Why The Sharing Economy Doesn't Work: Human Nature

We can only solve our traffic problems if we stop idealizing car and bike sharing, and focus on how people behave and what they want.

Electric scooters left behind everywhere.
Electric scooters left behind everywhere.
Guido Bellberg


BERLIN — In social sciences, there is a theory that I always think of when I see e-scooters carelessly strewn about in Hamburg or shared bikes artfully stacked on the banks of the Spree river in Berlin. After all, I have heard that it has become chic for some young French people to throw the rented electric scooters in the Mediterranean.

What some call the commons dilemma is better known as the "tragedy of the commons." It goes something like this: If a number of market participants (such as sheep farmers) have access to free common property (such as the village green), a race begins very quickly about who uses or consumes this free good first.

In practice, this means that as soon as the gate is open, some sheep farmers will begin to move their sheep from their own pasture to the village meadows, where the animals can graze in peace at zero cost for the shepherd. This represents real added value for the sheep, and also a solid competitive advantage for their owner, especially considering that at the same time his slowest or "most moral" competitors come away empty-handed. And the latter's sheep are left looking enviously at their well-fed wooly colleagues, and then desperately back at the barren field, which was once a beautiful village meadow.

First come, first served: this motto is most relevant when it comes to goods that belong to the state. The reasons for this behavior — that some refer to as "immoral" vis-a-vis the common good — are of course perfectly rational for the individual market participant: His personal sheep are well-fed, and the grass on his own lawn remains untouched — which in turn guarantees the future of his business, at least for a little while longer.

A simple lesson that we can learn from this well-known phenomenon is that people treat what they do not own differently from what they consider personal property. None of this is new, but it is often ignored in political decision-making.

If you like, you can carry out a little experiment and imagine what would happen if the German state of North Rhine-Westphalia provided its residents with electric cars to use freely throughout the country — hoping that citizens would then sell their own cars or at least use them less and hence help improve the climate.

One of the most basic human characteristics is the desire to own things.

Even the most optimistic among us start imagining cars turning out pretty quickly without fuel, or parked carelessly, somewhat damaged or maybe completely destroyed. Maybe even the small cars, which the previous user would have connected to a charging station to leave them ready for the road, would be completely dirty inside and full of all sorts of rubbish. These things already happen on public trains, in children's playgrounds and used to happen in telephone booths.

The behavior behind shameless exploitation and vandalism of public property may be tragic, but basically it's just human nature and unlikely to change. However, the issue is that this knowledge, which is far from new, is often ignored by people with an excessive sense of mission and a passionate predilection for apocalyptic environmental visions.

Shared bikes in Hamburg — Photo: StadtRAD Hamburg via Facebook

Take for example "traffic experts' with a taste for socialist ideas and an aversion for everything that has four wheels and a motor: They will not tire of advertising public transport, car sharing and battery-powered children's toys as a solution to all of our mobility issues. In their delusional efforts to thoroughly change the mobile lives of all of us "sinners," and to make our cities "finally liveable again," they ignore even the simplest human characteristics. Instead of having children, they promote children's playgrounds. Instead of asking, they would rather give orders.

One of the most basic human characteristics is the desire to own things, especially something that can transport its owner from one place to another. So it is not surprising that we pay much more attention to the objects that we perceive as our own than to those that belong to everyone — which means to virtually nobody.

A superficial study of the numerous failed socialism experiments would actually provide enough insight, but would probably be diametrically opposed to the worldview of mobility experts and saviors of the planet.

It's ugly, but human.

Because of this, and because historical studies are exhausting, we are taught almost daily in talk shows, environmental conferences, and parliamentary debates that only the Protestant-inspired idea of renunciation and, of course, a further expansion of our beloved state can save us. Which is why we require as many new taxes and laws as possible. The naive belief in the well-being of one's fellow human beings in the future is combined here — in an amusing but also somewhat dangerous way — with the distrust toward our fellow citizens in the present. Tomorrow all will be better. It is only yesterday and today that we can not trust anyone.

Of course my comparison between car sharing and village greens doesn't quite work, mainly because neither small cars nor scooters are really made available for free. But the experience with scooters and bicycles shows that the principle applies even if the costs are very low or the probability of being caught is perceived as minimal. As I said: ugly, but human. And in the end, perhaps we need to develop future ideas that are tailored to real needs and behaviors of real people.

The solution can only be one: the free market economy instead of a strengthened state in the hands of emotional scatterbrains. We need a competition of the best ideas, not public support to car rental companies just because they call themselves "car sharing." We need cars, bicycles and, yes, of course, a functioning train and bus service.

Anyone who wants to rent cars, e-scooters or bicycles can do so, but without having to get taxpayer money or benefit from the public in other ways, for example with reduced or even free parking spaces for their own vehicles. From this point of view, the village green should either be open to all, or just closed to everyone.

In any case, I am fully confident that the free market would solve our real mobility problems rather quickly. But only if we make our future free from politicians who love to impose bans and apocalyptists confused by religion, and ask ourselves and our fellow citizens how we want to move around in the future.

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In Argentina, A Visit To World's Highest Solar Energy Park

With loans and solar panels from China, the massive solar park has been opened a year and is already powering the surrounding areas. Now the Chinese supplier is pushing for an expansion.

960,000 solar panels have been installed at the Cauchari park

Silvia Naishtat

— Driving across the border with Chile into the northwest Argentine department of Susques, you may spot what looks like a black mass in the distance. Arriving at a 4,000-meter altitude in the municipality of Cauchari, what comes into view instead is an assembly of 960,000 solar panels. It is the world's highest photovoltaic (PV) park, which is also the second biggest solar energy facility in Latin America, after Mexico's Aguascalientes plant.

Spread over 800 hectares in an arid landscape, the Cauchari park has been operating for a year, and has so far turned sunshine into 315 megawatts of electricity, enough to power the local provincial capital of Jujuy through the national grid.

It has also generated some $50 million for the province, which Governor Gerardo Morales has allocated to building 239 schools.

Abundant sunshine, low temperatures

The physicist Martín Albornoz says Cauchari, which means "link to the sun," is exposed to the best solar radiation anywhere. The area has 260 days of sunshine, with no smog and relatively low temperatures, which helps keep the panels in optimal conditions.

Its construction began with a loan of more than $331 million from China's Eximbank, which allowed the purchase of panels made in Shanghai. They arrived in Buenos Aires in 2,500 containers and were later trucked a considerable distance to the site in Cauchari . This was a titanic project that required 1,200 builders and 10-ton cranes, but will save some 780,000 tons of CO2 emissions a year.

It is now run by 60 technicians. Its panels, with a 25-year guarantee, follow the sun's path and are cleaned twice a year. The plant is expected to have a service life of 40 years. Its choice of location was based on power lines traced in the 1990s to export power to Chile, now fed by the park.

Chinese engineers working in an office at the Cauchari park


Chinese want to expand

The plant belongs to the public-sector firm Jemse (Jujuy Energía y Minería), created in 2011 by the province's then governor Eduardo Fellner. Jemse's president, Felipe Albornoz, says that once Chinese credits are repaid in 20 years, Cauchari will earn the province $600 million.

The Argentine Energy ministry must now decide on the park's proposed expansion. The Chinese would pay in $200 million, which will help install 400,000 additional panels and generate enough power for the entire province of Jujuy.

The park's CEO, Guillermo Hoerth, observes that state policies are key to turning Jujuy into a green province. "We must change the production model. The world is rapidly cutting fossil fuel emissions. This is a great opportunity," Hoerth says.

The province's energy chief, Mario Pizarro, says in turn that Susques and three other provincial districts are already self-sufficient with clean energy, and three other districts would soon follow.

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