Dahlias in the Boardroom
On July 23rd, 2018, one-hundred dahlias were sold over the Ethereum network. The flowers were not up for delivery. In fact none of the buyers will ever hold or smell the flowers. They will never be seen in person, only through a panoptic livestream. Far from decoration, these flowers are a token offering–a proof of concept by Berlin based Terra0 to harness the blockchain toward forest self-ownership.
The core idea is that a group of initial investors will buy a piece of land which will be managed by an algorithm. Using information contained on the blockchain, such as tree type, height and age, combined with satellite imagery, the algorithm will sell harvesting rights. It’s objective is to ensure both the health of the ecosystem through sustainable forestry practices, while earning maximum profit for the trees it has selected for harvest. As the forest accrues capital through the sale of harvest rites, it will begin to buy back the land from the initial investors, eventually achieving full self-ownership. Thereafter, all profit will be put towards the purchase of adjacent properties, expanding the forest and its sovereignty.
The transformation of an ecological system into commodity may seem diametrically opposed to its preservation, yet applications of blockchain technology mean that ecological sovereignty over market value is just around the corner. With it, the disintegration of the nature/society dichotomy, a redistribution of stakeholdership to the more than human, and a fundamental reimagining of how we assign selfhood. The questions is now: will dahlias enter the boardroom?
In his book How Forests Think, Eduardo Kohn explores how the Runa people of Ecuador, interact with the biosemiotic systems of the Andean Amazon. His premise is that ecosystems are filled with communication–that the Runa’s actions are not just the result of an animistic worldview, but that this world view is part of a mutual web of signification. Plants put out signals such as scent and bright colors to attract pollinators. Predators follow tracks and trails to find prey. Life is embedded in the act of signifying.
Kohn gives some examples of how humans can intercept these biosemiotic signals. An astute Runa observer will notice a group of tropical palms growing. Familiar with the environment, they may be able to deduce two facts. 1. The soil beneath the trees is poor and sandy. 2. The palms have succeeded not only because they have adapted to the soil, but because herbivorous pressure has culled other species that attempted to grow in the area. Through nothing more than observation, complex modalities can be deduced. And these modalities can, in turn, influence planting patterns and other activities that sustain the Runa.
Flowertokens may seem distant from the premise of biosemiotic communication, yet the token offering, represents an important step in this direction. Primarily, Flowertokens are an attempt to connect cryptographic assets with fungible commodities. This is difficult to do because Terra0 is placing biological data onto the blockchain. By definition, the blockchain–a distributed ledger–requires a distributed form of verification that is both precise and independent. Each Flowertoken contains a record of the flower’s height and unfortunately it isn’t easy to repeatedly measure living flowers to high degree of accuracy. Any variance in measurement would lead to non-consensus: blockchain failure.
Despite the challenges, flowertokens have served to reintroduce biosemiotics to the marketplace. At the heart of this is the smart contract. Smart contracts are a cryptographic tool that ensures transactions will be completed upon the fulfillment of predetermined conditions. In the case of Terra0, any sale of harvest rights would be formalized into a smart contract running on the blockchain. Execution of a smart contract is dependent upon the receipt of payment but also distributed verification of biological data. Confirmation that the tree meets the sustainable standards of height, species and indicators of ecological impact, are all hard coded into the transaction. Though the smart contracts translate this data into market value, each action is ultimately determined by the biosemiotics of the forest. Not fundamentally different from the Runa’s observations of the palm trees, Terra0 serves to abstract modalities of the forest into the language of the marketplace.
Yet, as Kohn notes, there is more to the Runa’s interactions with the more than human world than observation. Kohn recounts observing a hunter who finds a monkey in the crown of a tree. The animal is shielded from shots, so the hunter needs to convince the monkey to move. To do this, he cuts down a small tree. The sound of crashing leaves causes the monkey to panic. It shrieks, indicating it is ready to jump. The hunter aims and fires as the animal leaps. Here a complex chain of signification takes place. The hunter communicates danger to the monkey through the sound of the falling tree. The monkey communicates its fear and intent to move through a cry. Attuned to this system of communication, the hunter is able to make a kill. Central to this chain of events is a mutual understanding of self. Both monkey and human recognize that there is a self behind each signification. Yet like biosemiotic communication itself, this recognition of selfhood is lost outside of those communities that retain an intimate relationship with the more than human world.
Though western capitalist culture tends to deny the selfhood of the more than human, there is a pathway that remains open: the ownership of property. And smart contracts enable just this. By formalizing governing directives into code, decentralized autonomous organizations (DOA) can self regulate while engaging in complex market behaviour.
The precedent for DOAs has already been set in cryptocurrency communities. Digix and Dai are both stable cryptographic assets governed by DAOs. Both of these tokens enable shareholder voting while maintaining multiple layers of governance logic. This technology has also gained traction within the broader business community. Siemens, the largest manufacturing company in Europe, has partnered with slock.it to use a DAO framework in order to develop an internal “decentralized, crowd-based decision-making entity.” Thus far, this system (referred to as DDO at Siemens) has only been used to manage charity efforts and has not been applied to business decision making. Yet DDO has still proved effective at translating company wide input into consensus without adding additional administrative costs. These examples serve to underscore the fact that DAOs are viable systems, fully capable of self ownership and governance.
Self-ownership is a step towards the general public recognizing forests as selves. But it need not stop there. As Artificial intelligence becomes more advanced, Terra0 will be able to use this technology to enable better forest management and more competitive market strategy. It is conceivable that in the future a forest will not only be able to expand through the purchase of adjacent property, but through influencing local conditions that determine ecological health. For example, a fertilizer plant may be located in close proximity to the forest. Because of leaks, fertilizer enters the local watershed causing toxic algae blooms. This has a negative impact on the ecosystems, damaging the waterways and the ruderal environments that provide crucial buffer zones for the forest. In order to eliminate this harmful occurance, the forest may decide to purchase the fertilizer company. In control of this organization, the forest can either invest in upgrades that reduce the danger, or liquidate existing infrastructure, leveraging maximum profit from the assets while eliminating the possibility of future leaks.
To speculate further, forests could adopt roles as lobbyists or shareholder activists, advocating for sustainable policy within the government and within corporations. Forests could even be afforded voting rights, participating in national governance like any other citizen. Yet the legal status of DAOs is unresolved. Future rulings could have significant impact upon the legal recognition of sovereign blockchain entities.
However, for the Terra0 forests there is good news. In 2015, Argentina awarded the rights to “life, freedom” and “no harm” to a captive orangutan. In this landmark ruling, the court partially affirmed the personhood of the ape. More compelling is the 2017 ruling in New Zealand that assigned the full rights of personhood to the Whanganui River. After years of legal struggles by the Māori people, the ruling reciprocally links the health of the body of water to the well being of the tribe. Describing the situation, New Zealand’s Treaty Negotiations Minister Chris Finlayson says the legal personality of the Whanganui is “no stranger than family trusts, or companies or incorporated societies.” With these cases, it seems likely that a self-owning forest, with an active market presence, could stand a fair chance of legal recognition.
In the end, Terra0 could have both a significant environmental and ontological impact. As the Terra0 founders write, “by appropriation of capitalist and cultural mechanisms, a piece of ground thus plays an active role in society.” Ultimately, Terra0 represents a recoupling of the biosemiotic systems to the human world. With this reconnection will be a reimagining of how we assign selfhood and a redistribution of stakeholdership to the more than human. In time, dahlias in the boardroom may be more than decoration.