Shared Destinies

Your own house. Your own car. Your own lawn mower. Isn't there a better way?

| November/December 1999

a single serving of cereal, disposable bowl, small carton of milk, and plastic spoon, all in one package. 'It's for today's busy family,' Kellogg spokesman Anthony Hebron told The New York Times. 'A breakfast with virtually no preparation, and, if you think about it, no cleanup.' Of course, there is some cleanup--if all Americans ate breakfast this way for a year, they would generate 5.6 million tons of packaging waste. And convenience costs: at $1.39, it's nearly five times as much as the same cereal served in a traditional way. And that's not counting the social toll, when children eat Breakfast Mates alone in front of the TV while Mom and Dad sleep.

Envision this Brave New Breakfast thinking spreading through whole economies, and you'll see a troubling global trend: increased emphasis on individual goods and services, often at the expense of personal finances, social cohesiveness, and the environment. Many people seem to resort more fiercely than ever to privatized, individualistic solutions: They buy bottled water because they don't trust the public supply, or move to a gated community because they're insecure in a public one. This shift began decades ago, when city dwellers moved into suburban houses and gave up public transportation to protect such prized attributes as convenience and individual ownership, whose advantages are now increasingly questionable. What good is the convenience of driving yourself to work if, added up, it produces public congestion? What good is a convenient, private breakfast if it impoverishes family life and fosters disconnection?

If the zealous pursuit of private goods erodes public well-being, a growing number of experiments suggest that the reverse is also true: Sharing personal goods and services can enrich family and community life and the environment on which that life depends. Most societies already share many things, of course --books in libraries, open space in parks--but sharing could include everything from household goods to transportation systems. Communities that appreciate this opportunity are reaping some surprising benefits.

For most of our life as a species, nearly all goods were shared. Private property hardly existed for early hunters and gatherers, for instance; accumulating possessions made little sense in itinerant societies. Natural resources such as rivers and forests were regarded as domain that belonged to no one, or only to the gods. And because life was community-centered, personal property was largely unnecessary and could actually separate a person from the community.

In the past three centuries, with the exaltation of the individual that emerged from the Enlightenment, private property became the foundation of modern, market-oriented economies. Property rights continue to expand to realms never before conceived as private. Water drawn from springs that underlie communities is bottled and sold; a mathematical formula, ruled patentable in 1998 by the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, is privately owned; and the U.S. government has sought to patent genetic material from indigenous people in Panama and the Solomon Islands.

As private ownership becomes more widely accepted and the public sector loses influence, more and more of the world's wealth is now in private hands, where it fosters consumption that is outstripping global limits. Many experts have proposed creative strategies to help reduce materials consumption--recycling, substituting less-wasteful processes--but few have suggested reviving communal sharing. While the primary motive may be social, the ecological benefits are substantial.

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