Several years ago the Green Party in England faced a dilemma. Everyone was buying a washing machine for themselves and abandoning the laundromats. The party leaders knew that moving away from the collective to a private good was bad for the planet — more things being consumed, more resources being wasted. But they couldn’t figure out what to do. Lecturing or scolding people didn’t seem to work. In fact, we now know that when people hear environmental bad news they quell their anxiety by going shopping!
Environmentalists are still trying to figure out how to get people to change their behavior, but it seems that there are some new ideas. For example, a few years ago a man in San Francisco came up with a way to solve the dilemma of the laundromats. Jeffrey Zalles made his laundromat, called Brainwash, the place to be. There’s a cafe, happy hours, live music, stand-up comedy nights, pin-ball machines, and of course free wi fi. He’s built a sense of community where people come together and enjoy themselves. Instead of lecturing people, he’s luring people by offering them the joy of social connections.
This story is in a great new book called What’s Mine is Yours: The Rise of Collaborative Consumption by Botsman and Rogers. The book explores the new efforts happening on the Web that allow us to build social ties by sharing with each other, reducing consumption by giving people what they really need — connection with other people.
Take the idea of couch surfing. When you’re traveling, either here or abroad, you can go on the Web and find places to stay — free— in people’s homes. The traveler saves money and gets to know the local culture, and the host has the enjoyment of meeting someone from another culture. Good conversation flows and long term friendships develop.
More and more, people are beginning to realize that social connection is the biggest predictor of health, happiness, and longevity. The more friends you have, the better your life. Unfortunately, our culture encourages consumerism and emotional isolation. Consumerism, of course, leads to emotional isolation. Instead of turning to each other for help or fulfillment, we turn to things. We buy ourselves out of dilemmas instead of helping each other out. Our large gap between the rich and the poor leads to highly competitive, status conscious lives where we focus on our appearance and the impression we’re making. We try to present an image of success and we don’t let people see who we really are.
This translates into emotional isolation because good friends know each others vulnerabilities as well as their strengths. My father carried around a little poem with him all his life: A friend is not someone who is taken in by sham, A friend is one who knows your faults, and doesn’t give a damn. Fewer and fewer of us have these kinds of relationships. A study found that a quarter of people have no one to turn to in times of crisis, and another quarter have only one person.
The growing effort to build a collaborative culture can help change that — particularly the new technology available for neighborhoods, technology that allows people to share with each other. Web sites like NeighorGoods.net, WeCommune.com, BrightNeighbor.com, or Neighborrow.com let people offer their skills and their unwanted stuff to their neighbors.
Collaboration is helping solve another problem: Many people work at home and miss the community of the workplace. Countering this is a movement called coworking: People pay a fee to use a larger working space where they can take breaks with others and chat around the water cooler. Seattle has its own coworking enterprise called Office Nomads (www.officenomads.com) on Capitol Hill.(According to its web site, it’s open for drop-ins Monday through Friday from 8:30am to 6pm. 1617 Boylston Ave, Second Floor.)
There has been a lot of negative commentary about how the Internet is cutting us off from each other, encouraging people to spend more time interacting with screens rather than with real people. And this is a serious problem — convivial gatherings like picnics and dinner parties are on the decline. But we know high tech is not going away, so we need to control it rather than letting it control us. This new opportunity to promote collaboration gives us a chance to reduce the emotional isolation, as well as the consumerism, that threaten the well being of people and the planet.
Andrews is the author of Circle of Simplicity, Slow is Beautiful, and Less is More.