“In an increasingly unequal and unsustainable world, governments must urgently move beyond the restrictive political and economic ideologies of the past and embrace solutions that meet the common needs of people in all countries. This primer outlines the extent of the interconnected global crises we face, and points the way towards an alternative approach to managing the world’s resources based upon international cooperation and economic sharing.”
The good people at Share the World’s Resources recently contacted us to present their latest report, “A primer on global economic sharing“. It’s an impressive piece of work, taking the often misused concept of a “Sharing Economy” to reimagine it for the benefit of all humankind and the planet. The report includes a series of carefully thought out policy proposals to achieve this end and it is also very compatible with our own proposals for a Partner State.
We will be presenting the primer in three part, starting off today with the introduction and Part 1: What is Economic Sharing?
Humanity is in the midst of a global emergency. The policies that drive the world economy have magnified the gap between rich and poor, led to conflict over the planet’s natural resources, and resulted in an ecological crisis that threatens life on earth.
We urgently need to move beyond the restrictive political and economic ideologies of the past and embrace solutions that meet the common needs of people in all nations – which will be impossible to achieve without some degree of economic sharing both within and between countries. In an increasingly unequal and unsustainable world in which all governments need to drastically re-order their priorities, a call for economic sharing embodies the need for justice, human rights and sound environmental stewardship to guide policymaking at every level of society.
This report gives a concise introduction to the principle of sharing in relation to the interconnected global crises we face, and makes a simple case for how the world’s wealth, power and resources can be shared more equitably and sustainably.
Part 1 introduces the political economy of sharing, and highlights the many broad and diverse expressions of sharing throughout the world. As these examples demonstrate, sharing has long been central to human civilisation and integral to the healthy functioning of societies. But as systems of sharing are being increasingly undermined, it is critical that we support and scale up the process of sharing within nations and internationally.
Part 2 outlines how humanity’s continued failure to share is largely responsible for creating what can only be described as a global emergency. This includes the growing tragedy of poverty amidst plenty, the climate and ecological crisis in all its dimensions, and the intensifying conflict over the world’s finite natural resources. Altogether, this leaves the international community with one remaining option: to finally place sharing, cooperation and ecological preservation at the forefront of policymaking and global governance.
Part 3 proposes an alternative approach to managing the world’s resources based upon economic sharing and international cooperation. This process must begin with an unprecedented programme of humanitarian relief to prevent life-threatening deprivation and needless poverty-related deaths as a foremost priority, followed by a major restructuring of the global economy to address the structural causes of our present social, political, economic and environmental crises.
As the conclusion of this report makes clear, we cannot wait for governments to rethink the management of an economic system built upon massive inequality, unsustainable consumption and competition over scarce resources. Given the entrenched vested interests and structural barriers that obstruct progress, the hope for a better world rests with the participation of the global public in a call for reform that extends beyond national borders. Hence it is imperative that millions more people recognise what is at stake and take the lead as proponents for change – a solution to the world’s problems depends on our united demand for a just, sustainable and peaceful future.
Many examples demonstrate how economic sharing has long been central to human civilisation by strengthening the social fabric of communities, improving levels of wellbeing across society and promoting social equity. But despite such notable exceptions, the fact of our global unity is still not sufficiently expressed in our international economic and political structures. The critical question facing humanity today is whether we choose to support and scale up these systems of sharing on local, national and global levels, or whether we allow them to be further undermined and dismantled by those who are ideologically opposed to putting sharing at the centre of policymaking.
Contrary to the common misconception that people are individualistic and selfish by nature, anthropologists have shown that gifting and sharing has long formed the basis of community relationships in societies across the world. A recent spate of scientific research has built on this evidence to demonstrate that as human beings we are naturally predisposed to cooperate and share in order to maximise our chances of survival and collective wellbeing. Without the act of sharing and reciprocity, there would be no social foundations upon which to build societies and economies.
In this light, it is not surprising that the principles of sharing and equality are important components of many of the world’s religions, as well as many secular movements such as humanism. In broadly similar ways, Judaism, Islam, Christianity, Buddhism, Hinduism and numerous other faiths all expound the importance of sharing wealth and other resources fairly, as well as the need to protect the vulnerable and those who are less well off in society. For millennia, the principle of sharing has aligned closely with the moral values and ethics that should underpin the fabric of society.
Yet despite the prevalence of sharing throughout the natural world and in family life, we have largely failed to create a global community of nations in which sharing is embodied in our international economic and political structures. Rather than seeing the family of nations as a unit and accepting that the principle of sharing must play a key role in governing our collective use of available resources, the global economy has been built on the opposing and misguided objects of national self-interest, aggressive competition and materialistic acquisition.
After centuries of colonialism and the exploitation of weaker countries by the more powerful, a tremendous imbalance exists in living standards between the so-called developed and developing worlds, which is a crisis that lies at the heart of present-day world tensions. As the global economy increasingly hits natural resource limits and planetary thresholds, a very real threat to human survival is now posed by escalating conflicts over land, energy reserves and other key industrial inputs, notwithstanding the ecological consequences of overusing the Earth’s finite resources.
If our collective failure to share resources within and among nations is responsible for increasing inequalities and exacerbating many of the other crises we face, then it stands to reason that we need to find ways of reforming our political and economic systems by bringing them more in line with the principle of sharing. From such a common sense perspective, the term ‘economic sharing’ can be used to describe the application of this principle to how economies are organised and resources are distributed, which could include everything from land and energy to knowledge and technology. Furthermore, the concept of sharing applies to democratic forms of governance in terms of how equally power is distributed both nationally and globally, which has potentially dramatic implications for participatory politics and global democracy – not least for the major institutions that determine the rules of economic globalisation.
In both economic and political terms, ‘sharing’ can be a direct path to the fulfilment of basic human needs and rights, and is naturally aligned with the concepts of social and economic justice. As long recognised by progressive campaigners, social justice cannot be achieved by market mechanisms or charitable giving and requires the implementation of redistributive government policies, effective laws and regulations. Relating the principle of sharing with economic policy in this way is important for debates around income and wealth inequality, in which it points to the need for distributive justice and long-term structural solutions that cut to the heart of how we organise societies.
However, economic sharing is not an ideological construct or ‘ism’ that is accompanied by a specific set of policies or procedures. The principle of sharing is ubiquitous in society and precedes the doctrines of capitalism and socialism by millennia, hence it is not beholden to any current or historical political philosophy. This is not to say that existing political concepts and economic policies do not reflect or even embody the principle of sharing, as they do in many cases. Applying this simple principle to the field of political economy can also help to navigate between the divisive ‘isms’ that still drive much of the debate on how States can guarantee social and economic rights for all people.
Humanity urgently needs to move beyond the restrictive ideologies of the past and embrace solutions that meet the common needs of people in all nations, both now and for future generations – which will be impossible to achieve without some degree of economic sharing. In an increasingly unequal and unsustainable world in which all governments need to drastically re-order their priorities, a call for economic sharing embodies the need for justice, human rights and sound environmental stewardship to guide policymaking at all levels of society.
Through its many expressions, the process of economic sharing already underpins a huge variety of practices, institutions and policies that operate at the local and national level. One of the most familiar examples of sharing is in the form of charitable giving by individuals and organisations, or else through volunteering efforts and other philanthropic activities. In many ways, charity constitutes an elementary form of sharing, albeit an important one given the entrenched social and environmental problems that exist across the world. However, sharing in the form of philanthropy is widely criticised for its lack of democratic transparency, and for addressing the symptoms of inequality and not the underlying structural causes. For such reasons, charity and philanthropy is often regarded as a substitute for real justice that allows governments to escape some of their broader responsibilities to citizens and the world as a whole.
Other well-recognised examples of economic sharing on the local level include the use of land in agricultural communities, which was traditionally shared by farmers who managed it cooperatively as a commons. The right to save and share seeds has also played an integral role in farming practices around the world, even though major agribusiness corporations are relentlessly pushing to outlaw this practice through patenting laws. Despite the increasing exclusion of small-scale and family farms that results from the current globalised food system, the tradition of sharing is also promoted in community supported agriculture (CSA) projects in which the responsibilities, risks and rewards of producing food are shared between farmers and the local community.
In recent years, a resurgence of community-led initiatives in both rich industrialised and less developed countries embody a process of economic sharing in different ways. These include the many cooperatives in the food and retail sectors, where employees participate in the decision-making process and share the proceeds of business activity with employees. Many trusts have also been created at local levels that successfully manage land and other shared resources, such as forests, without intervention from the State or private sector. The practice of economic sharing is also evident in local sustainability initiatives across the world, which often work to redistribute economic activity among communities and build alternatives to unsustainable patterns of production and consumption.
The sharing economy
More recently, the ‘sharing economy’ movement has rapidly grown in popularity throughout Western Europe, North America and other regions, which encompasses everything from online crowd-funding initiatives to food banks, mutual aid societies and gift economies. In particular, collaborative consumption has emerged as a new economic model that allows people to share various goods and services with their peers via internet-mediated sharing platforms, in everything from cars and food to office space and professional expertise. As the many proponents of the sharing economy maintain, ‘accessing’ rather than ‘owning’ resources works to save money, build community and utilise resources more efficiently, while reducing levels of personal consumption and carbon emissions in the process.
Yet sharing is even more fundamental to how we organise our societies than these examples demonstrate. For instance, the process of participatory democracy can embody the principle of sharing as it seeks to share political power more equitably with citizens. And arguably the most advanced form of economic sharing that exists in the modern world is the pooling of a nation’s financial resources to ensure that everyone has access to healthcare, education, social security and other essential public services.
Social welfare systems in developed countries are far from perfect and not always efficiently administered, but they represent a natural evolution of the human propensity to share that builds on practices that have been familiar to people for millennia. They are also an expression of social justice, solidarity and equitable wealth distribution that can reduce inequalities and strengthen social cohesion within countries. Moreover, systems of universal social protection are widely supported by many millions of people who have long recognised the role that effective ‘sharing economies’ can play in creating a fairer, more just and healthier society.
All these and many more examples demonstrate how economic sharing has long been central to human civilisation by strengthening the social fabric of communities, improving levels of wellbeing across society and promoting social equity. The critical question facing humanity today is whether we choose to support and scale up national and local systems of sharing, or whether we allow them to be further undermined and dismantled by those who are ideologically opposed to putting sharing at the centre of policymaking.
We live in a globalised world where the crises we face, from wealth disparities to climate change and resource wars, affect all nations to a greater or lesser extent. Systems of worldwide communication, trade and finance mean that people in different countries live highly interconnected and interdependent lives, yet the benefits of economic activity remain extremely skewed in favour of high-income countries. Given this reality and the enormous discrepancies that exist in levels of affluence between rich and poor nations, any process of economic sharing cannot be limited to a solely national context and must be actively applied on a planetary scale.
On the national level, an effective process of economic sharing can help governments to realise their long-standing commitment to protect socio-economic rights by ensuring that all people have access to essential goods and services. A majority of UN member states have already adopted a number of legally binding human rights instruments that embody these commitments, including the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. On the international stage, however, there is a huge disparity between those rights enjoyed in the richest countries – such as the right to food, the right to adequate housing or the right to an education – and the daily infringement of these basic rights for millions of men, women and children in less developed countries. This reality points to the need for governments to finally recognise their extraterritorial human rights obligations by sharing resources more equitably on a global as well as a national basis.
In a climate and resource constrained world, a process of global economic sharing can also play a major role in addressing environmental crises and reducing interstate conflict over vital resource interests. As many environmentalists propose, ensuring that all nations can access resources equitably without transgressing ecological thresholds will require a ‘fair shares’ approach to managing the global commons. In the longer term, sharing finite resources more equitably and sustainably will necessitate a new global governance framework that will have immense implications for the way we extract, distribute and consume the Earth’s produce.
The emergence of global sharing
History provides some important examples of the recognition that humanity must work cooperatively as an international community in line with the principle of sharing. The establishment of the United Nations after the Second World War was one of the first major expressions of sharing in political and global terms, as it facilitates international cooperation on a wide range of issues including peace and security, economic development, social progress and human rights. Not long after the UN was created, a major exercise in cross-border economic sharing was kick-started by the United States government, which embarked on a massive transfer of financial resources to a number of European countries that had been devastated by war. Although historians debate how altruistic the ‘Marshall Plan’ was, it demonstrated the great potential of international resource sharing that has inspired many proposals for a ‘global Marshall Plan’ today, mainly in the form of a massive relief effort for developing nations.
A more contemporary example of global economic sharing is Official Development Assistance (ODA) that OECD countries have been providing to developing nations since the 1960s, although foreign aid comes with so many associated problems that it cannot be considered a true or effective form of economic sharing on an international level. A further example is the important precedent in international law known as the Common Heritage of Mankind, which enables certain cultural and natural resources to be recognised as ‘shared commons’ that should be protected from exploitation by individual nation states or corporations, and held in trust for the benefit of future generations.
Despite these notable exceptions, the fact of our global unity is still not sufficiently expressed in our international economic and political structures. Rather than scaling up and strengthening diverse forms of global economic sharing, the world’s ‘operating system’ is still based on the competitive geopolitical interests of the most powerful and wealthy nations. At the same time, the main institutions that set the rules for international trade and finance – the World Bank, International Monetary Fund and World Trade Organisation – are all widely criticised for being undemocratic and furthering the interests of large corporations and rich countries.
A more inclusive international framework urgently needs to be established through the United Nations and its relevant agencies. The UN is the only multilateral and fully representative global institution in existence with the necessary mandate and capacity to coordinate the process of restructuring the world economy, despite being in need of significant reform and democratisation (particularly by abolishing the Security Council with its arbitrary power of veto, and renewing the UN’s independence as a forum for economic policy-making). After more than 60 years, the UN Charter and Universal Declaration of Human Rights still embody some of the highest ideals expressed by humanity. If the UN is fundamentally renewed and entrusted with more authority, it could be in a position to foster the growing sense of community between nations and facilitate economic sharing on a global scale.