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Image: Tina Tiller
Image: Tina Tiller

ScienceMay 28, 2021

Can we save the planet by paying animals, plants and bacteria – and getting them to spend?

Image: Tina Tiller
Image: Tina Tiller

An ‘interspecies currency’ is being touted as a way to give nature some financial power. The idea would see animals, plants and even bacteria given digital wallets and money they can spend on keeping themselves alive. It’s a radical concept, but could it work? And how would it fit with the drive to protect Aotearoa’s natural taonga? Mirjam Guesgen investigates. 

Picture this: it is the not too distant future, and reptiles, bees, and plants all have individual digital wallets of money. The use it to spend on services from people. Welcome to the world of interspecies currency.

The idea has been proposed by technologist JM Ledgard as a solution to the widespread apathy towards the environment. The system, called Linnaeus, would allow people to send money directly to animals and for those animals to accordingly pay people to provide services like habitat restoration, pollution reduction or putting a stop to poaching.

Here’s how it would work: animals and people all get digital wallets to hold some kind of cryptocurrency. The currency’s value is linked to “real” money or commodities like precious metals, so it’s actually worth something. The wallets live as a simple app on people’s phones. 

Animals get their wallets topped up by human donors, in larger sums through annual subscriptions or by donating a few cents every time they buy a cup of coffee, for example. Animals could also get cash from companies who have to pay to offset their carbon footprint or pollution. 

Rangers, scientists or community organisations would then be able to see an animals’ needs through the app, fulfill tasks like building fences or cleaning up a waterway and get paid out when the system verifies they’ve done it.

At first blush, the description of interspecies currency reads like a thought experiment or a sci-fi novel (its author is in fact also a novelist). It talks about giraffes “asking” and paying for its community to stop poachers and plant them more trees. 

So you have to ask …

Is this for real?

Linnaeus’s white paper talks about how artificial intelligence and “multi-agent simulations” will gather data about animals and how facial recognition will identify individual wallet-holders. 

According to its proponents, interspecies currency is “a simple financial mechanism motivating human behaviour to self-organise around money held by the animal”.

Linnaeus creators did not respond to multiple requests to be interviewed so it’s unclear whether interspecies currency is an abstract way of thinking about conservation or an actual financial system someone hopes to develop. 

But let’s imagine it is to become a real system. A giraffe “asking” for something is actually a digital doppelganger representing a giraffe. An artificial intelligence system could make decisions about what would benefit the giraffe, based on conservation data (such as how much food is available, whether there’s disease or whether poaching is happening) that biologists have input into the system. 

Linnaeus creators propose establishing a new central bank called the Bank for Other Species. It would build and regulate a digital currency for animals and other non-human life based around the goals of the Convention of Biological Diversity. Or, they see motivated people self organising around the concept, designing the technology from scratch themselves.

It sounds kooky and abstract but, then again, NFTs are a thing.

The ecosystem

When trying to pick the idea apart, it sounds like a way to link people directly with conservation efforts, by removing or at least obscuring, the third party ie, a conservation organisation or government department. Doing that may make people more motivated to care for the environment, if they feel they can have a direct impact. 

It’s not beyond the realm of possibility. Other economically-based conservation tools already exist. 

Take natural capital accounting for example. It signals the value of the services different parts of the environment provides, such as a wetland filtering water or trapping sediment. These values are both monetary and non-monetary. Then, when people, for example, are deciding whether to replace that wetland with townhouses, natural capital accounting allows them to work out the impact that would have on the environment. 

“It’s a dynamic process rather than a static cost benefit analysis,” says ecological economist and consultant Marjan van den Belt. 

“Ecosystem services and valuation thereof is a communication tool. You can assign a monetary value and make the [ecological or intrinsic] value of the ecosystem visible. If it’s not visible, you take it for granted.” 

Van den Belt and her colleagues suggest in a 2019 report to government that there should be a natural capital enhancement tax based on a plot of land’s environmental footprint. Make an area worse, from an environmental standpoint, and get charged tax on it. 

It’s about behaviour change, helping people be environmentally friendly by incentivising them or discouraging bad behaviour, like charging people when they pollute. 

Interspecies currency takes it a step further, using real money and real exchanges. 

Value and values

Linnaeus’s creators say that their goal is to bring nature and people closer together. To “reward better cohabitation between humans and nonhumans, wherever possible”. But putting conservation efforts in monetary terms may actually deter some people. 

“For some people that can be pragmatic and it helps affect decisions but for others it can be offputting. There are different value sets,” says Shaun Awatere, Senior Kairangahau Māori at Manaaki Whenua Landcare Research, speaking about natural capital accounting in general.

Theoretically, because interspecies currency links communities directly with animals and nature, people would be freer to take actions that fit in with their available resources and priorities. But it depends how restrictive the system is. Will giraffes or kea have a wishlist of conservation efforts they want enacted? If so, who decides what they are? And how will success be measured?

If, as Linnaeus creators say, the money exchange system is self-organising, there may be more scope to incorporate indigenous concepts, such as mana or ritenga, into the types of conservation actions the system promotes. 

But all technological systems, no matter how objective its creators purport them to be, are prone to bias. Bias in what kind of information it’s based on, who can access it (or not) and who buys in, both financially and in support of it.

Getting people on board with the idea is the biggest barrier according to van den Belt. The concepts have been around since the seventies and eighties, and the technology (blockchain, artificial intelligence) is available today. “We have the technology but to get the social licence and institutional buy-in to do that is the next step. Then reconciling our own emotional responses to all of this,” she says. 

She goes on to quote sociologist Edward O Wilson: “The real problem of humanity is the following: We have Paleolithic emotions, medieval institutions and godlike technology.”

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