Share conference outlines the possibilities and pitfalls for a new economy at the crossroads
"What's wrong with the old environmentalism is we're not achieving our mission. Climate change is what's wrong with the old environmentalism," he said.
Werbach cited the goal of replacing about a quarter of the things we now buy with shared goods, even though Amazon and other companies have made it easier than ever to have new products shipped around the world: "It is cheaper, faster, and easier to get something new than to get something used from right next door."
But Silvestri said the limited participation in the sharing economy makes it difficult to see it as the solution yet, calling for the sharing economy to address access and equity issues, something that marginalized groups would respond to if it was based on true values of sharing.
"Coming from my own background, African Americans had to share because white people wasn't giving us nothing," she said. By that same measure, she also said that low-income people feel wary of being taken advantage of by sharing companies and customers: "When you're in survival mode, you're wary of people taking from you."
That's one reason why Silvestri said that black communities are slower to adopt sharing with strangers, whether it be their homes or cars, something that could be overcome with more personalized outreach: "If I look you in the eye, you might not come take my shit."
She said that for all the talk at the conference about "community," the community of strangers that makes up the sharing economy isn't a true community, something that needs to change to realize the lofty goals that many espouse.
"The sharing economy is new enough that if we figure out this problem early then all of us can actually participate," Silvestri said.
Werbach agreed, saying the sharing economy has great potential, but only if it makes the right moves now. "This is the beginning of a movement, but the people aren't here yet," he said. "We're at the very beginning of this story."
He defines the struggle of the moment as one between human and economic values, hoping the sharing economy's customers will determine its values: "There is an interesting wild west movement now. We need people to do the recruiting so Wall Street doesn't do the recruiting."
The closing plenary session at Share illustrated the divergent attitudes and goals that mark the sharing economy, in which some members feel a collective responsibility to meet important societal goals, while others seem more interested in just making money and mouthing the rhetoric of sharing.
New York University economics professor Arun Sandararajan, who runs the Collaborative Economy Project that studies and promotes the sharing economy, said it has the potential to develop in ways that will either exacerbate or reduce the income inequality that has become such a growing public policy concern.
Sandararajan expressed hopes that the sharing economy could increase the economic growth rate and lower the wealth gap by broadening access to capital and opportunities for entrepreneurship. But he also argued that the sharing economy has the potential to change the terms of the debate by giving more people access to goods and services than their incomes might otherwise allow.
"We have to go beyond measuring inequality in terms of income and wealth," he said, offering a conception likely to appeal to the wealthy, but probably not those struggling to get by, even if they were able to get more hand-me-downs through Yerdle or odd jobs through TaskRabbit.
Others on the panel illustrated the dichotomy between do-gooders and profit-seekers more clearly, showing how broadly those in the sharing economy are trying to define it these days.