Sharing: It’s Not Just Nice, It’s Necessary

girls laughing

The other day, I pulled my bicycle up to one of those nouvelle food trucks that are all the rage in these parts and ordered myself a delicious, healthy, organic falafel. While a group of us was standing on the sidewalk devouring our lunches, impromptu conversations among strangers just naturally started. I ended up talking to the guy who ordered just after me. We chatted throughout our lunches before sharing a cordial goodbye.

I thought later: “That was revolutionary. This is not something that happens in a restaurant, or the sandwich line at the Subway down the street. This is special. This is what community looks like.” And all because we found ourselves sharing the public space of a city sidewalk.

But it wasn’t just the fact that we shared a conversation. It was the substance, as well. Our talk had turned to the man’s co-op childcare group, which I was fascinated to hear about (and I don’t even have kids!). He was telling me how it worked and how great it was. That it’s a totally democratic process. That it takes a lot of time – the host family cooks for all the kids every day, and there are a lot of meetings – but the rewards are well worth it.

It got me thinking about the grocery co-op I belong to. How the meetings are really long, and sometimes difficult, but strangely rewarding, too, because of the valuable relationships you end up building with the people in the group through having to sit in a room together and hash out differences.

According to lawyer-authors Janelle Orsi and Emily Doskow of The Sharing Solution: How to Save Money, Simplify your Life, and Build Community (Nolo Press 2009), “Some people worry that sharing will end in the loss of friendly relationships if something goes wrong. We believe that the process of working through the potential problems in advance, and communicating openly about concerns when they arise, actually strengthens bonds between friends, neighbors, and fellow sharers of all kinds.”

In our highly individualistic society, in which selfishness is a kind of virtue, and anything, from our coffee drinks to our RSS feeds can be customized to meet our specific, personal, quirky needs, there’s an opposite sort of revolution going on.

This revolution requires us to talk to, negotiate with and accommodate others, as well as sometimes to state and defend unpopular opinions, while compromising in the end. This is called sharing and cooperation. It’s something we all learned in preschool and it’s hard work. It’s so much easier just to meet our own needs. But that’s not going to work much longer.

If we are going to continue to live on this increasingly crowded, hot planet, we’re going to have to learn to share. It’s not just nice. It’s necessary.

Once I started thinking about sharing, I started seeing it everywhere. It’s the central theme to both the bartering and the Urban Foraging movements. And it’s nothing new. After all, there have always been co-ops, swap meets, and carpools, but there also seems to have been an explosion this past year. And the rise of social networking is making it easier than ever to share.

I think this trend is sparked partly by us coming up against the wall of our economic system’s vast limitations and partly by the realization that we can’t just keep consuming and growing the economy and not consume and grow ourselves right out of existence.

Maybe we can look at the economic and environmental problems we are in the midst of as an opportunity to redirect selfishness and as an impetus for turning our individualistic society around.

To that end, here’s a rundown of 15 of the coolest sharing concepts and resources I’ve found to inspire you:

Recently launched is Shareable, a network of people committed to making life shareable. From the about page: “We cover the people, places, and projects that are bringing a shareable world to life. And share tools and tips to help you make a shareable world real in your life.”

Coworking: In which a group of people share an office space and all the amenities like printers, tea, tables, chairs, but have their own workspace. Some are permanent and some are drop-in based. Here’s a sort of coworking clearinghouse and The Coworking Institute.

Software: From Linux to open office, open source electronic resources are created by users for users.

Yard sharing: Don’t have time to garden but would like the benefits? Share your yard with a neighbor or neighbors. Hyperlocavore and Sharing Backyards are both sites that help people find and link up with others who want to start yard sharing in their communities.

Childcare: From organized co-op preschools to informal neighborhood babysitting co-ops, people all over are sharing the responsibilities of raising children. Because after all, it does take a village. Here’s a site to help you get started.

Stores and Farms: Here’s a directory of cooperative stores and buying clubs. CSAs have been around for a while and they are a form of sharing. Many of the earlier ones required members to work some hours on the farm. Then there’s cowpooling, in which you buy a whole cow with your neighbor. It’s green because the whole animal gets used, not just the prime cuts you find in the grocery store.

Cohousing: Cohousing is often like other housing, where everyone has their own private space, but the residents all consciously choose to share public space, meals, childcare, activities, or whatever they decide. This cohousing website is for people who are in cohousing or want to be in cohousing to help them share information and resources.

Cars: Having a car when you need it and not having it when you don’t is the beauty of car sharing. There are many types of car shares from informal, free and community- or neighborhood-based to businesses like Zipcar and City Car Share. Here’s a page with listings in each city.

Bikes: Popular in Europe, the idea is catching on here with varying levels of success. Shocker! Sometimes the bikes get stolen. The Bike Sharing Blog compiles information on bike sharing from everywhere.

Travel: Like to travel, but lack the money for a hotel? Or have the money, but would rather see the “real country”? Try

Seeds: Preserving biological diversity and making friends are two benefits of seed swapping. You could easily save seeds among friends and neighbors. There’s an informal neighborhood seed swap that sometimes sets up at my local farmers’ market.

Homesharing: Different from cohousing, this concept is for seniors to connect with one another and share houses, resources and companies. Kind of like roommates for the older set.

Skill Sharing: Brooklyn Skill Share is a network of people sharing knowledge. Another knowledge sharing organization, Bike Kitchens are places where people can go to learn to fix their own bikes and share tools.

Dinner: Frugal Foodies are loosely organized, rotating groups of people that cook dinner together once a week.

Borrowing: Neighborrow facilitates borrowing of tools, books and other household items among neighbors.

We do this in an informal way, since we share a lawnmower with our friends. We got the lawn with the house and didn’t want it and we got the lawnmower for free from a relative. Why buy a lawnmower for a lawn we don’t want and why make our friends do the same? So we share (at least until we can transform it all into an edible landscape).

We also share a car in our household among two and we belong to a grocery co-op that requires us to work 2 1/2 hours per month.

What kind of sharing are you involved in? What’s out there in your neck of the woods that I missed? Please share your information in the comments below.

For more ideas on how you can make your life more communitarian, check out the Sharing Solution Blog and book.

Image: a4gpa

Vanessa Barrington

Vanessa Barrington is a San Francisco based writer and communications consultant specializing in environmental, social, and political issues in the food system.