Sunday, February 02, 2014

The shareable economy: Don't let the perfect be the enemy of the good

Last fall at the Shareable Cities Summit in Portland a panelist from Getaround, the car sharing service, made the astounding statement that car sharing had the potential to reduce the number of cars on the road by an order of magnitude--for the math-impaired that means 90 percent.

What makes this seemingly fantastical development possible is the fact the cars sit parked 95 percent of the time according to Donald Shoup, a UCLA professor of urban planning who has made a specialty of researching parking. (This fact has had a huge impact on the urban landscape. But that's a subject for another time.)

The received wisdom is that we are heading toward 2 billion vehicles on the road in the next 20 years, a doubling of today's 1 billion. This is put down primarily to auto demand in India and China. I've doubted this wisdom from the start because of obvious constraints on the liquid fuel supply. But virtually no one in policymaking circles believes that vehicle numbers are headed downward, let alone dramatically downward.

I mentioned car sharing in a recent piece and was criticized for advocating car use which was called "unsustainable." But sustainability is keenly sensitive to scale. A world with, say, 100 million cars is clearly more sustainable than one with 1 billion or 2 billion cars. And, while we cannot hope to create a perfect world from the one we have, we do have responses that can make significant strides toward a better one. Hence, my admonition not to let the perfect be the enemy of the good.

Our primary task must be to reduce drastically the amount of resources we use in our daily lives. The first step in doing that is to recognize that it is not goods which we seek, but the services they provide. The shareable economy in all its forms--outright sharing, libraries of tools and other items, renting from neighbors--offers a way to reduce considerably our resource use by giving people access to all manner of things and the services they provide without having to buy something new.

Essentially, we are using the vast idle capacity embedded in the existing infrastructure (in the broadest sense of the word) instead of promoting the idea that households and even businesses need to own every object from which they derive needed services--no matter how much those objects may remain essentially idle.

Now some people might complain that when you rent something to someone, it isn't really sharing. But, I'm fine with having the term "shareable economy" signify the whole range of transactions that involve using existing rather than newly manufactured objects. This is the key distinction. And, I have no qualms about someone making a profit from such a transaction. I have long maintained that if we can make mitigating climate change and resource depletion profitable, then everyone will want to do it. Entrepreneurs around the world are figuring out ways to do just that.

I acknowledge that this is not a complete solution and that the sharing economy will inevitably take many forms. But in the absence of concerted government action, we shouldn't underestimate or underutilize the power of the marketplace to spread profitable practices that mitigate both climate change and resource depletion.

The car sharing business is currently riding the tailwind of a shift in preference among young urban adults in America who increasingly find that they do not want to own cars. But it makes sense that people living in the densely packed urban centers of India and China might come to the same conclusion and that car sharing and other aspects of the shareable economy could grow there; after all, these cultures are much less individualistic than we Americans are.

We can dream of a renewable energy economy powered by wind and solar with new miraculous electricity storage technology and with electrified transportation, walkable cities and clean energy technologies deployed everywhere. People are working furiously on this future.

But, in the meantime, with climate change and resource depletion bearing down upon us, we cannot wait. We must pursue the least risky strategy available to us, namely, deep reductions in the resources we use to get the services we need. One the quickest ways that I can see that happening is the spread of the shareable economy in all its forms.

Kurt Cobb is an author, speaker, and columnist focusing on energy and the environment. He is a regular contributor to the Energy Voices section of The Christian Science Monitor and author of the peak-oil-themed novel Prelude. In addition, he has written columns for the Paris-based science news site Scitizen, and his work has been featured on Energy Bulletin (now, The Oil Drum,, Econ Matters, Peak Oil Review, 321energy, Common Dreams, Le Monde Diplomatique and many other sites. He maintains a blog called Resource Insights and can be contacted at

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I appreciate the point you are making. As a farmer I'm always making 'the least bad choice.'
I do think the term sustainability has been butchered beyond recognition though. How about instead of saying 'more sustainable' which is like saying more alive. Either you are alive or you are dead. We could say something like 'getting closer to sustainable.' Maybe I am picking at nits, but I cringe when I am told something is more sustainable, because the implication is that we are sustainable, but just need to be more so. What we are is unsustainable, what would be good is to recognise we are not going to become sustainable overnight, and talk about how we are going to get there. Recognise that we are on a journey to the emerald city, and follow the yellow brick road, not pretend we are actually in the emerald city, and we will be more in the emerald city if we share cars.