“Nothing is yours. It is to use. It is to share. If you will not share it, you cannot use it.”
Ursula K. Le Guin
We hear a lot about the “sharing economy” these days, with many mainstream political and economic thinkers touting it as a solution to the chronic under employment faced by workers in this ongoing Great Recession. Certain things that have been lumped into this new economic model, like open source software and crowd-sourced sites like Wikipedia, are indeed revolutionary, but these are treated as secondary to the somewhat more traditional businesses that get most of the hype.
The problem is the most widely known of these: Task Rabbit, Uber and Air bnb, are already huge companies. They also don’t really cultivate sharing, as a recent article in the UK Guardian noted. Instead, they promote “renting”, whether the transaction involves people or apartments, their business models don’t really meet any conventional definition of sharing.
While there are no doubt people who benefit from their associations with these companies, in many ways they turn back the clock on worker’s rights. The person who cleans a house through Task Rabbit may be thankful for the income it provides but they’re considered 3rd party contractors under the law and have none of the protections offered to traditional employees.
This isn’t to say that real sharing economies don’t exist. The idea of time as currency is an easy one for most people to accept, considering that most of us are already paid an hourly wage for our labor. In North America this has been one of the keys to the success of time banking. It is both easy to understand in terms of the way we already work and, with a little enthusiasm, these programs are relatively uncomplicated to set up and manage.
Simply put, time banking allows people to exchange their skills (on an equal basis) for credits which can then be used to purchase the abilities of others. Credits can also be transferred to other members. Time banks promote community solidarity by allowing people to ask for help when they need it without leaving them feeling that they aren’t giving something back in return.
As one British time banker explained in a recent interview, “I really hate gardening and the fact that I can do some IT for someone and have my garden done is a huge incentive. I helped a lot of elderly residents during the digital switch-over. I think there are many people out there like me, who have something to offer but need an external push and an extra incentive.”
The time bank model can be especially good for those who, for whatever reason, are underemployed. As a corollary of this they can greatly benefit elders, who often feel isolated, even in places where they have lived their whole lives. Time banks can offer them the chance to pass along their knowledge in return for labor they may not be physically able to do themselves.
As explained by Barbara Huston, the president of the Baltimore based Partners in Care, for elders living on a fixed income, “The difference it makes to have a handyman come out and do a repair for the cost of materials could be the difference between being able to purchase medicine or not.”
Another benefit of time banking, if its properly advertised, is that it can help newcomers become a part of the community. Most of the sources I found recommend using flyers or brochures to get the word out and, if possible, find a public space such as a library or a school for meetings. To get the ball rolling, many time banks try to start with group projects which help to build up users’ credits and bring in new members.
Time banks can lead to real, local sharing economies. Stephanie Rearick, who founded the Dane County Timebank in Wisconsin put it perfectly in an interview with the web-site Resilience.org, “I’ve come to see timebanking as a way we can decide what we’d like to do in our communities, then “hire” our friends and neighbors to help us, all by freely exchanging our time and talents with one another.”
A variety of different software solutions have been developed to facilitate starting one of these programs so the only problem is finding someone (or a small group) to oversee it. In most of the more successful time banks this becomes a paid position, requiring grants or other funding to pay either a part or full time salary. As the number of people using and offering services grows, there can be liability issues and it becomes vital to have at least one person who is ensuring that risks in this regard are mitigated.
While it’s nice to fantasize about radical change from the top down, maybe the best thing we can do in our communities is to begin to find ways to build solidarity and work for change locally. Time banks are a proven alternative to business as usual in North America, one that can appeal to a wide audience and can make allies out of people who we might not expect to find working with us. From Rojava to Detroit, they won’t even see it coming when the revolution bubbles from the bottom up.
For a short video from the Center for a New American Dreams which explains at greater length how to start a time bank and some of the resources available click here.