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Access vs. Ownership in ‘Collaborative Consumption’

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New rental markets are popping up all over the place, as detailed by a recent Wall Street Journal article. The trend is beginning to drive a larger movement labeled by some as “collaborative consumption,” wherein “sharing” is pushed as a way of “reinventing old market behaviors.”

Over at Carpe Diem, Mark J. Perry provides a helpful round-up on the phenomenon, pointing to the already mentioned WSJ article, a new Collaborative Consumption Hub web site, and a host of relevant products and services:

[W]e’re increasingly becoming more of a “rental economy,” where people can now rent just about anything they need from somebody else: their bathroom, their couch for an overnight stay, designer neckties (and bow ties and cufflinks), their driveway, their private automobiles, their toys, their clothing/costumes/maternity clothing/accessories/jewelry, party/event equipment, fine art, household items and tools (vacuum cleaners, iPads, tents, printers) etc. and the list goes on and on…

Perry also references a review on a leading book on the subject, What’s Mine Is Yours: The Rise of Collaborative Consumption. In the review, Reason Magazine’s Greg Beato helps illuminate some on the broader social and economic implications of such a shift:

Just a few years ago, President George W. Bush was still touting “the ownership society” as the surest path to prosperity and personal autonomy. But that was before we could easily search our cellphones for the nearest power drills, sedans, and spacious Manhattan closets for rent. What we really want, sharing evangelists suggest, is access, not ownership. And when we can use the mobile Web to pinpoint sharable goods, the burdens of ownership—which include maintenance, storage, and eventual disposal—begin to outweigh the benefits in many cases….

…But luckily for those of us who find great pleasure and meaning in what What’s Mine is Yours dubs the “frenetic quest for personality identity through brands, products, and services,” collaborative consumption may turn out to be a somewhat greater agent for hyperconsumption than its evangelists imagine. Think about San Francisco’s bathroom entrepreneur. Before he started renting out his toilet, park visitors could either wait in line at the park’s public toilets or perhaps pee on someone’s garage door. Neither of these options has an explicit fee attached to it. The entrepreneur is creating new opportunities to consume services.

Indeed, more and more of us, particularly those in my generation, are beginning to prefer “access” to “ownership” in more and more areas of life. Considering this larger trend (outside of renting an occasional ride to the aiport), and given the familiar links between ownership and healthy stewardship, we would do well to pause and contemplate the various costs of “outsourcing” ownership. As Beato indicates, if such an orientation permeates too far, we may see an even more misaligned “hyperconsumption” than that which the movement seeks to subvert. Given our society’s already-artificialized sense of ownership (see the housing collapse), putting more weight on this end of the teeter-totter tends to make me a bit nervous about our economic thinking over the long term.

Yet on the flip side, the owners of these “shared” resources are getting creative in some remarkable ways. Depending on how the evolution takes place, it would seem that such developments have the potential to increase ownership and initiative, should folks dive in with an attitude geared toward specialization over mere consumption (e.g. “your car for my toolbox” vs. “your car and your toolbox”). The movement also demonstrates an admirable shift toward more personal exchange and multi-layered human interaction in a world that often feels too big and disconnected. Karl Marx, for one, would surely be perplexed by the ways in which capitalism continues to move us toward an environment wherein the proletariat can offer his toilet in addition to his labor.

There’s a balance in there somewhere. Christians should steward their resources wisely while serving those around them. Collaborative consumption appears to offer a path to both, should the way get paved accordingly.

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Joseph Sunde is an associate editor and writer for the Acton Institute. His work has appeared in venues such as The Federalist, First Things, The City, The Christian Post, The Stream, Charisma News, Juicy Ecumenism, Ethika Politika, Made to Flourish, and the Center for Faith and Work. Joseph resides in Minneapolis, Minnesota with his wife and four children.

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