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Sharing and caring: the implications of collaborative consumption

David Roberts, Grist
Lots of the most interesting changes in the direction of sustainability are happening outside green politics (i.e., the stuff I’m always writing about). One that’s always fascinated me is the spread of sharing economies, or “collaborative consumption.” Grist had Rachel Botsman and Roo Rogers, authors of What’s Mine Is Yours: The Rise of Collaborative Consumption, in to visit the office a while back and they got me fired up about it all over again.

… The key to this extraordinary surge is information technology, which has lowered transaction costs by orders of magnitude. It has become incredibly cheap to connect people so they can coordinate and exchange information

… The implications of this stuff are broad and deep; it’s an incredibly chewy nexus of social, economic, environmental, and philosophical issues. (Mmm … chewy nexus.)

From an environmental perspective, it’s a way for that fond and long-held hope, dematerialization, to start getting real traction. It turns out the ownership model, in and of itself, builds in a huge amount of resource inefficiency. We buy things that, by definition, as individuals, we cannot utilize fully, and they spend most of their time simply being owned (think of all your books and CDs, if you still have them). Now the ownership model is beginning to give way to the access model, wherein what’s prized is access to services and experiences.

From a sustainability perspective, the crucial thing about an access model is that efficiency and durability are baked in; the profit incentive is naturally oriented toward getting the maximum number of human use-hours from the minimum amount of stuff. Just where we want the incentive to be! So greens have direct stake it seeing sharing models spread and flourish.

From an economic perspective, this puts real stress on the conventional ways of assessing an economy’s performance. As sharing spreads, more and more socially productive activity will be “off the books” — no money will exchange hands, or if it does, it will be be a direct exchange, which, if it can be tracked at all, will basically count as a gift.
(4 May 2011)

Going Local: Across the U.S., Communities Are Forming “Transition Towns”

Patricia Hemminger, EMagazine
Sitting beside her wood-burning stove one snowy afternoon last January, Kim Latham ticked off her recent lifestyle changes: She installed an energy efficient geothermal heating system, grows her own vegetables and approaches new purchases with caution. What she does buy comes mostly from local farms and farmer’s markets. “I’m always looking to reduce waste,” Latham says. “I haven’t bought clothes for a year.” Inspired by a weekend workshop on the “transition” movement at Genesis Farm in northwest New Jersey, Latham says it suddenly became clear that “doing nothing wasn’t an option.” Now she is one of thousands of people working together in transition towns, local communities pro-actively preparing for an oil-scarce future.

As of this writing, there are 360 official transition towns in 31 countries, including 85 in 29 U.S. states—with over 100 more U.S. groups interested. The movement began in the British town of Totnes in 2006, but most U.S. transition towns are less than two years old. They aim to reduce fossil fuel use, and help mitigate climate change, by relocalizing. This means shifting production closer to home. If enough food, building supplies, energy and goods are sourced locally, towns and neighborhoods could become resilient—survive, and even prosper—when oil becomes scarce.

The movement is also about creating functioning communities, with the idea that strong neighborhood networks will help towns to weather future energy shocks. “We’re addressing the issues of peak oil, climate change and economic instability, but really the message is we’re pulling together as a community,” says Paul LeVasseur, a core member of the transition group in Putney, Vermont. “We’re building these strong ties with one another and getting to know one another in a way that, when the challenges come, we’ll be ready as a community to respond collectively.“

Although there are guidelines for establishing transition towns—inclusivity and networking are key—initiatives in each location evolve differently. The Totnes model has its roots in a small rural town. U.S. cities such as Los Angeles and Portland, Oregon, adapt the model to urban neighborhoods. Some find that preparing to live a less consumer-oriented lifestyle requires an “inner transition”—a psychological paradigm shift. Others are just passionate about project-oriented solutions. And there’s a natural tension between approaching an oil-scarce future in a fun-loving, celebratory manner, as suggested by the transition movement’s founder Rob Hopkins, and being ready to survive imminent crises.

… “There are multiple levels of approach and that’s part of the beauty of this—that we’re honoring each other’s worldviews and belief systems and everything else coming into it,” says Patricia Benson, a founding member of Transition Northfield in Minnesota, and board member of Transition US.

Differences, after all are what makes a place “local” in the first place. “By the time we all get “transitioned” it’s going to be a very local thing,” says Poyourow. “What we’re doing in L.A. is vastly different from what they’re doing in Totnes. It’s inspired by what they’re doing, but it’s vastly different.”

PATRICIA HEMMINGER is a freelance science and environmental journalist based in New Jersey and the associate editor of Pollution A-Z (MacMillan).
(1 May 2011)
Suggested by EB contributor DM. -BA

“Happy” – the movie

Director Roko Belic, documentary website


HAPPY is a non-profit feature documentary that deals with many of the fundamental issues we face in today’s society. How do we balance the allure of money, fame and social status with our needs for good relationships, health and a sense of contentment? Through powerful interviews and a global journey the film seeks to share the wisdom found in traditional cultures and from the cutting edge science that is now, for the first time, exploring human happiness.

In addition to hearing from leading neuroscientists and psychologists in the field, HAPPY explores personal stories from around the world. Can Manoj Singh, a rickshaw puller from the slums of Kolkata, India, who lives in a hut made of plastic bags with his family be just as happy as the average American? In fact, he is. What about Melissa Moody, the beautiful debutant mother of three who had a “perfect life” until the day she was run over by a truck? Disabled for 9 years and disfigured for life, amazingly she is happier now than before her accident.

Director Roko Belic shares the story of why and how he decided to make a documentary about happiness.

HAPPY – How It All Began from Wadi Rum Productions on Vimeo.

(Accessed 6 May 2011)
Recommended by my sister who writes:
“Saw this tonight. Tempted to rent a hall, make everyone I know (and love) come and watch it… had a great time with son Nathan. We both left very happy.”
Wall Street Journal
Paste Magazine.

Documentqry “EARTH: The Operators’ Manual” now online and on PBS
Film website
On Sunday, April 10, 2011, PBS (check local listings since some stations will time shift the program) debuts a new kind of program on climate change. “EARTH: The Operators’ Manual” dispenses with politics, polemics or punditry; instead, it presents an objective, accessible assessment of the Earth’s problems and possibilities that will leave viewers informed, energized and optimistic.

Host Richard Alley – a geologist, contributor to the United Nations panel on climate change and former oil company employee whom Andy Revkin of the New York Times once called “a cross between Woody Allen and Carl Sagan” – leads the audience on this engaging one-hour special about climate change and sustainable energy, premiering during Earth Month 2011. Alley’s book of the same name, a companion to the program, is published by W.W. Norton & Company.

“EARTH: The Operators’ Manual” (“ETOM” for short) is a rigorously researched, beautifully filmed and ultimately uplifting antidote to the widespread “doom and gloom” approach to climate change. The program opens with a thorough grounding in Earth’s climate history and an overview of the current dilemmas, but its main thrust is an upbeat assessment of our many viable sustainable energy options.

To illustrate the evidence and the way forward, “ETOM” takes viewers on a High Definition trip around the globe. In New Zealand, the audience follows Richard Alley into a deep crevasse to understand how the advance and retreat of massive glaciers during Earth’s Ice Ages are tied to changing levels of carbon dioxide. In Denver, Colorado, we peer over his shoulder at the National Ice Core Lab to see how records of temperature and atmospheric composition trapped inside chunks of ancient ice conclusively demonstrate that today’s levels of CO2 are higher than at any time in the past 400,000 years, due largely to our burning of fossil fuels over the past several hundred years.

Then it’s on to locations where developments in sustainable energy are already proving it’s possible to do things differently. A solar power plant near Seville, Spain, will soon provide electricity to 200,000 homes – promising news for the sunniest place in the world, the deserts of the U.S. Southwest, where solar energy could account for 80% of Earth’s current use. On the North Island of New Zealand, a geothermal generating station is a reliable source of carbon-free energy.

We travel to Brazil, a land of cars running on flex fuels using sugarcane ethanol, and on to the gas-guzzling city of Houston, which is working to support e-vehicles. At the Army’s Fort Irwin and the Marine Corps’ Camp Pendleton, we learn why the U.S. military has made it a priority to significantly reduce its reliance on fossil fuels. And in Xi’an, Shanghai and Beijing, we see how China, the world’s largest energy consumer, is evolving from “the factory of the world” into “the clean-tech laboratory of the world,” in the words of Peggy Liu, chairperson of the Joint U.S.-China Collaboration on Clean Energy.

From low-tech solutions to high-tech innovations, “ETOM” shows the wide range of practical options available to meet Earth’s growing need for energy. Says producer Erna Akuginow (who directed the critically acclaimed “Childhood” series and the Passport to Knowledge series of electronic field trips): “In creating this program, we were awed by the raw power of the Earth and of human ingenuity, and happily surprised by some of the most ambitious goals for clean, low-carbon options.”
(April 2011)
Suggested by EB contributor Marcin Gerwin. -BA