Almost everywhere we look, there is an emerging debate on the importance of sharing in relation to the grave challenges of our time. This conversation is most apparent in the sharing economy movement that has now taken the United States and Western Europe by storm, opening up a new set of questions about how sharing – that most simple human value and ethic – can really serve the needs of all people and the planet. For many, the practice of sharing represents a global cultural shift towards empathy, trust and generosity, and holds the greatest source of hope for economic and social transformation. For others, the idea of integrating the principle of sharing into economic relations is vitally important and invigorating, but toothless as a strategy for resolving the world’s crises if it remains beholden to corporate interests and the growth imperative.
What’s seldom recognised, however, is how the global conversation on sharing is often conducted implicitly and unknowingly by campaigners, activists and progressive analysts. For example, in the now mainstream discussion on how to reform the systems and structures that lead to inequality, there is the implicit question of how to share resources more equally among society as a whole. While the best-selling economist Thomas Piketty has recently forewarned the prospect of an increasingly unequal future, the authors of The Spirit Level have already demonstrated that the most prosperous, happy and healthy nations all distribute their wealth in a more egalitarian fashion. In this way, relating the principle of sharing with economic and social policy is clearly important for debates on eradicating poverty and reversing extreme inequality, as it directly points to the need for distributive justice and long-term structural solutions that cut to the heart of how we organise societies.
Similarly, in the international discussions on sustainable development there is an implicit focus on the need for greater economic sharing, which frames the basic challenge of how to ensure that everyone can consume a fair share of resources within the Earth’s limits. Even for peace campaigners and anti-war activists, the principle of sharing is central to the problem of interstate conflict over land, fossil fuel reserves and other key industrial materials. But this imperative question is often left unspoken: how can governments find ways of sharing the environmental commons more equitably, and thus finally change trajectory from our current path towards intensified resource competition, accelerating climate change, and the eventual possibility of a third world war?