Share or Die – A Challenge for Our Times

Neal Gorenflo

About a year ago, a weather-beaten, middle-aged man asked me for money on the platform of the Mountain View Caltrain station. I gave him three dollars. He thanked me, and asked what I did for work. I introduced myself, learned his name, Jeff, and we shook hands. I pulled out a card from my computer bag, and handed it to him as I told him that I publish an online magazine about sharing.

Jeff lit up, “Oh I get that – when you’re homeless, it’s share or die.”

That got my attention. I asked him to explain. Jeff said that a year earlier, his girlfriend drank herself to death alone in a motel room. He said she wouldn’t have died had someone been with her. For him, isolation equaled death.

Jeff explained his perspective further, that he had no problem giving his last dollar or cigarette to a friend, that it comes back when you need it. But there are those who just take. You stay away from them.

I asked him about the homeless in Mountain View, which is in the middle of prosperous Silicon Valley. Jeff said there are 800 homeless people in the city, and that each has a similar story.

That conversation got under my skin. I shared it with Malcolm Harris the next day on a call about this book. Half-joking, I suggested Jeff’s phrase, Share or Die, as a title. At the time, I thought it was over-the-top. I wasn’t serious. But, thankfully, Malcolm began using it in correspondence about the book. It stuck.

My conversation with Jeff marked a turning point in my thinking. I had thought of sharing as merely smart because it creates positive social, environmental and economic change through one strategy.

But Jeff ’s story and the directness of his phrase – share or die – broke through my intellectualization of sharing. Jeff helped me see something that I was blind to, even though I knew all the facts – that sharing is not just a smart strategy, it’s necessary for our survival as a species. This has always been so, but today our condition is especially acute.

We’re using 50 percent more natural resources per year than the earth can replace, and the global population and per capita consumption are growing. And despite the overconsumption, countries all over the world are being rocked by social unrest because of how unevenly resources are distributed. The social contract is in tatters, and threats to peace and security seem likely to escalate. It’s now glaringly obvious to me that we need to learn to share on a global scale fast, or die.

But the threat is not only one of biological death. Those like me – who are in no danger of starving anytime soon – face a spiritual death when we act as if well- being is a private affair, deny the influence we have on each other, and gate ourselves off from the rest of humanity with money and property. We can neither survive nor live well unless we share.

The path to this realization has been slow but steady. I started down it seven years ago when I deliberately shifted my life toward sharing. This shift led to co-founding Shareable magazine two years ago, where I’m publisher. I could never have gotten to the place where I realized how fundamental sharing is to the human experience without my work at Shareable. I’ve been able to see how my own personal narrative connects with an emerging collective narrative about how to thrive as a person within a commons-based society. I hope that our work helps many others see how they can be individual successes within a larger collective success through sharing.

While this consciousness is new to me, we understood the importance of storytelling to movement building when we started Shareable. From the beginning, Shareable’s editorial strategy was to affirm those who already share – the sharing community – while at the same time moving sharing into mainstream dialogue through emotionally engaging stories about ordinary people who build rich lives, successful enterprises, and vibrant communities through sharing.

In our minds, the sharing community encompasses all of humanity – though we wanted to speak to influencers in the “developed world” who sensed an impending societal resource crisis or had already experienced a personal crisis and were seeking new ideas about how to provision society or themselves. This bias reflects not only the background of Shareable’s founders, but also the belief that our cohort has an outsized influence on society, whether deserved or not, which it is using to do a lot of damage.

Over time our focus has sharpened. Since we launched, we’ve increased our focus on topics with one or more of the following characteristics: 1) Contexts where more sharing could have profound impacts; 2) Topics that already generate a lot of dialogue; and 3) Domains where there are a lot of interesting edge cases. This has led to more emphasis on three areas: the young people in their twenties who are called “Generation Y”; cities; and “collaborative consumption,” often spurred by technology startups. Together, these focal areas address questions about who, where, and how the developed world might share in the future.

1. Generation Y

If the commons are to triumph, it’s going to need commoners. This is where the next generation comes in. There’s a strong argument that Gen Y is the generation that can bring a shareable world to scale. Roughly 100 million strong in the United States alone, Gen Y grew up on the Internet and brings its values and practices, including sharing, into the real world. In 2009, the marketing firm TrendWatching called them Generation G (for “generous”) and said they are accelerating a cultural shift where “giving is already the new taking.” The people of Gen Y may not reach their full sharing potential until later in life, but there are promising indicators:

  • A recent UCLA poll found that over 75 percent of incoming freshman believe it’s “essential or very important” to help others in difficulty, the highest figure in 36 years.
  • The same poll found that “working for a cause” was a top career objective, ranking it higher than making money.
  • Eighty-three percent will trust a company more if it’s socially and environmentally responsible.
  • The Arab Spring, the UK movement against public service cuts, 15-M in Spain, and the Occupy Wall Street movement were arguably spear- headed by this generation.

Business strategist Gary Hamel believes that this massive generational force, which outnumbers baby boomers, promises to transform our world in the image of the Internet, a world where sharing and contributing to the common good are as normal as breathing. William Strauss and Neil Howe, authors of Millennials Rising, believes that Gen Y is a hero generation, coming of age in a time of crisis – a crisis they’re already helping to resolve, largely by applying the tools and mindset of sharing.

This possibility inspired Shareable to produce Share or Die, an anthology of personal narratives, analyses, cartoons, and how-tos by Gen Y to help Gen Y thrive as they attempt to remake the world. It’s fitting that the title was inspired by a homeless man, for we are moving toward a condition of collective homelessness through the destruction of our environment.

2. Shareable cities

A revolution is underway in our conception of cities. It couldn’t come any sooner, considering that 2007 was the first year in human history that the majority of human beings lived in cities. Perhaps as a result, cities are becoming the focal point for our collective hopes and dreams, as well as for all kinds of innovation needed to avert worsening environmental and economic crises.

In the past, we tended to see cities as dirty, unnatural, and isolating places; today, citizens and urban planners alike are starting to see their potential for generating widespread well-being at low financial and environmental cost. There’s increasing appreciation for the benefits of public transit and urban agriculture. People want the streets to make room for pedestrians and bicyclists, and for civic engagement. The very thing that defines a city – its population density – makes sharing easier, from cars to bikes to homes.

Perhaps in response, there seems to be a boomlet in technology that helps First World urbanites understand their environment, share, and use resources more efficiently. IBM has based a massive Smarter Cities campaign around this theme. But it may be that the most successful innovations will spring from the megacities of the developing world. In the absence of vast financial resources, these cities may do as Bogotá, Colombia, did and prioritize human well-being over economic growth through investing in commons such as schools, parks and public transportation. Can a city become a happiness commons? Former Bogotá mayor Enrique Penalosa, who pioneered a number of public-sector civic innovations, including “participatory budgeting,” knows from experience that it’s possible.

At Shareable, we’re convinced that we need to see cities as places to foster commons, and not just markets. To explore that idea further, we started a 20-part series, “Policies for a Shareable City,” to outline a policy framework to support urban resource sharing, co-production and mutual aid in the context of a developing-world. The regulatory environment should not just support markets, but also commons-based activity involving food, transportation, housing, governance and more.

3. Collaborative consumption and sharing as a lifestyle

The ways to share in everyday life seem to be multiplying like rabbits, but maybe the Great Recession is just forcing all of us to pay more attention these days. There’s car sharing, ride sharing, bike sharing, yard sharing, coworking, cohousing, tool libraries, and all kinds of cooperatives – the list goes on. There are also ways to share power, dialogue and knowledge, such as workplace democracy, citizens’ deliberative councils, “unconferences” (open, self-organized gatherings) and “world cafés” (focused deliberations).

There are also scores of new Internet startups that are helping people meet real needs. For instance, there’s Airbnb (peer accommodations), Thredup (kids clothes), Chegg (textbook rentals), Neighborgoods (general sharing), RelayRides (peer-to- peer car sharing), Hyperlocavore (garden dating), Zimride (ride sharing), and many others.

Taking all of these into account, it’s entirely possible to build much of one’s life around sharing. You could live in a cohousing community, work in a co-op, grow food in your neighbor’s yard, and get to the open space town council meeting via your car share. A shift in emphasis from ownership to access – taking possession of an asset only when we need to use it – can liberate us from the burdens of ownership such as the high costs of maintenance, insurance, taxes, legal liability, storage and disposal.

The positive dynamics of car sharing suggest what’s possible if the economy is restructured for access instead of ownership. Carsharing is the decades-old archetype of the sharing economy, but it has arguably only come of age recently with mature technology, a global footprint, and with the first publicly traded car sharing company, Zipcar. With maturity comes statistics: A 2010 UC Berkeley survey of 6,281 North American carsharing members showed that over 50 percent of households who didn’t already have access to a car joined to get access to one, and that the total vehicle count in the sample dropped by 50 percent after joining. The same study showed that one carsharing vehicle replaces 9–13 owned cars.

A 2011 eGo Carshare study showed that car travel by members dropped an average of 52 percent after joining. The American Public Transportation Association estimates that people save an average of $9,900 a year for each car eliminated from a household. The Intelligent Cities Project estimates that a city can keep $127 million in the local economy annually by reducing the number of cars owned in a city by 15,000.

These findings suggest that collaborative consumption can significantly broaden citizen access to resources, dramatically reduce resource consumption, save citizens big bucks, and strengthen the urban economy all through one strategy – sharing.

While sharing and commons are likely as old as we are as a species, I can’t help feeling that these few examples show that something radically new is afoot. Could it be that the confluence of a new generation, new technologies and a rapidly urbanizing global population are setting the stage for the emergence of a commons- based global civilization? There’s no way to know for sure, but by understanding our roles in the struggle for the commons and the tectonic shifts about us, we have a better shot at meeting the ultimate challenge – sharing the world’s resources. For it becomes clearer every day that our survival depends on increasing our capacity to share. The phrase “share or die” may shock, but it’s the shock of the truth.