Photo Credit: Rockaway Youth on Banner by user Light Brigading

Can Americans Learn To Share?

It would be an interesting exercise to inventory the "things" we have in our homes and offices—the objects, the equipment, specialized things, electronic and otherwise, that occupy space. Along with this accounting, might be some estimate of how recently the thing has actually been used, and how frequently. My hunch is that much of our home "inventory" consists of things that are used rather infrequently, if ever. Given the tremendous carbon and energy footprint associated with producing and transporting goods, not to mention their economic cost and disposal problems, it behooves us to find creative ways to reduce our material consumption, to de-materialize if we can. One category of possibilities is to return to that time-tested idea of sharing, and establishing new community institutions to facilitate sharing. One of the most impressive local services we discovered when we lived in Australia, and we thought quite unusual at the time, was that of the local toy library. Seemingly every local council ran one, and sometimes it was a local non-governmental organization. When we lived in Fremantle, in Western Australia, we were frequent visitors to the council toy library. The concept was essentially the same as a lending book library—and indeed these toy libraries are organized in similarly efficient ways—bags of kids blocks each with check-out barcodes, games, even small cars and other rideable objects. In the case of our own Fremantle toy library, the service extended to helping you carry or push (often in a shopping cart) your new cache of toys to the car. With two small children there was palpable delight at each new toy, and by the time the toys had to be returned, they had run their course in terms of interest to the kids—they were ready for a new batch. We came back from Australia duly impressed with this idea, only to learn later that there are toy libraries all over the world. There is even an international toy library association with an annual international conference no less! (I'm tempted to wonder what wild things toy librarians do when they get together, but I will leave this for another day). Another similar idea is the tool library. A number of American cities actually already have them, including Francisco and Philadelphia. Columbus, Ohio, even runs a mobile tool library. Communities like Takoma Park, Maryland, have operated a community tool library directly behind their book library for many years. They offer just about any tool you can think of, with a few exceptions (chainsaws, for instance, perhaps for obvious reasons). And these make a lot of sense as well. Why spend limited family dollars to buy a commercial length ladder, for instance, that you may only need for that home paint job (every how many years?) or that post-hole digger, or specialized garden or woodworking tool? Atlanta is home to probably the largest tool library anywhere, and a terrific story of sharing in itself. The Atlanta Community Toolbank, as it's called, is really about institutional or organizational sharing—it's a membership organization that schools, parks, churches, and other community organizations are able to join and for a small fee are able to access a large array of tools (rakes, shovels, pruners, hammers, ladders, etc.) for use in various community renovation, restoration or clean-up projects. Wandering around this modest building I had never seen so many tools in one place. And toolbank is embedded in a inner city neighborhood, and has been a major force in helping repair and renovate homes there. It serves as a staging ground for a host of community projects and volunteer efforts throughout the city and in that sense represents an example of time- and labor-sharing of generous Atlantans, as much as anything. The benefits to these kinds are community sharing regimes are many, and extend beyond environment and energy. Use of one's public library has been frequently cited by communitarian advocates as evidence of connection and commitment to the public realm. In economic downturns (such as this) sharing may represent an effective coping strategy, and the personal interaction and sheer fun of it are also not be underestimated. But there are also obstacles to sharing, of course. It is often observed that Americans are rabidly individualistic, that we revel in not just the value and services provided by the objects we buy, but by the actual owning of things, and the status imparted through that owning. I'm not sure that is fair, and there is much evidence in our history as well of a generous and sharing culture. The surge of interest in car-sharing and in community bike systems (such as Paris' Vélib') may be sign for optimism. Perhaps sharing is something we've just gotten out of the habit of doing. Perhaps we just need to re-learn how to share? What do you think? Leave us a comment. ——————– Timothy Beatley is the Teresa Heinz Professor of Sustainable Communities at the University of Virginia. He co-authored Resilient Cities and Green Urbanism Down Under and is the author of the upcoming Planning for Coastal Resilience.