Take No Prisoners

The Sustainable Future is a Collective-Use Future

It is imperative for a sustainable future to stop buying so much stuff. It’s not just transportation that consumes resources, it’s also all the stuff taking up space in your house (and garage!). How many things do you own that you only use a few times a year? How many things do you not even remember using? Quit buying that crap!

I own a big-ass hammer drill, with a full set of wood, metal and concrete bits, hole saws, screwdriver bits – you name it. I use it once a year – max. So why do I own? Why do thousands of people in my city all own a drill they use no more than a few times a year? Because there’s no where you can go to borrow or rent one.

In contrast, although I own a bicycle, and tune it up every couple of months, I own very few bike tools. This is because I can go to The Bike Kitchen a non-profit bike shop where I can bring my bike, and pay only $7.50 an hour for access to a fully equipped bike shop and all the chain-oil, lubricants and duct tape I can use. And if I get in over my head, the staff will not only fix the bike for me (for a reasonable price) but teach me to do more complicated repairs myself.

I only need bike tools once every few months, so it would be a waste of money to buy them when I can just drop by a fully furnished bike shop. Similarly, I only need access to a car once or twice a month, so instead of buying one, I just borrow one from the Cooperative Auto Network, which has 10 cars within a two-block radius of my home. CAN is less expensive than other car sharing services (like Zipcar) because CAN is a non-profit.

This idea of collective use and a preference for renting/borrowing over owning is crucial to decreasing our consumption. Unfortunately, North American society suffers from a strong ownership-bias, which is continually fueled by corporatist interests. To overcome this destructively wasteful trend, two things must happen:

1. We must recognize candidates for collective use.

If you don’t use it at least once a week, you don’t need to own your own. Most people don’t need a fully equipped wood-working area. Or lawn mower. Or, second dining table. If you live in an apartment building, you may not need your own vacuum cleaner or washer/dryer. The casual ballplayer shouldn’t have to buy hundreds of dollars worth of sports equipment for a few games per year. Its simply more efficient to share rarely used items.

Another example that will become salient in the next few years is the EV (Electric Vehicle) range extender. When people hear that an all electric vehicle can only drive 100 km (or 50, or 200, or whatever) on a single charge, they freak out. Instead of thinking of the 99% of their trips within this limit, they think of the 1% that are longer. The way to combat this is through the collective use of range extenders (generally portable gas or diesel generators) that can be added to an EV for those rare longer trips. If you’re going to exceed your EV’s range once a week, it makes sense to own your own range extender, or have it permanently installed (as in a serial hybrid). If you’re going to exceed your EV’s range more rarely, you don’t want to be dragging around the extra weight of the range extender all the time, and why pay for it upfront anyway? It makes far more sense to pick one up from a nearby gas station (or some other sort of depot) before a big road trip.

2. We must develop collective-use infrastructure

It’s all well and good for me to sit here criticizing you for buying things instead of renting; meanwhile, nobody actually rents the things that you need! I’m not aware of any nearby organization that will rent me a tennis racquet or a set of drywalling gear. Three approaches to this problem are obvious.

First, before buying something you’ll use rarely, at least check to see if someone will lend or rent it to you. The least you can do is Google it.

Second, you can build your own rental cooperative around the things you already own but don’t use often. Talk to your neighbors. Stick up a website. Put an ad on your car. Just make sure you take a deposit or a piece of I.D. to make sure your belongings find their way home. Remember, the purpose of this is not to make you wad of cash, it’s to decrease consumption, so price reasonably.

Third, communities can take collective action to build sharing infrastructure. The city of Vancouver has been very supportive of the car co-op there. Citizens can pressure their city governments to support other kinds of sharing, such as community workshops where you build your own desk, depots where you can rent trailers or camping equipment and kid-meets where children can trade toys they’re tired of for “new” ones. The same can apply to communities of different sizes, including condo associations, streets, neighborhoods, schools, and so on.

It’s just like they teach in kindergarten: Share everything.

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