Injecting Care into the "Sharing Economy"

care

Several of the online conversations I have been following have focused on the sharing economy, as well as have many articles in the mainstream news. Some are about its possibilities for sustainable consumption; others talk about the legal problems involved in the in-between nature of laborers like drivers for Uber or Lyft and other so called sharing sectors. Most, if not all, of these new economic sectors have one thing in common: the customers make use of material goods owned by the vendor of the services. They are all service-oriented—an important facet.

The sustainability folk look at these as providing services at a much higher eco-efficient level, since they use existing materials in a repetitive way. This factor is not so relevant to the car-sharing services since the primary environmental effects occur during driving whether in your own car or one rented for the moment. Much current discussion over the ecological benefits of these services is conflicted because good data on secondary effects like car ownership are either missing or not very good. Here’s a short discussion I cribbed from a conversation on the SCORAI listserv. SCORAI stands for Sustainable Consumption Research and Action Initiative.

So, during the project, just as sharing economy was peaking in the media hype, there was a virtual conference featuring Robin Chase (a founder of Zipcar) and a few other sharing economy gurus. All of them proclaimed, without any good data, that all of the sharing economy companies were driving down enviro impacts, the next great thing. AirBNB was a focus as it was taking off. I challenged this claim offering this hypothesis: AirBnB is not just advertising alt housing but also seeking to drive the market for quickie cheap vacations. If you analyze their marketing, they are all about encouraging people to take  a quick cheap trip to some cool apartment in some cool big city. So a proper LCA must include the incremental impact of the business on increasing leisure travel. If you do this, I guessed, you may well find that the business drives a net increase in enviro impacts. My comment was treated as blasphemy, immediately dismissed by all panelists as preposterous. Next question! (Thanks to Doug Holt)

So much for the environmental benefits as the driver. There must be more involved. The small amount of research I did to follow-up led me to some very interesting stuff. Through the SCORAI website, I discovered George Ritzer and his discussions of prosumption. Although I had heard this term before, I did not really understand it. I found this definition on Wikipedia.

Marshall McLuhan and Barrington Nevitt suggested in their 1972 book Take Today, (p. 4) that with electric technology, the consumer would become a producer. In the 1980 book, The Third Wave, futurologist Alvin Toffler coined the term “prosumer” when he predicted that the role of producers and consumers would begin to blur and merge. Toffler envisioned a highly saturated marketplace as mass production of standardized products began to satisfy basic consumer demands. To continue growing profit, businesses would initiate a process of mass customization, that is the mass production of highly customized products.…However, to reach a high degree of customization, consumers would have to take part in the production process especially in specifying design requirements. *

Car or room sharing don’t quite fit this definition although by stretching it might. To the extent that the passenger is the source of the destination, she is contributing to the production with the owner of the car. Prosumption was seen in its early days as a way of smoothing the sharp edges of capitalism by fuzzing the distinct between producer and consumer and expanding the supply of the commons—resources open to the public at large. Ritzer argues that it is becoming just another tool in the capitalists’ black hole, pulling in whatever benefits might accrue to the public. I don’t have information to take a stand on the economic context, but see it as having some highly interesting possibilities for flourishing. Remember I always define sustainability as the possibility of flourishing.

To create the (Earth) system’s capability for flourishing, we moderns must substitute new basic beliefs for the two that have become ineffective and, even, destructive. I have recently written in this blog about the first, complexity, so will refer you to the last few posts about that. The second is our belief about our human nature. I, and others, have argued, that we are destroying the capability of the Earth to sustain life and creating inhuman social conditions as a result of our socio-economic activities, which is, in turn, based on a belief that we are insatiable rational, utility maximizing creatures. Our modern life is creating unsuitability, sustainability’s polar opposite, and will continue to do so in spite of all we do in its name.

The alternative I have written about is a human nature based on care. I use “nature” here in the sense, not of some inner mechanism or quality, but of a way to understand the way we live. If we do have what we may call a nature, it is in the way we can describe the operations of our cognitive system. I find the model of Antonio Damasio most instructive. Damasio divides the brain into three, evolutionarily distinct pieces. The first, earliest in evolutionary terms, houses our basic emotions. He points to this through his label, proto-self. This part has allowed our species to survive interactions with the world as it was before civilization. The second, which corresponds to the label, core self, monitors and maintains the overall state of the body within the limits that allow life to continue. The third, and most important in this discussion, is the parts of the brain that correspond to the autobiographical self. They occupy the bulk of the brain. This self “learns” as one exists from early life until death. Learning means acquiring new structure in the brain; structure that provide the ability for future, intentional, purposeful actions. Such actions are the means by which we actually run our lives.

Human lives are meaningful. That’s true both if we refer to the presence of those “means” I just used above or whether we are talking about some story that makes sense to us. Meaningful in the latter sense always shows up through a story, accurate or not, we use to explain what we are doing, should someone ask us about it. Since most of the time we are being intentional, not responding to the other parts of the brain, it is reasonable to describe our “nature” as sense making, that is abstracting our actual experience into language we use for explaining and acting.

We might also use the word, care, for the same purpose. Care describes action in which we have converted the phenomena perceived by our senses into meaningful media (words, etc) and respond by acting intentionally. A lot of words here, but important ones as I will claim that the key to human flourishing is the acknowledgment that we are caring, not selfish, creatures. In the process of accepting that notion, we will also change the way we act towards the rest of the world. Care is the path to sustainability, or, in my terms, system-wide flourishing.

Meaning is the key. If we are to be intentional in a global sense, what we do has to work for both us and the world out there. Much of our meaning comes from language that arose before the world was like it is today in this modern age. The context for action was relatively constant. Words always have their inherent meaning drawn from the context in which they were invented. The second, core self, part of the brain needs a relatively constant context to keep us alive and healthy (flourishing). If the world is changing too fast, it may withdraw us from it and protect us by shutting us down. So too, the most primitive brain contains a set of reactions that are primal and reflect the world of the distant past.

The meaning of what we do in the world has become corrupted by the model of human nature we hold. The modern, mind/body dualistic machine we believe us to be converts meaning in the sense of what happens both to me and the world out there simply to me since I, the subject, am separate from that world of objects. When life was simpler, not much happened to that world out there, but as we have become more and more clever we have modified that world until some now believe we are shaping the geological Earth system by our actions. Like the bodies that house our conscious selves, the world is a vast interconnected system. When our intentional actions perturb it, it usually is resilient enough to maintain our necessary living conditions (culturally and biologically) within reasonable limits. Mother Earth has been so kind to us that we haven’t bothered to think and act about what we do to her. But things are different now, our actions are producing ill effects in nature and on ourselves and other humans, for example obesity, war, inequality, and so on. That’s because we are not caring fully.

There is no guarantee that caring will transform our present mindless world into paradise. but it makes much sense to me that it might. Caring, as I write here, always involves both the actor and the context in which action happens. If we accept we are part of a complex world (that’s my other key belief), then we will start to shape our intentions with some sense of how they will affect the system, as we also accept our interconnectedness. As we start to act in this way, the third part of the brain, that of the autobiographical self, will learn how to make all our actions—caring actions. Care is the invisible hand that can work toward creating flourishing, rather than the inward-pointed notion of self-interestedness. Ironically, early Adam Smith thought human nature was a kind of empathy, which would produce actions much more like the kind of care I am talking about. What a different world we would have if he hadn’t changed his mind and, later, wrote The Wealth of Nations.

So now back to prosumption. What if those Uber driver and Airbnb operators acted out of care instead of selfish economic motives? What if primary producers envisioned their work as enabling others to care? What if all of us became mindful of the effects of consumption and started to send messages to the producers beyond using the price mechanism. Such attitudes would shift the focus from a mindless, objective, meaningless world of instrumental action to one of caring, intentional, systemic acts. As the new process started up, the foundations of our thinking, both individually and collectively, would also start to replace the old, now out-dated, Cartesian, Smithian beliefs with those of an empathetic, complex-system-thinking, caring actor. The possibilities for flourishing are endless. By the way, no brain scientist has found a computer, programmed for self-interest in the brain. Our real selves are hidden away in the auto-biographical part of the brain waiting to learn how to care by experiencing life, itself. We can bootstrap ourselves into a flourishing future! We can use some of these novel economic provisioning systems to learn to care, not just for the money. Marx had a sense of this when he argued for assessing things according to use-value, not exchange value. Such a concept would come to life if use was tied to caring, not merely to some instrumental purpose.

ps. More as a note to myself. I should go back to and restudy Habermas’s idea of communicative action. In the sense of caring, he argued for a kind of meaningful, language-based, intentional acts in place of the instrumental action of economic, strategic humans. Hmm.

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