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What is Next Nature?

With our attempts to cultivate nature, humankind causes the rising of a next nature, which is wild and unpredictable as ever. Wild systems, genetic surprises, autonomous machinery and splendidly beautiful black flowers. Nature changes along with us.

ECO Currency – A Proposal to Balance Economical and Environmental Value

ECO Currency – A Proposal to Balance Economical and Environmental Value

Imagine we would have an alternative monetary currency for environmental value. Would the rain forest still be destroyed if there existed an ECO–currency to express its value and pay farmers to let the trees stand? Designers of the Next Nature Lab are investigating how we can link economy with ecology. A proposal on how we can link economy with ecology.

The starting point of the ECO–currency(*) project is the hypothesis that an important factor in the ongoing environmental crisis is the disconnect between the economical ecology and the environmental ecology. With the latter we mean the ecology of plants, trees, animals, and other organic material. Whereas the economical ecology is defined by our financial system of market, money, goods and other economical exchange. Our second working hypothesis states that we could address environmental issues by linking the economical sphere and the environmental sphere in a better way than that is currently the case.

Comparing the two ecologies: The rain forest is a stable, self-sustainable and threatened ecosystem, whereas the financial system is a unstable and threatening ecosystem that feeds on the biosphere.

ECOLOGY VS ECOLOGY

Before diving into our analysis we should address the question whether it is necessary to be critical of addressing ecology as metaphor or structure vis a vis ecology as an organic threatened living environment that we are part of? Especially traditional environmentalist might object to describing both spheres as ‘ecologies’, and argue it is inconsiderate to use the same term for a man–made system as well as for the older and deeper organic ecology of nature. Surely they have a point here: the environmental ecology is not only much older than the economical ecology, it also presides it in the sense that the economical ecology cannot exits without the environmental ecology. On the other hand we must realize that, while the environmental ecology is threatened, the economical ecology is currently the most threatening one. Hence it should be taken seriously and not be waved aside as simply a man-made structure.

The fact that most people, at least in the western world, nowadays worry more about the financial crisis and their mortgage rates, than about hurricanes or floods exemplifies that the economical ecology has increasingly become a next nature with its own dynamics and autonomy, which can be benevolent and kind to us as well as wild, cruel and unpredictable.

GROWTH ECONOMY HITS THE CEILING

Once we agree that both systems are ecologies in their own right, we can move on and study the structure of both ecologies and their interdependence. The environmental ecology has been a dynamic and stable system for centuries, which proportion is closely linked to the size of the earth.

The economical ecology, on the contrary, is much more unstable and has been growing explosively for the last 200 years – note that in the centuries before economic growth has not been increasing that much. Clearly in order for an ecology to grow so rapidly it has to be fueled by an entity from outside of the system: in this case the environmental ecology. So what we call a growth economy is in fact a process of an economic sphere feeding on the environmental sphere. For a long time the environmental sphere seemed to be an infinite resource – because it was so much bigger than the economic sphere. In the last few decades, however, we have reached a point where the impact on the environmental sphere becomes painfully visible.

One Planet: The closer the economy approaches the scale of the whole Earth the more it will have to conform to the physical behavior mode of the Earth.

LINKING UP THE ECONOMICAL WITH THE ENVIRONMENTAL ECOLOGY

As described in the introduction, the cornerstone of the problem is that environmental values – although so crucial for the existence and well being of humans, animals and plants on the planet – can hardly be expressed in terms of economical value.

As this may sound a bit abstract, let’s illustrate the situation with the real-life example of Alberto, a Brazilian farmer who cuts trees in the rain-forest, sells the wood and transform the soil into farming land for corn, or some other crop. Through his actions the farmer gains economical value – he will receive money to buy food and goods for his family.

Obviously, the downside of his work is that another piece of the forest is lost, the amount CO2 of in the atmosphere increases further and global warming perpetuates. The righteous environmentalist response would now be to call upon this farmers moral obligation NOT to destroy the environment. But then again, who are we to make a moral call upon that farmer? After all, this farmer is only adding one tiny droplet in the bucket global warming which has already been almost filled entirely by all the rest of us – yes, I mean you!

Especially for people from industrialized developed countries it would be rather hypocritical to make a moral call upon the Brazilian farmer, who might simply respond: “Ok, so you have destroyed their own prehistoric woods a long time ago for your own economical benefit, and now you are telling me to not cut mine? No, thank you.” Shouldn’t we, rather than patronizing the farmer on his moral obligation towards the environment, search for ways to economically compensate the farmer to leave the rain forest untouched?

Alberto’s choice: Let the trees stand and earn nothing, or replace the trees by farmland and make a good living. What would you do?

THE ECO: A CURRENCY FOR ENVIRONMENTAL VALUE

The ECO Currency project explores the idea of introducing a separate currency for environmental value. Besides US Dollar, Euro, Japanese Yen, Chinese Yuan, British Pound, Brazilian Real, etc. there would also be the ECO, a currency that expresses environmental value. The purpose of the ECO is to counter the lack of representation of environmental values in the economical sphere.

For the case of our Brazilian farmer Alberto, this would mean his piece of uncut rainforest would have a certain value in ECO’s, Rather than facing the dilemma to cut trees and earn money or not cut and contribute to a better environment, the farmer could decide to actively steward his piece of rain-forest, protect the trees and earn ECO’s, which can be traded for real money, goods and economical benefit for his family. The funding will come from a tiny tax on the financial system. Such a tax on banks – not on people – can start as low as 0.005 per cent, but when levied on the funds flowing round the global finance system every day via transactions such as foreign exchange, derivatives trading and share deals, it has the power to raise hundreds of billions every year.

The value of Alberto’s work can be determined through a collaborative online ‘wisdom of the crowds’ type platform that distributes the ECO’s among the participants: people who conduct activities that contribute to steward the environment. There will be room for a wide variety of jobs, ranging from Albert sustaining a piece of rainforest to a scientist studying biodiversity. People can offer any job on the platform and when the community decides it contributes to the environment is will be granted ECO’s.

The value of the ECO elegantly moves along with both the strength of the economy – stronger economy means more pressure on the biosphere, but also more funds to support the eco – as well as the urgency of the environmental crisis – if thousands of people are conducting labor to support the environment, the value of the eco will decrease along with the lowered need for more activity in this domain.

PRELIMINARY CONCLUSION

From these explorations, we conclude that an improving the linkage between the economical and the environmental sphere might contribute to a resolution of our current environmental crisis. Potentially, the introduction of the ECO currency can contribute to such a linkage; yet, further study is needed on the strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats of the ECO concept.

As described, the idea of the ECO certainly isn’t the most romantic road towards a better environment, as it asks for an explicit description of environmental values and it remains to be seen if people are ready for this. Furthermore the implementation of the ECO currency will require a substantial re-cultivation of our financial system, which will certainly not be welcomed by some of the current players. Tough decisions will have to made, both politically, economically as well as in the moral domain. The implementation of this proposed linkage between the economical and environmental spheres via the ECO currency will surely be far from trivial. Nonetheless we can be sure of one thing: The Amazon rain forest is of enormous value. It only remains to be seen whether we are willing and able to make this value explicit.

Further findings of this ongoing project are reported on the website www.eco-currency.net and the ECO currency Facebook group.

(*) The original idea for the ECO-Currency emerged during the Paralelo Conference 2009 at the MIS in Sao Paulo, Brazil. The conference brought together artists and designers working with media from three different countries – Brasil, the Netherlands and the United Kingdom, to discuss different ways in which collaborations across disciplinary and cultural borders can enable research and new insights into global and local ecological problems. Among the people involved where Koert van Mensvoort, Luna Maurer, Edo Paulus, Taco Stolk, Esther Polak, James Burbank, Katherine E. Bash. Following up on the initial idea, the ECO-Currency project was researched in the Next Nature Lab by Marcel van Heist, Billy Schonenberg, Jop Japenga, who proposed the initiation of a collaborative platform to distribute the ECO’s among people who contribute to a better environment.

Discussion

  1. marcus staller

    it is easy if you see forrests and it’s oxygen product as a commodity just as oil, grain or minerals.

  2. @Marcus: you are right, however I think there are still some hurdles to take – if only in most peoples notion of natural values as untouched and undefined. I wrote a separate post on nature as a commodity here: http://www.nextnature.net/2010/05/nature-as-a-commodity/

    You also might want to check this post on the ‘unimaginable value of nature’ at eco-currency blog: http://www.eco-currency.net/2010/02/flying-blind-into-the-environmental-future/

  3. Stijn

    We certainly should. In fact this is not a very new idea but one of the main advices of the UN’s Millennium Ecosystem Assessment (initiated 2001, published 2005), which found that humanity has been regarding the services provided by ecosystems (e.g. air filtration, protection against erosion, freshwater supply) as a free “gift of nature” for far too long.

    The eco currency initiative is sympathetic and I think it’s a good tool to raise awareness about this problem but of course it’s not exactly innovative. The same MEA I mentioned above already measured various ecosystem services in dollars’ worth and compared them against alternative uses of the land (e.g. farming, timber harvest).

    I have my doubts about whether actually paying the ecosystem’s worth to those living near it is a sustainable or even desirable model. Effectively it would imply that the farmers (such as “Alberto” mentioned in the article linked to) are holding the ecosystem ransom, while at the same time they also profit from the services it provides (and would provide regardless of whether Alberto lives there or not). I think the key point would be to get the local authorities to recognize the economic worth of the ecosystem services and act upon that, and no longer focus on short-term profit gained by replacing them with, for example, farms. Just getting them to realize this would already be a giant step forward.

  4. Stijn

    The “we certainly should” being an answer to the question “Should we, in order to save the environment, begin to define it as in terms of value, ownership, e.g. as a commodity?” from another post on this blog ;)

  5. davide

    I feel that to travel the mirrored way would be better: instead of paying for preserving ecosystemic resources, NOT paying for activities that require depletion of these resources. To reach an economy that doesn’t assign ANY value to products and services built on unsustainable practices. Then, also this way has difficulties on being operationalized.

  6. I’ve made a some minor updates in this article by incorporating the research results of Marcel van Heist, Billy Schonenberg and Jop Japenga. They have advised the ECO’s should be payed for active labor that stewards the environment. ECO’s can be payed for a wide variety of jobs, ranging from Albert sustaining a piece of rain forest to a scientist studying biodiversity in the deep sea. This addition also answers the question asked by Stijn, who rightly suggested Alberto would hold the rain forest random by earning money for it without activity.

    Obviously, an important question remains: What counts as environmental value? Heist, Schonenberg and Japenga propose an online ‘wisdom of the crowds’ style platform that decides what jobs should be rewarded with ECO’s. If you are interested in their research report, you can download it here: http://www.eco-currency.net/media/ReportEcoCurrency_web.pdf

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