The world’s wealth is not equally shared, and neither are its resources. This we know, and much of this blog is dedicated to what we might do about it. But there is one solution that presents itself with childlike simplicity – we just need to share better.
Well yes, of course we do. But we don’t, we won’t, and even if we wanted to, how on earth do you organise global sharing? Such plain common sense sounds naïve – some people don’t like sharing, and you can’t make them do it if they don’t want to. But given the vast inequalities of the world, shouldn’t we at last ask the question? If there’s even a small chance that ‘just sharing better’ might work as an overarching strategy for fixing the world, we ought to give it a little thought, no?
Share the World’s Resources (STWR) think so. They see plenty of examples of sharing already, and are committed to exploring how such practices could be scaled up beyond local communities. We’re increasingly connected through globalisation. Perhaps that unity can be nurtured into a powerful global neighbourliness.
For starters, the principle of reciprocity has deep roots in ancient wisdom and ethics. All the world’s major religions preach it in only slightly different forms. “The principle of sharing is ubiquitous in society and precedes the doctrines of capitalism and socialism by millennia” say STWR in their primer. We all intuitively know that it’s good to share what we have, and feel a sense of injustice when people won’t share with us. Most families work on the basis of give and take, and so do most workplaces. In our day to day interactions with others, we share all the time in all sorts of ways.
Charitable giving is one broader form of sharing. When we donate or volunteer with a charity, we’re making little transfers of our time and money. Of course, it does nothing to solve the underlying injustices, but it’s a start. The commons is another well established form of sharing, from older land management traditions to the community managed Wikipedia. The Collaborative Consumption movement demonstrates all kinds of free exchange of community resources, from tools to expertise to parking places to peer-to-peer lending. Cooperatives and employee democracy are growing in importance, bringing shared power and mutual aid to the areas of business and work.
In some places, these principles have scaled up to government, with systems of national insurance and social security. “Social welfare systems in developed countries are far from perfect and not always efficiently administered,” say STWR, “but they represent a natural evolution of the human propensity to share.” Putting aside the politics of such systems for a moment – the point is simply that it is possible to organise sharing at a national level.
So if you can apply sharing principles nationally, can you take it one step further and share internationally? Well, even here there are some examples. STWR mention the Marshall Plan, where the US assisted in the rebuilding of Europe after the Second World War. The fact that it was advantageous to both sides doesn’t make it less significant, as we are talking about reciprocity, not pure altruism. The same is true of aid. Most rich countries give a tiny fraction of their budgets to assist in development overseas, some more than others.
These are small examples, and STWR argue that much more could be done by making the World Bank and the IMF more democratic, and by strengthening the UN, the most promising of the global institutions. We already have an emerging ‘global public’, largely thanks to the internet. We now need institutions to match, so that decisions can be taken and implemented with global unity. There are plenty of things that the vast majority of the world would agree on, if there was any suitable body that could act at that level.
Unfortunately, that’s where it starts to get complicated. The nation state idea isn’t as powerful as it was, but it’s still the organising dynamic in international relations, and it’s still all about the national interest. Talk of global governance makes some people very nervous, and when STWR say we need “a comprehensive agenda for restructuring and cooperatively managing the global economy in the interests of all nations”, alarm bells inevitably ring.
Still, STWR acknowledge that such radical propositions are a long way off, and there are many useful things that can be organised globally without committing to global government. We can organise humanitarian aid at the global level. An international currency for reserves is being discussed already. A commons approach to the atmosphere is eminently sensible. We can work to bring down barriers to food security without organising a top-down global food system. The increasing number of international treaties and decisions shows that international cooperation is getting easier rather than harder, despite the behaviour of those world leaders who yearn for the old days (hello, Mr Putin).
As we work together, the idea of nations cooperating rather than competing will look progressively less threatening. In time, the global summits at which each of our heads of state stands on their own box and clamours for their own interests will start to look inefficient and unnecessary. But we’re a long way from that yet, certainly in Britain. I’m not sure we’ll ever want or need a bona fide global government – we’re certainly not ready for it now, but perhaps our grandchildren will choose differently.
So where does the idea of global sharing leave us? Can we solve the world’s problems by just sharing our resources better? Well, yes and no. The good news is that we already do organise and share resources internationally at low levels, and we have international bodies that we could scale up. The bad news is that the amount of sharing we’d need to do to genuinely solve the world’s biggest problems is still politically impossible. So if we want to see more sharing, our task is to broaden the realms of the politically possible, one step at a time.