This article aims to survey the developments and the increasing entanglement of blockchain-based ecological projects that are combining elements of automation, expanded sensing layers, and resource management.
We aim to sketch considerations on how ecosystems enter into dialogue as potentially autonomous governing systems that fuel a reimagination of the multiple relationalities of species, things, machines, and their interactions. These relationalities are also where Blockchain finds itself within the nested layers of organic and inorganic complex adaptive systems. These organic and inorganic systems range from carbon-based lifeform processes to silicon-based neural networks that mediate and facilitate the intermingling of agents, processes, and entities that are distributed, networked and converge at various intersections between humans, non-humans, objects, materials, and energy flows.
The key terms of ‘distributed’ and ‘networked’ have recently gained more prominence in light of a posthuman framework that highlights how specific notions such as ‘agency’ are distributed rather than exclusively residing in the human domain. Further, the notion of who or what can be represented as an agent or have personlike characteristics has become a decisive front where ‘Nature’ itself can take on the form of legal personhood, which has become an increasing point of discussion emerging in the past ten years. Momentum in the past several years, including the likes of Columbian Supreme Court recognizing the rights of the Amazon River, the State of Ohio granting a Bill of rights to Lake Erie, and New Zealand to the Whanganui River have established precedents for Nature to be recognized through legal mechanisms. Clear historical forerunners to the nature of personhood have arisen from Christopher Stone’s 1972 argument that trees should have standing to litigate their own interests.1 Recent discussions have attempted to negotiate and shift the notion of what are the properties of ‘actors’, as well as problematizing the dichotomy between humans (persona) and nonhumans (res) within law. Who or what represents or advocates on behalf of nature has varied – whether Pachamamma in the Andes and the doctrine that every person and every community has the right to advocate on its behalf, to whether there is the difference between a bearer of rights as “nature,” as distinct from “persons, communities, peoples, nations” and “natural persons and legal entities.” Importantly, we can trace the evolution of legal and scholarly work concerning the protection of nature shifting from being strictly focused on human interests and their exploitation of nature, to protecting nature for future human generations, to conceptions that allow for nature to be protected as intrinsically valuable.2 This latter point rides on the observation of how we are continuously dependent upon trees, rivers, fields, mountains, and a myriad of landscape features that serve as the basic infrastructure for a multitude of organisms including ourselves. With Rights of Nature laws emerging in the past 15 years, the various ways that nature can be regarded as having rights takes on multiple forms, whether through constitutional provisions, treaty agreements, statues and local laws.
Even though debates center around whether we can truly assert that Nature can exert its own respective sovereign intention and potentially be recognized as a ‘legal personhood entity,’ how and what separates the human from its environment has become problematized along with the erasure of the divide between artificial and natural. This can be recognized through the role of landscapes as cyborgs, enfolding notions of change, adaptation, and feedback as the conception of hybrid infrastructures where human and non-human systems, living and non-living entities, span across a range of spatial and temporal scales. Therefore, “the natural and artificial, the real and the imaginary, the cyborg points to a landscape architectural design methodology where humans, non-humans, and technologies (including infrastructures) are fully embedded and always interacting with one another.”3 Thus, the fusion of human and machine in relation to sculpting our landscapes does remind us of the interdependence and web of entities, organic and inorganic, that are at the core of our infrastructure. Yet, what is postulated here isn’t merely updating a paradigm aligned with further automation or merely equipping our infrastructure with sensors that monitor in real-time and facilitate the role of adhering to Key Performance Indicators which has been argued as key in the shift towards decarbonizing our urban and rural strongholds.
Rather, imagining the role of automating our landscapes or further integrating artificial intelligence as an integral companion to addressing climate change has extended beyond the notions of Smart Cities or furnishing our cities with sensors and devices. Expanding how and what artificial intelligence can potentially perform and relate to within our landscapes has become a driving force within the realm of the crypto community and has also brought together imaginations that are attempting to fuse a different symbiosis between machine and nature. Also, how and to what degree humans fit in the decision-making loop then comes up for questioning, and particularly how we can draw in other entities to meet climate goals and to critically ensure monitoring and enforceability.
Karl Shroeder’s ‘Deodands’ has envisioned the intersection between artificial intelligence and ecosystems, primarily how ‘artificial intelligence’ can emulate and think like ecosystems in an attempt to act and protect their own best interests as well as advance the interests of the systems that they think they are.4 Deodands exercise their means to articulate and emulate agency, whereby they commit to discovering means to shield themselves from intensive resource extraction through their ability to coordinate and contract usage of their resource reserves, hiring security, and funding scientists in order to monitor the state of their respective ecosystem in a bid to help maintain viable cycles and processes for their sustenance. Moreover, the essential need to hire programmers and engineers would become a pivotal aspect in their bid to optimize their decision-making algorithms as well as upgrading their sensory layers and devices of data-point feedback (Schroeder). Further complementary visions derive from Bradley Cantrell, Erle C. Ellis and their concept of a ‘Wildness Creator’ that further tries to augment nonhuman influences.5 The concept of a ‘Wildness Creator’ incarnates a nonhuman intelligent actor, that from its initial stages would be designed by humans, yet over the course of its interaction would upgrade its algorithmic and sensing capacities which would be pivotal in learning and identifying strategic behavior that would be conducive to sustaining the local environment. Moreover, it would assist local flora and fauna without the input of human influences and actively eliminate anthropogenic influences that are impacting the environment, whether they be pollutants, waste or noise.
Already, Schroeder and Cantrell’s (et al.) vision has borne a strong influence upon the Germany-based terra0 project – a prototype built on the Ethereum network that has aimed to provide an automated ecosystem resilience framework that strives to link the Blockchain and natural resource management. The first iteration of their natural resource management framework has involved the role of a forest as a potential ‘legal agent’ that would gradually evolve to arrange the licensing of contracts for logging it. An example could be framed where once a specified number of trees in the forest reach a specific height, the smart contract that has been established via the Blockchain would permit their logging. The procedure for the forest to obtain its status as an autonomous agent would entail that it is necessary for it to produce wood to pay off shareholders, before it possesses sufficient funds, repurchases itself and becomes its own owner. The forest would be flanked with an ensemble of sensors, drones, LIDAR, and satellite imagery that for the creators would evolve the framework into a complex adaptive system through the suite of monitoring devices that enables feedback and capacities to respond to its environment. Eventually the potential for the prototype to create evolutionary algorithms that would enhance the discovery of survival strategies for its framework.6
Further merging the enmeshed organic and inorganic assemblage of natural systems and smart contracting drives what has been characterized as ‘Nature 2.0’, here phasing into synthetic life territory becomes akin to Ralph Merkle’s contention that Bitcoin is an example of a living form. Merkle argues on grounds that Bitcoin enables keeping people alive and can rapidly proliferate throughout the internet through the usage of open-source technology and code, as well as maintaining the preservation of organic life forms beyond the confines of a human-centered world. How the preservation can and will evolve arguably becomes the expanding arsenal of sensing, recognition and labeling technologies that begin with satellite-imaging, remote sensing, Public GIS datasets and drone tools that have come to penetrate into our world and which can be vital in surveying the health of ecosystems. They have the capability to further fine-tune and detect fluctuating temperatures, air relative humidity, light levels, bacterial conditions, soil quality, nutrients, moisture that are all indicative of health and serve as integral technologies to observe the viability of these systems. It is here where we are reminded of how our protocols and ecologies converge, where the development of protocols generates the basis for how we can importantly verify, observe, and incentivize reaching ecological outcomes that are essential.
Further projects cropping up that are also looking to further push ecosystem restoration or regenerative land use practices and devising means to reverse climate change as prominent concerns linked with Blockchain is RegenNetwork. Elaborating a focus on ecological maintenance, RegenNetwork has been a growing blockchain startup designed to make contracts that track, verify, and seed behavior that would reward ecological performance. Similar to terra0, it is harnessing a number of open-source technological tools as well as ecological and agricultural applications in blockchain, such as remote sensing, IoT, machine learning, and fintech that would assist in the monitoring of ecological performance. Here, if a farmer makes claims they have planted X amount of trees in a certain lot of land, the role of algorithms operating on satellite imagery would be a means of verification for claims to reward. Moreover, Regen Networks is focused on the creation of a bundle of ‘Ecological State Protocols’ that are designed to tackle specific issues aligned around carbon sequestration, grassland health and grazing patterns, and reducing methane emissions. With each respective state protocol, working groups of scientists, ecologists, farmers, and community members will be involved that will encourage active engagement in the development processes as well as tracking and collecting necessary data to meet climate benchmarks.
Currently, the RegenNetwork is piloting in the Amazon rainforest to work in concert with indigenous communities in developing financial resources in an attempt to scale up direct investments towards communities and assist in planting native tree species in already degraded areas. Once the verification of certain forest protection and reforestation activities have taken place, the Regen’s Ledger Smart Contract will provide payments directly to these communities.
With the ubiquity of artificial intelligence, it has also served as a focal point for phasing in the evolution of Nature 2.0, where on-chain and off-chain worlds blending through bots, agents and sensors distributed in space and tethered to wallets can be designed to eventually fund public goods and commons. This has been particularly advocated by the ‘Distributed Ocean Protocol’ which has limned a world where revenue generated from earnings produced by the infrastructure can channel revenue towards projects aligned with public goods and commons. With the tidal wave of automation pressuring and potentially replacing a host of occupations and jobs, discourse orbiting around the adoption and implementation of Universal Basic Income to subsidize a whole swathe of populations put out of work has become essential.7
DAOs and the Naturechain
Embracing the wave of automation that could possibly come to replace occupations that are tied to public utility networks or self-driving vehicles, cars. Trent McConaghy has elaborated further on distributing and fusing artificial intelligence and wallets, that would transform an ensemble of objects populating our infrastructural networks with capabilities to snowball into DAOs (Decentralized Autonomous Organization).8 DAOs are organizations that we can create on Blockchains, where we can encode rules to decide on how we transparently distribute decision-making powers among members, how and where we want to pool funds, vote on proposals, and ideally create new forms of social order that are not subject to the control of overarching government or banking institutions. The prospect of natural resources turning into DAOs and their coupling with technologies such as blockchain, smart contracting, and artificial intelligence, create the conditions and realization for ‘natural resource management intelligent systems’ whether forests, trees, or animals to infrastructural components to govern themselves.
Nature 2.0 deepens a post-automation universe, where the further waves of automation and their ubiquity through coding, sensors, actuators, computers, numerically controlled machine tools, design software, microelectronics, internet platforms, 3D scanners/printers, video becomes sources to complement and monitor a suite of ‘public goods and commons’ projects.
Firstly, even though these projects are still in nascent stages, perhaps they do compel further vigilance about the utilization of these technologies, and particularly by whom. The projects have still emphasized that barriers remain, for example in how the outcomes of these projects are determined by token holders that are similar to stockholders who can have a major influence on the decision-making process and the shape of companies. Secondly, other issues still arise concerning significant global lack of access to computational devices, energy consumption tied to crypto, and a critical lack of literacy about the operation of these systems still lingers and remains an obstacle for inclusion. Still, developments within the crypto ecosystem are carving ways to considering engaging stakeholders and importantly reducing outsized influence from members who participate within such projects. Other visions have been put forward by the likes of Rhea Myers that do try to put forward possibilities that through the likes of Blockchain, and particularly DAOs, the roles of worker's councils and commons-linked organizations can work in concert to represent environmental as well as social and economic concerns that can impose and program limits on resource extraction and allocation.9 Ultimately, with a planet already hurdling towards what appears an inevitable mode of catastrophe, the necessity to conceive and democratize strategies to combat and develop novel alliances between ecosystems and various organic or inorganic intelligences becomes increasingly necessary.
Dustin Breitling is a PhD student attending Masaryk University, based in Prague and helping to organize the Diffractions Collective.