As I sit in a car for the hour long journey along the winding roads between Thimphu and Paro, with Laya (our puppy) resting at my feet, I am pleased about the reasonable 4 USD cost of the trip. Normally this price wouldn’t cover the gas for the drive, but through the efficiency of a ‘shared taxi’ here in Bhutan, everybody wins. In the seat behind me sit three cheerful and chatty Bhutanese men taking the same route, which in itself makes the trip more pleasurable.
I have always been one who takes great pleasure from getting a bargain, whether by buying things second-hand, or just getting things on sale. It occurred to me though, that the idea of sharing goods is probably the best bargain of all.
Yet, the act of ‘sharing’ in much of North America and Europe is something that we aspire to do away with in everyday life. Rather than participating in a collaborative economy, we aim to acquire our own individual goods- from our own home, our own car, to our own set of power tools. The dent this places on our wallets and on the environment by having to produce all of this ‘stuff’ is significant. Sitting in this shared car makes me think about other examples of ‘collaborative consumption’ in Bhutan. These are the ones that intrigued me most:
1) Shared taxis– It’s quite rare that you see an empty taxi in Thimphu or between towns in Bhutan. The prices between common routes are well known despite the absence of meters, and a simple flagging of the driver will have then stop to allow yet another passenger jump in. While taxis are the solution to relatively unreliable public transport in Bhutan, this idea of sharing taxis is certainly something that could work in more cities around the world (and has actually been adopted in Washington DC). Rather than the usual ‘light on’, ‘light off’ indication that the taxi is occupied or free, taxis can quickly check where people are going and decide if it makes sense to combine fares.
2) Shared equipment- While driving past the agricultural land as we visited Bumthang, a beautiful area in Central Bhutan, we saw quite a difference between farmers plowing their fields using oxen on one hand, and the use of high-tech tilling machinery on the other. We learned that in many villages or areas, only a few machines are owned by wealthier farmers, and other villagers rent them for a reasonable fee. This idea of sharing equipment is not only something that’s applicable at this scale. Think about the last time you used your power drill, extension ladder, or that painting set you bought to paint one room of the house.
3) Shared homes- A tighter family structure here in Bhutan is partly enabled by the fact that families often remain as a unit, in the same household and as children grow up and grand parents age. Often three generations live in harmony, sharing. While you can still see this in some European countries, it is almost completely absent from North American culture where family structures are looser, and people relocate more often for university or jobs. Children can’t wait to get out, and aging grandparents are often sent to be cared for by strangers. I’ll admit that I’m a culprit myself, as I insisted on ‘moving to my own place’ even though I did my undergraduate degree in my home city.
4) Shared children– This one may be a little harder to imagine, but something that I really love here is that children become part of a broader family, rather than just the sole responsibility of their mother and father. In many homes in Thimphu, you will see a niece, nephew, or cousin running around. Without much question, if the children’s parents come from a village further away that does not offer as many educational opportunities, it is a given that the child will move to a larger town with better schools. If the parents get an opportunity to study abroad and find it difficult to balance a young child for a year or two- the little one will quickly become an intricate part of the broader family’s responsibility. While this concept may be hard to imagine for many, I think the idea of collaboration within families as a unit is an important lesson. This would require a shift away from the North American tradition that sees families evolving as individual pieces that grow further apart over time.
Sadly, there are signs that these collaborative traditions are being replaced with the more individualistic notion of consumption- most people in Thimphu aspire to own their own car; we have heard that in the richer agricultural town of Paro, famers are adopting the ‘keeping up with the Jones’s’ competitive spirit when it comes to bigger and better farm equipment and homes; and with more and more apartments popping up in Thimphu, younger generations are migrating away from their families.
I hope that Bhutan can retain some of these valuable practices that have been mostly lost in consumption driven parts of the world. It had taken a major economic downturn in Europe and North America to revive the notion ‘sharing’, with online networks like Shareable, Yerdle and even Craig’s List enabling people to loan and borrow what they need- from violins, to tools, to sports equipment. A recent Economist article highlighted the resurgence of this trend and some of its challenges. An excellent book entitled ‘What’s Mine Is Yours: The Rise of Collaborative Consumption’ outlines important benefits, principles and examples of the sharing economy that can be replicated more broadly. Let’s just hope that these practices continue to proliferate internationally, and are maintained in Bhutan to help the save the environment, and importantly… money.