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Business News/ Opinion / Columns/  Why a digital currency for animals could find takers
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Why a digital currency for animals could find takers

The currency will have high emotional content that could help it beat cryptos in value

As most of nature and its animals are in poor regions of the world, the new currency hopes to solve the poverty of many humans, too. (REUTERS)Premium
As most of nature and its animals are in poor regions of the world, the new currency hopes to solve the poverty of many humans, too. (REUTERS)

What if animals had their own money, and they could pay us to serve them? You may assume at first glance that this is just another way of saying, “world wildlife fund." But what if there is no human proxy involved? What if a wild elephant had his own digital money, irreversibly assigned to him, from which he pays humans to eliminate poachers or make reparations for running amok in a village? Also, what if he is able to replenish his bank account by being a star, or an extra, in an immersive virtual reality game? What if the digital currency is backed by real money and the most cash-rich human virtue, our obligation to nature, and hence has intrinsic value for humans?

What surprised me more than the concept of “interspecies money" is the fact that the Indian government has agreed to listen to the Scotsman who has proposed it. I try to imagine his initial probing emails to the outer edges of Indian bureaucracy: “‘Interspecies Money’ would be a new currency that will be held by animals…" Yet, I gather that he will be heard at substantive levels of the Indian government later this month.

I wish to describe Jonathan Ledgard without using ambiguous labels like ‘thinker’ and ‘futurist’, which are words used for him by organizations like the World Economic Forum and the Pulitzer Centre. Ledgard is a creator, prophet and fund-raiser of ideas that use technology to solve some aspects of poverty. He is also a novelist, and a former foreign correspondent of The Economist.

‘Interspecies Money’ tries to solve the poverty of animals. As most of nature and its animals are in poor regions of the world, the new currency hopes to solve the poverty of many humans, too. Here is one way it could work: The central banks of some nations come together to form, as Ledgard puts it, “the bank of other species." It will be funded by a portion of public funds that are meant for wildlife, conservation and battling climate change. The bank may also be funded by private philanthropy. This means “the bank of other species" would start with billions of dollars. The money would be converted into a global digital currency. At first, only some species would be chosen and given their own digital clones. These clones will be given their own bank accounts, into which ‘Interspecies Money’ will be transferred. The digital avatars of those animals will effectively own that money. Some will hold just a few cents; the more rare and exotic species “may hold sums equivalent to a rare Rolex watch." Even within such an idealistic idea, equality is just not possible. An ant, perhaps, will be poorer than a zebra.

The assignment of value will not be done by whim. ‘Interspecies Money’ emerges from a conviction that the value of nature is financially quantifiable. How much is a river worth in dollars? What is the worth of a rhino? Studies exist that have attempted to assign values to many elements of nature that we just presume are free and have no material value.

These studies appeal to Ledgard because animal valuations are made in the context of how critical they are to our well-being, and not only as oils, garments, food and bones. So, “African forest elephants may give US$1.75 million value per animal against US$40,000 value for their tusks. Large whales may be worth US$2 million per animal because of their ability to draw down carbon. Similarly, trees and soil biomes are being quantified in terms of the services they provide."

For ‘Interspecies Money’ to work, the welfare of animals has to be defined in ways that can been measured by hardware like cameras and sensors. Human settlements in their proximity will then have an opportunity to achieve those goals, and once a set of technologies agree that the humans have indeed done their tasks, like say removed dangerous impediments or increased the population of a species, the animals would automatically transfer money to these humans. As the emotional appeal of the currency grows among humans, its intrinsic value would increase.

Animals would be able to replenish their accounts by actually earning money. Apart from featuring in films and games for a fee, they may sell data of their real-time movements and immediate environment.

The intent of ‘Interspecies Money’ is to finance conservation, and its genius is in finding a way to convert service into a lure for people who live in the proximity of wildlife, usually the very poor.

As a digital currency, ‘Interspecies Money’ has a higher potential to grow in value than famed cryptocurrencies. Cryptos thrived because governments were late to see them as a threat to their oppressive power. Converting a hyper-moral freedom into its opposite is called regulation, and governments are working towards doing that to cryptos. They will succeed. The moment a crypto is subject of regulation, it ceases to be a crypto; it is just a private digital currency, and such an entity loses its edginess and its very reason to exist.

‘Interspecies Money’ would have the odd character of having the blessings of governments and at once being cool because it is underpinned by the mother of all cool virtues—conservation.

As Ledgard tries to sell the idea to India, I am certain one of the main concerns of officials would be that Indians would try to game the system somehow and steal from animals. Also, I am certain, there would be some discussions over how much money to assign a cow.

Manu Joseph is a journalist, novelist, and the creator of the Netflix series, ‘Decoupled’

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Published: 16 Jul 2023, 01:58 PM IST
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