I have been interested in the Sharing Economy long before my paths crossed with one of its biggest proponents, Benita Matofska, who has this week released a book (Generation Share) with photographer Sophie Shenwald. I am a so-called Millennial, and we seem to be the generation more naturally inclined to see the merits of it (research from the book suggests 73% of my peers thought the sharing economy is important when it was just an emerging concept). I have never thought about it as a generational thing, though, as for me it comes naturally. If I walk around the town where I was born, all I can see is buildings with their own court (a bit like those you see if visiting old monasteries), painting a picture of a past of extended families, living in proximity and sharing their work as well as the fruits of it. Nowadays they have all been converted into smaller flats, but still an extent of sharing with the neighbours remained.
As I grew up and moved to the highly fragmented societal landscape that is London, and happened to come to faith through a search for community, what was just part of my heritage became a question of reconciling my faith to my work, and eventually that came to overlap with my politics. In the light of Catholic Social Teaching, the sharing economy became for me a vision of what society can look like if we all lived by them, but especially the common good. While in the first series of Good Conversation we treated it as a principle, in a way, the whole body of Catholic Social Teaching is a roadmap towards the common good. Still, I will use this familiar framework to look at the sharing economy.
First, a step-back. So far, I have talked about the sharing economy as a given. Its definition is, according to Matofska’s own words, “A system based around the sharing of human and physical resources”. It does, however, require a shift in mind-set around what are these resources as well as the idea of sharing them itself, and for Catholics in particular, the teachings of the Church are a valuable guide for our thinking.
The Common Good
Matofska’s model for the sharing economy divides it into five streams, two of which are characteristics and values, and impact. These are the most relevant to the common good. The stories in Generation Share are very diverse in nature, but they all work towards a better society. They may not define it in the exact same way, but broadly speaking people seek to relieve poverty, both material and relational, and improve wellbeing while keeping it sustainable. In other words, you can’t have a sharing economy without seeing humanity as one big family. As St Mother Teresa said, “The problem with the world is that we draw the circle of our family too small.” This mind-set shift is both necessary to a sharing economy and fostered by engaging with it.
Following from the idea of seeing humanity as a big family, it’s the concept of human dignity. There are two main ways in which this principle is embodied in the sharing economy: by using existing resources we need less production. This has an obvious environmental impact, but there is also a human cost to consumerism, sometimes as high as lives lost but also insidious in many smaller ways. This is something we touch upon in the podcast, especially our conversation with MK Jorgenson in Episode 10. Another way is the impact on communities and building relationships, and it changes the way in which economists look at economic agents. It humanises them, and account for not only values-driven decisions but also the hidden economic benefit of actions that are never accounted for in classic economic model (such as in-family care of infants and elderly, or volunteering work –especially outside of formal organisations-).
I think solidarity and sharing economy are near synonyms. While most people think of Solidarity in the context of the language of the trade union’s movement, in its Catholic understanding it’s an apolitical concept (or, at the very least, it spans the whole party-political spectrum in different guises). It connects to the community aspect just mentioned, because it is about standing together without denying our differences, and using our power over circumstances for the good of someone who has less power than us in those circumstances. Rather than being on the receiving end of sharing, solidarity calls those who have access to something to make it accessible to the sharing economy, especially in the context of poverty (both material and relational). It can be sharing goods (like toys that a child has overgrown being rehomed) or giving time (like spending a day off caring for someone else’s relative so they can go to work too).
It is likely obvious from the discussion so far, but sustainability is a big component of the sharing economy. Production has an environmental cost, and use has an environmental cost too: sharing something reduces the need for more production, and distributes the impact of using something in a different and more sustainable way. However, environmental sustainability is not the only kind of sustainability in the sharing economy: for example, job-sharing allows people with caring responsibilities to have a better work-life balance while a company has the work covered as if by a full-time employee. This makes work sustainable in the context of a life with caring responsibilities.
The most striking feature of Generation Share is that, despite its title, it shows people of different age (including children), gender, ethnicity, background, situation in life and location. Far from being the recourse of those with fewer resources alone, it generated from a shift in the mind-set of the more affluent class: people who could own more, but choose not to. I had once a conversation with someone about the classist elements of minimalism: it’s easy to get rid of something you are holding on to for when you might need it when you can replace it should the need arise, not so much when you will need something but won’t have the means to access it if new. The sharing economy finds a solution to this impasse: you can access things that you don’t own, or put into use things you do own even though you are not the one using it so they don’t just sit around. The sharing economy is also a triumph of plurality because it touches every possible area of life, and so everyone can participate in it from the small scale of sharing within a family or circle of friends, to the global house swaps movement. Even using public transport, an action most of us in big cities take for granted, is partaking in the sharing economy.
Subsidiarity may seem a bit far off from the idea of a sharing economy, since its domain is decision-making at the level the closest possible to the object of the decision, but its implication of increased localism goes hand in hand with the sharing economy. While the Internet makes a lot of the sharing economy possible on a global scale, especially skills sharing, the focus on your immediate community remains key. On a political level, it can also facilitate a bottom-up approach to policy-making based on observation of the local sharing-economy, and resources (especially money raised from central or local government taxation) can be allocated where needed in a context that is already making the most efficient use of the resources already there.
Faith in action is, however, not the only way in which the sharing economy impacted me as a Catholic. Aside from the age-old question of whether the early church practised socialism, the life of Jesus in the Gospels shows us a model for our life that is based on sharing. He shared His life with His apostles, but also His intimate knowledge of the Father. The apostles then, not only lived a shared life but also one of mission, sharing that knowledge with everyone else. Most importantly, we all share the Eucharist as a Church community, as Jesus shared his Last Supper with them. It seems to me that sharing truly is an integral part of our humanity.
For your information: “Generation Share” by Benita Matofska and Sophie Sheinwald (IBSN 9781447350101) is published by Policy Press (Part of Bristol University Press). Available at www.policypress.co.uk. Our review: “Generation Share” by Benita Matofska and Sophie Sheinwald