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Saving the World – One Blockchain at a Time

A look at some of the entrepreneurs developing blockchain projects with an ecological purpose

by Daniel Pinchbeck

August 1, 2018

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In the last 18 months, Bitcoin, Ethereum, and a number of other blockchain-based initiatives have exploded in value and public prominence. Yet many people still struggle to understand the intrinsic value of these technologies and what they actually mean for the future.
Bitcoin, for instance, is a new form of currency, permanently limited in supply by complex algorithms, making it a kind of ‘digital gold.’ But Bitcoin has no intrinsic value at all. In fact, anyone could take the code and make another version or ‘fork’ the current version. This happened a few years ago when Bitcoin Cash diverged from Bitcoin to solve some of the currency’s scaling issues. When people buy or speculate in Bitcoin—which currently hovers around $8,000 per unit—they are entirely reliant on the ‘network effect’ and the collective belief that Bitcoin has worth.

Many argue that this is no different, in essence, from the current fiat money system, which is backed by government debt and social trust. In theory, the fiat money system is designed to be relatively stable (except when it fails), while cryptocurrencies can fluctuate wildly in value. In 2008, we experienced a meltdown of the global financial system due to the over-investment of the major financial institutions into shady subprime mortgages which were packaged into high-yield bonds. The government responded to this crash by salvaging the too big to fail banks and financial institutions, while doing almost zero for the masses of people who lost their homes. In fact, no bankers went to jail as a result, and the vast fortune put into quantitative easing allowed the banking system to continue as before. This created a lingering failure of trust and a slow-motion legitimation crisis for our institutions.

Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies are decentralized and peer-to-peer, which means they can be exchanged without requiring banks or governments as intermediaries. Because of this, some Libertarians, radicals, and anarchists believe that mass adoption of cryptocurrency will cause the dismantling of the current structures of government and finance. Sterlin Lujan, a ‘relational anarchist’ and communications ambassador for bitcoin.com, writes on Twitter: “If you do not believe cryptocurrency should be used as cash, you are missing the the point. Cryptocurrency as cash is the killer app. If we bring it to as many people as possible, we will both undermine the central institutions and generate massive amounts of wealth. Are you in?” (I recently interviewed Lujan for my podcast, in case you want to explore our contrasting views in depth.)

The release of Ethereum in 2015 was heralded as a major advance in the blockchain world: Where Bitcoin is simply a medium of exchange or a way to store value, the Ethereum blockchain integrates smart contracts, or programs of all sorts—in essence functioning like a gigantic, distributed super-computer. The revolutionary idea behind Ethereum is that we can now create many new forms of shared agreements or contracts, define them mathematically and lock them into code. Governments, corporations, and monetary systems are ultimately ‘social relations’ or shared agreements about how a collective operates together. We can now experiment with an infinite assortment of new agreements, let them loose via blockchains, and see what effects they have on the world.

In How Soon Is Now, my last book, I looked at the global ecological crisis, exploring the planetary boundaries model of the Stockholm Resilience Center which covers areas such as species extinction, warming, atmospheric pollution, and so on. This summer, we are seeing a big spike in global temperatures, causing massive heatwaves and forest fires. Depending on how we use this technology, blockchain could help us to address the ecological problems confronting us. These problems cannot be solved by the current financial system, based on constant growth and hyper-consumerism.

Entrepreneurs are currently developing a wide range of blockchain projects with an ecological purpose. All of these projects are launching Initial Coin Offerings or ICOs. One of the most extraordinary aspects of blockchain is how it changes the way investment works, making finance more democratic. Through ICOs, anyone can participate in the birth of new enterprises they believe in, even at a modest scale, although the risk is that their investment can be lost.

One of these current environmentally focused ICOs, wrapping up its initial offering in a few weeks, is 4New. 4New runs two active plants in the UK which convert organic waste and inorganic trash to electricity. Their concept is to use this energy to power green crypto-mining operations, which have started to consume an enormous amount of electricity. According to Barnaby Andersun, 4New’s Chief Marketing Officer, if you “stake” your tokens in the 4New system, you receive a quarterly dividend on the profits made from their crypto-mining operation. In other words, if you hold 4New tokens instead of selling them, they continue to produce profit over time.

Another very interesting project which will be offering its ICO soon (you can pre-register for the sale on their site) is XiWATT. The team is building a platform that will allow users to invest in renewable energy projects all around the world in exchange for asset-backed tokens. Token-holders can then use the profits generated by their share of renewable energy assets to offset their own energy bill. XiWATT will vet the projects on its platform, which can range from a small solar farm for a local co-op to a large-scale wind farm that powers a city. If XiWATT functions as anticipated, it will accelerate the global transition to renewable energy.y.

Dashboard.earth is another fascinating initiative currently in development. Their idea is to reward “climate-friendly behaviors” with a coin “that is redeemable for eco-friendly products, services, and donations.” The CEO of Dashboard.earth, Gayatri Roshan, is a filmmaker and strategist whose work focuses on ecological subjects. She realized that this new technology allows her to help the ecological crisis more directly through an entrepreneurial initiative integrating blockchain. The prototype of the dashboard.earth platform should be available later this year.

Yet another project currently underway is Regen Network, which seeks to create a “basket” of currencies based on bioregional health indicators that include soil health, water quality, biodiversity, and more. Regen Network will use sensors to monitor ecological health across these different parameters, and reward individuals and initiatives that have a measurably positive impact on the health of the Earth with its tokens.

We are still at an early stage in the evolution of blockchain. Nobody can say for sure how it will develop or which initiatives will win out. There is certainly a level of tulip-mania in the current speculations around it. As a recent article in CoinTelegraph noted, the top ten cryptocurrency deals of 2017 yielded a rate of return that was over 136,000%, which is overtly unsustainable. But individually, we have the ability to influence the future direction of this technology right now, depending on which projects we choose to support. From that perspective, supporting projects aimed at changing our consumption patterns or healing our rift with nature seem like an excellent longterm bet.

The views, thoughts, & opinions expressed in The New Paradigm column are that of the author, and do not necessarily reflect those of The Assemblage.