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Wednesday, May 22, 2024

Humans Need to Create Interspecies Money to Save the Planet

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The greatest failure of the digital age is how far removed it is from nature. The microchip has no circadian rhythm, nor has the computer breath. The network is incorporeal. This may represent an existential risk for life on Earth. I believe we have to make a decision: Succumb to pushing more of our brain time and economy into unnatural online constructs, or build the digital anew in a way that is rooted in nature.

Nature is excessive, baroque. Its song is not ours alone. We share this planet with 8 million nonhuman species, yet we scarcely think of how they move through the world. There is no way for wild animals, trees, or other species to make themselves known to us online or to express their preferences to us. The only value most of them have is the sum value of their processed body parts. Those that are not eaten are forgotten, or perhaps never remembered: Only 2 million of them are recorded by science.


This decade will be the most destructive for nonhuman life in recorded history. It could also be the most regenerative. Nonhuman life-forms may soon gain some agency in the world. I propose the invention of an Interspecies Money. I’m not talking about Dogecoin, the meme of a Shiba Inu dog that’s become a $64 billion cryptocurrency (as of today). I’m talking about a digital currency that could allow several hundred billion dollars to be held by other beings simply on account of being themselves and no other and being alive in the world. It is possible they will be able to spend and invest this digital currency to improve their lives. And because the services they ask for—recognition, security, room to grow, nutrition, even veterinary care—will often be provided by poor communities in the tropics, human lives will also be improved.

Money needs to cross the species divide. Whoa, I know. King Julien with a credit card. Flower grenades into the meaning of life. Bear with me. If money, as some economic theorists suggest, is a form of memory, it is obvious that nonhuman species are unseen by the market economy because no money has ever been assigned by them. In order to preserve the survival of some species it is necessary in some situations, usually when they are in direct competition with humans, to give them economic advantage. An orchid, a baobab tree, a dugong, an orangutan, even at some future point the trace lines of a mycelial network—all of these should hold money.

We have the technology to start building Interspecies Money now. Indeed, it sometimes seems to me that the living system (Gaia or otherwise) is in fact producing the tools needed to protect complex life at precisely the moment it is most needed: fintech solutions in mobile money, digital wallets, and cryptocurrencies, which have shown that it is possible to address micropayments accurately and cheaply; cloud computing firms, which have demonstrated that large amounts of data can be stored and processed, even in countries that favor data sovereignty; hardware, which has become smarter and cheaper. Single-board computers (Raspberry Pis), camera traps, microphones, and other cheap sensors, energy solutions in solar arrays and batteries, internet connectivity, flying and ground robots, low-orbit satellite systems, and the pervasiveness of smartphones make it plausible to build a verification system in the wild that is trusted by the markets.

The first requirement of Interspecies Money is to provide a digital identity of an individual animal, or a herd, or a type (depending on size, population dynamics, and other characteristics of the organisms). This can be done through many methods. Birds may be identified by sound, insects by genetics, trees by probability. For most wild animals it will be done by sight. Some may be observed constantly, others only glimpsed. For instance, the digital identity of rare Hirola antelopes in Kenya and Somalia, of which there are only 500 in existence, will be minted from images gathered on mobile phones, camera traps, and drones by community rangers. The identity serves as a digital twin, which in legal and practical terms holds the money and releases it based on the services the life-form requires.

Interspecies Money is Schrödingerian: A nonhuman life-form will exist in an economic sense only when it is reliably observed. A giraffe may release a few dollars to a community conservancy for each unique observation (with its markings serving as a unique identifier). A village may earn several hundred dollars for recording a new orangutan over a period of time (with the ape given a facial-recognition identity). Prospectors may earn tens of thousands of dollars for the discovery of a new species (through the use of DNA barcoding).

Interspecies Money will be linked to the density, diversity, and health of nonhuman species in a given area. This topical quality will allow it to draw down capital globally and assign it locally.

Interspecies Money’s biggest contribution is likely to be the data it produces. In order to verify identity, it will have to pay to acquire high-resolution data sets of nonhuman life in the scrublands around villages, at the edges of the rain forest and in the clearings, along the rivers and around waterholes. It will have to label and make sense of this data. It will have to stop cheats and hackers. In this way, it will become the financing mechanism of an entirely new order of knowledge.

Exactly how Interspecies Money will evolve in its application of artificial intelligence, hardware, monetary policy, zoology, and above all in communities and ethics is uncertain, but the first steps are clear.

Interspecies Money is needed now to help bend the evolutionary arc of artificial intelligence towards the natural world. The existential risk is in having AI systems develop only in a virtual world while we are destroying the very fabric of life on which we depend.

Our present dystopia deserves to be restated. The number of wild animals on Earth has halved since 1970. The combined weight of humans and livestock animals is 25 times that of the combined weight of wild animals; in 1900, the ratio was three to one. Anthropogenic mass in cement, plastic, metal, and other materials now exceeds the biomass produced by nature. One million species are at threat of extinction. Humans are eating many wild animals out of existence. The number and vigor of pollinating insects is declining in many ecosystems. And all of these trends are heightened by climate change, with its steady uptick in temperature and tightening cycle of fires, floods, droughts, and famines.

At least with global warming the messaging is clear: Keep the increase in temperature within 2 degrees Celsius, or die. The biodiversity problem is much more muddled. Is the protection of nonhuman life about beetles or polar bears adrift? Or elephants? Or rain forests? Do we protect for rarity, for utility, for moral reasons, for beauty? Is it about equity? What about factory farm animals? How much life is enough?

An emerging consensus is edging towards the half-Earth future proposed by Harvard biologist E. O. Wilson, in which half of the world is given over to nature. Many major economies now hold to the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity’s ambition: fully protect 30 percent of Earth by 2030 and sustainably manage another 20 percent. This target can be achieved by adding to existing national parks and marine reserves, together with land purchases by philanthropists, community conservancies, and extensive rewilding projects by farmers, industry, and religions.

The problem with the UN’s “30 by 30” approach is that it must compete with humans and human appetites. The biggest driver of the destruction of nonhuman life is the destruction of habitat. That is unlikely to slow down. Interspecies Money is needed in order to reward better cohabitation between humans and nonhumans, wherever possible.

Of course, Interspecies Money will depend upon a hundredfold or even a thousandfold increase in the amount of money flowing from richer countries to poorer countries for conservation. Interspecies Money will allow finance to be routed through and held by recurring life. The routing will flow from planetary capital to nonhumans and from them on to the human communities and scientists who are best able to be of service to them. Because nonhumans recur naturally, Interspecies Money will constantly accrue and dissolve over many generations of many species. The poorest people living next to the richest biodiversity currently receive almost zero economic incentive to protect their surroundings. Only a tiny fraction of the $24 billion annual worldwide spending on conservation makes it to in-between places. Meanwhile, the world spends $90 billion a year on pet food.


World population will exceed 10 billion by 2100, up from 1.6 billion in 1900. Most of the population growth is taking place in the tropics, where biodiversity is richest. Take the Democratic Republic of Congo, for example. Like the Amazon, the Congo rain forest is a lung of the planet, but the country’s population has rocketed from 15 million in 1960 to 92 million today, and it’s projected to reach 362 million in 2100. Even if the tree cover looks to be preserved in satellite imagery, the reality is that many species within the rain forest are disappearing. (See the pioneering MegaTransect work of Mike Fay.) Even if most of the Congo is protected in a series of larger and better administered national parks—itself a Congo-sized if—there will be a need to regenerate nature at the edges of the rain forest in ways that reward communities for better stewardship. Here, Interspecies Money will offer divisible payments for divisible tasks: the Schrödingerian observation of other life-forms (a natural analog of cryptographic mining), but also providing security, building fences, removing waste, planting trees, controlling grazing animals, eliminating invasives, earning value from foraging and harvesting food and materials within the forest, policing zoonotic diseases, genomic prospecting for pharmaceuticals and advanced materials, and countless other tasks which together amount to a great regeneration machine.

Interspecies Money will not be a panacea for instability. Incremental payments from nonhumans cannot be expected to withstand civil conflict or famine. But an incentive system drawing on solutions developed for the urban gig economy can favor the under-30-year-olds who make up over 60 percent of the population in Congo and many other emerging economies. The future of the young might in this way become more intimate with the continued existence of diverse nonhuman species and their prosperity more reliant upon it.


Who will pay for Interspecies Money? Over time, the system will support itself through service charges, investments, and repackaging and sale of some of the data it produces to emergent carbon auditors, insurance and finance firms, and pharmaceuticals among others. For its launch, I propose the establishment of a new central bank, the Bank for Other Species, which will be mandated to build and regulate a digital currency for nonhuman life on Earth. I propose the currency be called the Life mark, because it marks out life and out of respect for the Deutsche mark, which helped rebuild postwar West Germany.

It is not clear whether the proposed Bank for Other Species will be capitalized by a grouping of central banks, along the lines of the Swiss-based Bank for International Settlements, or if it will be a private sector alternative. What is important is that it has the quality of a central bank in stability and monetary policy, and that the Life marks drawn on the bank have the finality of cash in most of the world. Moreover, the system must be transparent and cheap in operating costs and carbon emissions.

The Bank for Other Species will be separate from multilateral institutions like the World Bank. It will work towards the objectives set by the Convention of Biological Diversity, but be independent of conservation organizations and existing financing mechanisms. The technology and culture of the Life mark will be designed from scratch. Individuals, communities, conservationists, and scientists will self-organize around the currency. If the central bankers are too slow, dull, or distracted to develop a Life mark, they will be beaten to it by cryptocurrency players and a decentralized governance structure will prevail.

Interspecies Money has an enormous capital opportunity: Climate change reparations and mitigation together with the overhaul of industry and energy from fossil fuels to renewables makes it certain that trillion-dollar sums will pass from the less biodiverse bits of the world to more biodiverse bits—from cities to countryside, from north to south. The slowing down of Moore’s law and the slow return on grand projects off-world such as the lunar and Martian missions make the preservation of nonhuman life a more exciting and immediate opportunity.

There will be criticism of Interspecies Money for the way it surveils nature. Some will argue, fiercely, that Life marks are crypto-colonial in design, serving only to ensnare nonhuman life in the very same human economy that has so damaged it.

But such arguments are wishful. Refusing nonhuman life the right to hold money is to deny what is possible in the regeneration of nature. It also willfully ignores what will happen on the front lines of the anthropocene over the next decade if there is no radical intervention that allows nonhuman life-forms to announce to the world that they are worth more alive than dead.

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