. It is best described in its own words: “A food swap is a recurring event where members of a community share homemade, home-grown or foraged foods with each other. Swaps allow direct trades to take place between attendees, e.g. a loaf of bread for a jar of pickles or a half-dozen backyard eggs.” Starting in the US, there are now food swap groups in Canada too. At a slight tangent yet connected is Couchsurfing. People with a spare sofa, or bed even, offer it to travellers on the understanding that one fine day the traveller may return the favour. According to theEconomist, “There are 2.3 million registered couchsurfers in 79,000 cities worldwide.”
Sharing skills, goods, knowledge, techniques, workspaces, ideas and views, exchanging services and materials – the list is endless. Platforms of contemporary barter, homemade jam for freshly baked bread, lunch in payment for cleaning – the cynic might se these as schemes generated by economic necessity but the effect is that worldwide the seeds of social transformation are beginning to take root. These could be the seeds of a new and more just economic structure, one that clarifies action through the purification of motive. In The Art of Cooperation, Benjamin Crème advocates the “principle of sharing” as the foundation for a new and just global economic system – an idea whose time is dawning.
Sharing the road to peace
The visionary Brandt Report (BR), published in October 1981, “called for international codes of conduct for the sharing of technology… global safeguards against restrictive business practices and a new framework for the activities of multinational corporations”. So far these measures have not been implemented in any meaningful way, and the economic divisions between and within North- South countries highlighted in the BR have widened. The failure to implement the BR’s recommendations has led to the “missing out on vast possibilities for international peace and development through sharing with poor nations the benefits of the information revolution, 90 per cent of technology ownership and use remains in developed nations, creating a global ‘digital divide’”.
Peace and sharing are connected, a relationship made clear in the BR, which back in 1980 stated that “A new century nears, and with it the prospects of a new civilization. Could we not begin to lay the basis for that new community with reasonable relations among all people and nations, and to build a world in which sharing, justice, freedom and peace might prevail?”
Look closely with an open mind and you may see the early signs of such a world, for within the fogs of conflict and suffering there is hope and cause for optimism. The growing sharing initiatives are a herald of the new; they are to be welcomed and championed. Professor Frederico Mayor Zaragoza, a former director of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), in an interview with Share International, makes the case for peace through sharing: “We [the UN] exist to create, physically and intellectually, the conditions for peace. This implies real justice and sharing, not a simple distribution of aid and political patch-up.”
“Real justice” is concerned with the implementation of universally agreed human rights, with participation, consultation and, crucially equality and the fair distribution of the world’s resources. All are democratic ideals and all will be realized through expressions of sharing.
Sharing equitably the world’s resources, many of which are to be found in developing countries, would be a giant step in establishing justice and dissipating tensions between wealthy countries and the developing nations. Benjamin Crème makes the point in The Art of Cooperation: “Sharing the world’s resources will restore sanity to the world. It will make life happier for most people.” Furthermore: “Through sharing alone will justice be confirmed.“
Clearly it is unjust that 70 per cent of the world’s natural resources, food, water, etc. are usurped and wasted by 30 per cent of the world’s people, as is currently estimated to be the case. For example, the USA, with just 5 per cent of the world’s population, consumes 25 per cent of the resources – is this just, or even sane? Sharing of the world’s resources equitably among the people, based on need, would be a giant step in establishing justice. Professor Zaragoza goes on to say that “since the end of the Cold War, the United Nations has been eroded because it has been forced to divert from its essential core work – peace through justice, meaning real sharing, cooperation, development, health, housing and education”. Perennial values of goodness, justice, freedom and peace are the aspirations of men, women and children everywhere; a key element in their realization is, it seems, sharing, for without sharing justice remains simply a dream, peace a fantasy. In a world which has long been saturated with violence and suffering, mankind cries out for peace. Sharing is crucial in fulfilling this long cherished ideal.
Sharing unites people and helps us to recognize our universal nature. It is to be cultivated in all areas of life. The Brandt Equation states: “Caring, mutual respect, generosity and sharing begin at home after all, and should be expressed no differently in global economic relations. It is, in fact, that simple.”
It is a fact simple indeed that is gaining ground. Let us harken to the call for sharing, within the home, the community, the nation and throughout the world, and witness the dispelling of that 21st century epidemic, stress, and the flowering of justice.