IN 1998 THE KELLOGG COMPANY INTRODUCED BREAKFAST MATES:
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.
In the early 1990s, Netherlands Ministry of Transport analysts noted that the tiny country’s car ownership had tripled from 2 million in the 1970s to more than 6 million, and was projected to reach 8 million by 2010. Fearing the congestion and pollution that has engulfed such places as Mexico City and Bangkok, Dutch planners sought to discourage growth in the private fleet by restricting parking, promoting the use of buses and bicycles, and creating other incentives. They also backed car sharing, a new idea spreading rapidly across Europe.
In Amsterdam, for example, residents can now sign up with the Autodelen car-sharing program by paying a $250 deposit, 95 percent of which is refundable when they leave the program. The agency places cars at reserved, marked parking spaces around the city. For a monthly fee based on hours used and distance driven, a member can either reserve a car in advance or pick one up on the spot. The member walks or bikes to the car and uses an electronic card to open a box mounted on a pole in front of the parking spot that contains keys and often a plug-in stereo.
Although it’s too expensive for daily commuters, car sharing is a flexible, alternative option for people who drive less than 10,000 miles a year. The idea first took hold in 1988, when Carsten and Markus Petersen decided to sell a transportation service, rather than a product. Starting with two Opels and an answering machine, their company, Stattauto of Berlin, expanded to 300 cars parked at 56 vehicle stations and serving 5,500 members. Today, some 70,000 members in 300 towns and cities in Germany, Switzerland, the Netherlands, Austria, Denmark, Sweden, Italy, and Ireland belong to car-sharing groups. Six Canadian cities have or are planning car-sharing initiatives; Portland has an operating system, and Seattle is just initiating one.
The Petersen brothers grasped what has long escaped society: Private car use is extremely inefficient. The average car in the Netherlands is used for one hour and 12 minutes per day; thus the price tag for convenience is a car that lies idle for 95 percent of its life. By contrast, the average shared car in the U.K. and Ireland is used 30 percent of the time–six times more.
Car sharing also reduces the number of cars being used at any given time, which reduces the need for parking and road capacity. The number of people who are car-dependent then declines, too; studies by the Swiss Ministry of Energy and the German Ministry of Transport showed that car sharers drove some 28,000 fewer kilometers per year after joining the program–not because they couldn’t get a car when they wanted one, but because their habits and priorities changed. A Dutch study documented a 29 percent decrease in mileage compared with previous use of borrowed or rented cars or taxis. On average, every shared vehicle eliminates an estimated four private cars, which saves materials (automobile production now claims two-thirds of the iron, half the rubber, and one-fifth of the aluminum produced annually in the United States). A German study says 6 million private cars in Europe alone could be eliminated without restricting personal mobility.
The increase in efficiency requires only a small reduction in convenience. Another German study found that members got the car they wanted, when they wanted it, more than 90 percent of the time. And replacement cars are often available, too. In only 1.3 percent of cases could members not be accommodated at all.
King County Metro, Seattle’s transportation authority, noted that a monthly car-travel budget of four shopping trips, four quick errand runs, and one out-of-town trek would run $116 on a car-sharing plan–compared with the $575 per month that the American Automobile Association estimated was needed to operate a new car in the United States in 1998.
Of course, car sharing is not a viable option in all cities. Where it does work, cities need to reclaim freed-up street and parking space so that the decreased congestion does not simply invite more private cars.
IN THE 1950s, sociologist David Riesman wrote that we are a ‘lonely crowd,’ living and working within yards of people whose names we’ll never know. Although most city dwellers feel ambivalent about this anonymity, appreciating the privacy it offers but also lamenting the loss of connectedness, striking a healthy balance between privacy and community has proven difficult.
In the early 1970s, social pioneers in Denmark began experimenting with cohousing, a form of modern-day cooperative village. Designed by residents and intended to build strong community ties, the typical cohousing development consists of 10 to 40 clustered households, each with its own private house or apartment. Residents share some space–usually a ‘common house’ for meetings, recreation, and regular group meals, and also workshops and gardens. The communities are self-managed and make decisions by consensus.
More than 200 of these villages operate in Denmark, where 10 percent of all new housing is cohousing. About 55 cohousing communities also thrive in the United States and Canada–all built since the late 1980s–with 150 more in various stages of planning. On this continent, the number of residents in such communities is still tiny–3,000 in a combined U.S.ñCanadian population of well over 300 million–but the surge of interest and relatively mainstream character of the pioneering communities suggest that the movement has broad appeal.
Unlike countercultural groups who formed communes in the 1970s, most U.S. cohousers are working professionals; half have graduate degrees, and many have families. They value privacy but appear to be more socially and environmentally aware than many conventional suburbanites, and more interested in engaging the world beyond their own four walls.
Although cohousing is still in its infancy in the United States, Australian researcher Graham Meltzer has documented its advantages. In 1996 Meltzer surveyed residents in 18 U.S. communities, primarily in California, Colorado, Massachusetts, and Washington. The results revealed that most were willing to make significant trade-offs for what they regarded as a higher overall quality of life.
The biggest sacrifice cohousers face is probably space. Average household living space, including a share of the common areas, was about 1,400 square feet, two-thirds the size of the average new home in the United States in 1996. But such features as shared basement space for mechanical services and common entryways made smaller dwellings easier to live with, and the average cohousing community used only half as much land, per dwelling, as a conventional suburban development.
Residents also surrender some free time: The average member serves on one committee–governing board, landscape committee, meals coordination group–that meets regularly to manage community activities. But these investments have returns: Residents of Colorado’s Greyrock Commons put colored flags by their doors when they plan a trip to the store, so neighbors can drop off shopping lists; simple assistance–fixing leaky faucets or installing software, for instance–is often handled ‘in-house’; and care once provided by extended families is sometimes supplied by the community. A woman in the Pioneer Valley community in Amherst, Massachusetts, for example, reported not having to cook for two months after giving birth.
Most of the communities in the Meltzer study offer two or more common meals per week, with an average of 58 percent of the residents usually or always attending. The meals offer socializing opportunities and also save time. In contrast to the Breakfast Mates solution to the time crunch, shared meal preparation and cleanup frees up hours each month. At the Nomad Cohousing Community in Colorado, which serves two meals per week, residents are required to help only once every five to six weeks.
Safe, easily arranged child care is another advantage. The average community has 20 children, providing kids with plenty of near-sibling relationships and playtime opportunities, not to mention shared bicycles and toys. ‘The television-watching regime in our household collapsed when we moved into cohousing,’ one resident reported.
Cohousing also offers a much more environmentally friendly form of living. After moving in, members recycled more, moderated energy and water use, and drove less, Meltzer found; in fact, the number of cars owned by residents fell by 4 percent.
Sharing extends beyond buildings and land: Meltzer noted a 25 percent reduction in ownership of freezers, washing machines, and dryers, and a 75 percent reduction in lawn mowers. In Emeryville, California, the Doyle Street community’s workshop houses an electric belt sander, picnic coolers, and a kayak–all available to residents. The Commons of the Alameda, New Mexico, posts a list of household items that may be borrowed.
Cohousing communities are not utopias, of course; close interactions can generate conflict. Residents worry about their children’s socialization under the influence of other adults and lament the communities’ lack of racial and economic diversity, which is partly due to planning and construction costs that must be paid before members move in–an estimated $28,000 per household, in the case of one Washington development. Low-income house hunters do not have that kind of cash, and housing assistance programs are typically designed to pay rent–not foster ownership. As developers take the lead in building cohousing (so far, prospective residents have spearheaded most efforts), issues of financing and coordination should become simpler.
LIKE SHARING GOODS, volunteering time builds communities. But in a world where parents can barely get prepackaged cereal on the table, who has time for more volunteer work?
A better question might be how to leverage currently volunteered time. Suppose every hour one person volunteered, whether in a legal aid clinic, soup kitchen, or neighbor’s home, was recorded as one service credit in an electronic database. Suppose, too, that the volunteer–call him Victor–is an elderly man on a fixed income whose bathroom needs painting. He can’t afford a painter and is too proud to ask for help. But he can use his service credit to ‘pay’ another volunteer. As more volunteers with a wider variety of abilities join in, the volunteerism market grows. Service credits tap a latent source of community wealth: people’s time and energy.
Service credit programs now operate in more than 150 U.S. communities and are used in Japan and the U.K. as well. In New York City, members of the Woman Share program use ‘time dollars’ to help each other; carpentry, cooking, massage, organizing closets and papers, and planning weddings and bat mitzvahs rank among the most requested services. Social bonds are strengthened not only through service relationships, but also via monthly potluck dinners. Indeed, Woman Share’s success has created a happy dilemma: As members become friends, they grow reluctant to accept credits. ‘I suppose the ideal would be to have the time dollars self-destruct’ as the community becomes more cohesive, muses founder Dianna McCourt.
In St. Louis, Grace Hill Neighborhood Services uses time dollars to stimulate self-help programs in 10 low-income neighborhoods. More than 3,000 volunteers earned nearly 75,000 hours of credit in 1997. In one project, 112 volunteers cleaned up a Mississippi River recreational trail, collecting seven dump trucks’ worth of debris. Another neighborhood established a ‘time-dollar store’ that carries clothes, toys, personal hygiene products, and other donated basics.
Businesses sometimes use service credits to defray costs. Elderplan, a health maintenance organization in New York City, uses volunteers to help elderly patients with shopping and going to the doctor. The credits can be used for home repairs or on luncheon vouchers, or to buy foot massagers, blood pressure monitors, or orthopedic pillows at a health-products shop the HMO operates.
While the credits appear to function like currency, they are different in an important way: Participants see themselves as volunteers rather than paid workers. Volunteer credits tap the ‘desire to help or need to be needed in ways that market wages either ignore or repulse,’ Edgar Cahn and Jonathan Rowe explain in their book, Time Dollars.
Realizing that personal time and energy are important sources of wealth has potentially revolutionary implications for decaying communities. Once these assets are harnessed in a coordinated way, community health will no longer be entirely dependent on the investment decisions of affluent citizens, corporations, or the government. Service credits offer opportunities for communities to address their own problems while ensuring that everyone’s skills, however limited, are valuable. In Washington, D.C.’s Shaw district, for example, neighbors who wanted to renovate a local playground and rid the area of drug houses earned more than 1,000 hours of service credits in 1996 through baby-sitting, tutoring, escorting seniors, and neighborhood cleanups. A service credit database brought residents together with a law firm, where the credits bought legal services worth $235,000.
This type of sharing carries some risk of being used inappropriately–as an excuse for society to abandon its obligations to low-income people, for example. Service credits are not a viable substitute for government responsibility, and they shouldn’t become the foundation of a second-class economic system. But within the informal, nonmonetary economy, they constitute an important, largely untapped resource.
Both the public and private sectors, especially in industrial countries, have begun to recognize the role that organized sharing can play in building more sustainable communities. The cities of Takoma Park, Maryland, and Berkeley, California, for example, run power- and hand-tool libraries. Copenhagen provides bicycles for free public use downtown. Companies in German cities match drivers with riders who need a lift, and vacationing apartment dwellers with short-term visitors. All of these kinds of sharing increase materials efficiency, reducing environmental impact as they strengthen social ties.
Although it may seem like a foreign idea in modern societies that emphasize individualism and private property, sharing could be a win-win strategy–one win for disconnected communities and another for exploited environments. The Cartesian dictum that launched the modern era of individualism–I think, therefore I am–may need to make room for the wisdom of the Xhosa people of southern Africa: I am because we are. When we begin to appreciate our rootedness in community once again, sharing, like breathing, will become second nature.
WHAT WE SHARE
libraries and museums
roads and bridges
WHAT WE USED TO SHARE
particular sounds or fragrances
WHAT WE COULD SHARE
gardens and play areas
cars and trucks
Gary Gardner is a senior researcher at the Worldwatch Institute. From World Watch (July/Aug. 1999). Subscriptions: $20/yr. (6 issues) from Box 879, Oxon Hill, MD 20750-0879.