The Original Sharing Economy

For most of human history, there was no such thing as private property.

A series of 15th-century illustrations depicting agricultural tasks throughout the year (Wellcome Library)

At the Sharing Depot, a storefront in Toronto, $50 a year buys tens of thousands of dollars’ worth of tools, camping supplies, furniture, games, toys, sports equipment, and much else. At least on a short-term basis: The owners of the space call it a “library of things,” and anyone who pays the annual membership fee can borrow anything in the Sharing Depot, whose aisles look a lot like those at a regular big-box store. The difference is that everything on the shelves can be checked out like a library book.

Ryan Dyment, a co-founder of the Sharing Depot, explained that his business takes advantage of the fact that people own things they hardly ever use. “We’ve produced way more than what we need to live well,” Dyment says. “There are basements and garages full of stuff.” The Sharing Depot opened in 2013 and currently has more than 2,200 members.

Roughly a dozen stores around the world call themselves libraries of things, but unofficial sharing libraries are much more plentiful. According to Dyment, there are about 80 tool libraries established in North America, Europe, and Oceania, and there are probably many more that operate on smaller scales. Also, lots of equipment owned by universities is available for public use, and farmers sometimes develop equipment-sharing programs to spread out the cost of using large machinery.

Aside from promoting a spirit of community, the Sharing Depot’s model is also financially beneficial for the people who use it. Borrowing instead of buying can save money, and it makes it easier for people to obtain things that would usually be beyond their means. “It levels the playing field, when everyone has access to the same things,” Dyment explains. He says his kids can now, for instance, “get new toys every week if they want to.” Likewise, when Dyment sold his car and started using a car-sharing service, he says it saved him $10,000 a year. People who share don’t “have to play this game of ‘How do I get enough digits in my imaginary bank account to access these things?’” he says.

And sharing is of course easier on the environment. “Our economic model doesn’t work with the environmental needs we have,” Dyment says. “I think we need to move to a situation where people are working less and consuming less, but they’re sharing more.” He laments that so many mass-market products are now made not with durability in mind, but with an eye on planned obsolescence. Stronger, longer-lasting products would be, among other things, better for sharing.

Today, it’s taken for granted that nearly all objects belong to someone. But while the spirit of the Sharing Depot is a break with the present, it has historically been the norm: Hunter-gatherers—which is what humans were for most of the time they’ve been humans—are thought to have shared nearly everything.

According to Sam Bowles, a professor of economics at the University of Massachusetts, hunter-gatherers likely didn’t have a conception of private property. “Among mobile hunter-gatherers during the late Pleistocene, food was almost certainly widely shared as it was acquired,” Bowles wrote in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. “If you didn’t share,” he says, “you’d be violating a basic social norm.” And according to the anthropologist David Graeber’s 2013 book Debt: The First 5,000 Years, the Iroquois used to stockpile goods in longhouses, and women’s councils would decide who could use what. This jives with the communal storage spaces that archaeologists have found at the sites of villages of some hunter-gatherers who were among the first to turn sedentary.

This idea of sharing everything matches observations of hunter-gatherer tribes that still exist today. “They’re very free with one another’s things,” explains Daniel Everett, an anthropologist at Bentley University who spent years studying the Pirahã, a group of hunter-gathers in the Amazon. Everett remembers lending things to the Pirahã, only to find that the borrowers were “continually mystified” when he came back to pick up an item. “They are always incredulous when I’d come over to get it,” he says. “I wasn’t using it, and they needed it, so what’s the big deal?” He explains that, while one person in the group might primarily own an object, the property is all but private. “They frequently take each others’ things, and there’s no fuss about it,” he adds.

Bowles, based on his and others’ research, thinks that private ownership may have originated around 11,000 years ago, as humans started farming. Agriculture and private property likely evolved together, since farmers are generally loath to let others reap what they have sown. As some hunter-gatherers settled down in fishing villages and other areas where there was plenty of food to be found or grown, they started building private living spaces. Archeological evidence suggests that they slowly stopped storing food communally and started keeping it in their houses instead. “What farming allowed people to do is take a very small plot of land or particular group of animals … and say, ‘This is mine,’” Bowles explains.

But farming was “not a bargain in terms of standard of living,” Bowles says. An hour of farming actually yielded fewer calories than an hour of hunting and gathering, and early farmers were shorter, had worse teeth, and were likely less healthy than hunter-gatherers. But the populations of farmers grew more quickly than those of the more-mobile hunter-gatherers, largely because being rooted makes it easier to have a lot of kids: It’s hard to take care of lots of young children when constantly on the move. A group of hunter-gatherers might consist of only 30 adults, while a farming village might have thousands.

This population disparity made it easier for farmers to take over hunter-gatherers’ territory and use it for farmland. “They eventually took over the world,” says Bowles, and they brought their system of property rights with them. Indeed, that’s essentially what happened only a few centuries ago as Europeans arrived in Australia, Africa, and the Americas, where some peoples were hunter-gatherers, some were farmers, and some were something in between.

But until the 1700s, nearly every human settlement—even long after conceptions of private property had taken shape—had a “commons,” shared land that locals could use for farming crops and grazing animals. In medieval England, local juries decided who was allowed to use certain tracts in what was a pretty democratic system, explains Ellen Rosenman, a University of Kentucky professor who specializes in English history. The governing of the commons wasn’t completely egalitarian—wealthy farmers had extra influence, for instance. But people who truly needed something got it: Villages set extra land aside for the poor, and the extremely rich were often not allowed to use common land. “Sometimes people who had no money were allowed to use the land for free,” Rosenman says.

Unlike modern farmland, which is usually divided into square-shaped parcels, English commons were doled out in strips. As a result, farmers would work alongside each other, making it easier to share tools and help each other out. “In general, it was a more communal way of life,” Rosenman explains. “It was designed so that everyone in the community could survive.”

This all started to change during the Industrial Revolution, when better technology made farming much more profitable. Businesspeople, seeing a new opportunity, were eager to grow food, and governments were apparently happy to give them the land to do it: A slew of what were called “Inclosure Acts” were passed in the U.K. between 1750 to 1850, explains Rosenman, as communal land was given over to individuals, most of them wealthy. “Big land owners kind of gobbled [the commons] up,” Rosenman says. “By the time it was all done, there was virtually no common land anymore.” According to Rosenman, the farmland itself suffered as a result. Laborers hired by big landowners weren’t all that invested in the land they were working on, so they didn’t always take care of it very well—a historical echo of Dyment’s present-day complaint that many consumer goods aren’t designed or bought with long-term usage in mind.

Historians disagree about how these acts affected people’s lives. Some, for instance, note that many at the time were excited that farming had become more efficient. But Rosenman points out that that the vast majority of working-class writers considered these land claims a disaster. Commoners lost their farms, and with them, “they lost their claim to being part of the nation,” Rosenman says. “The psychic consequences”—a reduced sense of independence and identity—“were massive.”

The English commons are a pretty good example of how land went from public to private in other places throughout history: New technologies made industrial agriculture viable, wealthy landowners overtook small farms, and displaced farmers found work elsewhere, a lot of the time in factories.

This script did not always play out without resistance, though. A variety of communities—from native groups to working-class laborers to religious orders—have fought against the idea of private property. In the 1500s, for instance, some adherents of Anabaptism, a branch of Christianity, argued that private property contradicted Jesus’s view that God created the world for everyone. Acting on their views, they took over a town in Germany and outlawed private property. “God had made all things common, as today we can still enjoy air, fire, rain, and the sun in common, and whatever else some thieving, tyrannical man cannot grasp for himself,” preached one of the Anabaptists’ leaders.

More-modern communities that discourage private ownership are less rebellions than they are isolated pockets of sharing-oriented cultures. Nineteenth-century American utopian communities proposed a more communal way of life, just like the present-day Israeli kibbutzim, which often share everything from food to tools to laundry machines. In a similar vein, Amish communities have “barn raisings” in which whole communities get together to build a barn for an individual.

But today, the sharing that most people engage in is more often digital: Music, games, videos, computer code, programs, ideas, research, and articles are all frequently shared for free online, to the point that the internet is the closest thing there is to a present-day commons. And in what has come to be called “the sharing economy,” the internet enables people to sell access to everything from extra bedrooms to car rides to video equipment. Companies such as Uber and Airbnb allow people to quickly and efficiently secure temporary use of things that belong to someone else.

But sharing-economy companies exist in the same economy that McDonald's and Starbucks do. Uber, Airbnb, and the like ultimately depend on profit, not generosity. Ownership is still private; everything is rented, not truly shared. The sharing economy might be a significant step toward more efficiently tapping into the wealth of physical things owned by individuals—as opposed to corporations—but it’s still vastly different from the kind of sharing that defined humanity for tens of thousands of years.