It will soon be possible to give a digital identity to individual wild animals whose species are threatened with extinction. Currently, the only economic value of these animals is that of their transformed body parts. Giving them a digital wallet tied to their identity and the ability to spend money on their own protection could improve their lives and increase their chances of survival.
Great apes, including gorillas, chimpanzees and bonobos, are ideal early candidates for an âinterspecific moneyâ approach. Only 700,000 of our closest evolutionary cousins ââsurvive, and their numbers are dropping sharply: imagine a population the size of Washington, DC, scattered in forests along dirt roads or on the edge of thousands of isolated villages, poor and fast growing. Humans and great apes didn’t live well together in the industrial age, but we can do better in the post-industrial age.
We suggest starting with orangutans. Only 120,000 of these intelligent red monkeys remain alive in their forest habitats in Sumatra and Borneo. Although a billion dollars has been spent protecting them since 2000, more than 100,000 people have been lost to deforestation, harassment and murder during the same period. The situation could have been worse – some 135,000 orangutans would have died without the conservation efforts – but the investments can hardly be claimed as a success.
The logic of orangutan conservation is quite simple. The monkeys share the forest with people who make a living from growing crops and forest products. Both like the same products. Conflicts arise. It is not enough to ask foresters to support their neighbor orangutans. They need to know that it is profitable for them to do this. But little conservation money hits the front lines where it can have the most effect.
This is where technology opens up new possibilities for better management of non-human life on Earth. On the hardware side, a Cambrian explosion in computing, data storage, smartphones, cameras, sensors, drones, ground robots, satellites and genomics allows us to follow nature in high definition at lower levels. cost. On the software side, advancements in artificial intelligence, metaverse-making game platforms, and distributed crypto and blockchain governance solutions will allow us to represent other species online in entirely new ways.
There is a lot of money in the cryptocurrencies available to prove a new “tokenomic” for nature; crypto innovators are surprisingly good at creating a digital scarcity that increases in value. It is inevitable that the living scarcity of endangered species will become an asset class for those who hold cryptocurrencies. The question is how to approach this in a way that is useful for the species and for the people who care for it.
We plan to endow the first digital orangutan wallets with proceeds from the sale of associated non-fungible tokens (NFTs). Each portfolio will have scientists and other signatories responsible for making decisions in the best interests of the orangutan. Over time, the process will become ‘SchrÃ¶dingerian’: a wallet will be created when a monkey is reliably observed for the first time. Interspecies money will flow to people from funds in wallets for adhering to simple and verifiable rules. These rules will be set by the orangutans (or more exactly the human and computer proxies representing their needs). These could include tasks such as ‘watch me over time’, ‘leave my tree alone’ and ‘don’t kill me’.
Current conservation expenses are $ 1.30 per day per wild orangutan. We believe that $ 1 per day in an orangutan wallet would be transformative in most situations. Four hundred dollars a year is more than a child in the surrounding communities can hope for in development aid, but the survival of orangutans is so precarious that this imbalance can be justified. Additionally, since Interspecies Money explicitly links nonhuman animals to human stewards, much of the money in orangutan wallets will be passed on to farmers and their children as payment for data collection or compensation for crop damage.
While the interspecies money can be used for orangutans, it can work for other great apes, notably the western lowland gorilla, which is eaten as bushmeat in the Congo forest. And other first species to receive interspecies money could include dugongs, giraffes, and orcas. From charismatic mammals, interspecies silver has the potential to spread to trees, birds, and even populations of insects and microbes. A digital currency for other species, operated as a central bank for biodiversity, could emerge. Separately, rare species NFTs could constitute a store of value that would endow such an institution.
The threats to great apes remind us of our lack of ambition when it comes to protecting other species more broadly. With the growth of human populations, apes can only survive if people agree to live peacefully by their side. Paying the poorest people living alongside the richest biodiversity in a clear and consistent way is a step towards achieving this goal.
Co-author: Erik Meijaard, scientist and conservation practitioner, is the founder of the Borneo Futures initiative.
Copyright: Project Syndicate
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