“Conservationists need to experiment with new technology and guide it towards credibility”

Linwood Pendleton is an environmental economist and a transdisciplinary scientist. He is the Executive Director at the Ocean Knowledge Action Network and International Chair of Excellence at the European Institute of Marine Studies. He is also the Director of Moonjelly Academy. In an interview with the Luc Hoffmann Institute, as part of Digital disruption and the future of conservation project, he discusses the need for, and role of, Web 3.0 technologies for biodiversity conservation.

Q.  You started your career as a conservationist in the fields of ecology and marine sciences. What sparked your interest in blockchain technology?

It has been a long road! My interest in blockchain stems from my interest in ocean data. I was trying to understand why people were not sharing their ocean data. I wanted to find different ways to collect and share the data that are useful for conservation decisions. As part of my work with the RevOceans and later its sister, the Centre for the 4th Industrial Revolution – Ocean, I ended up spending a lot of time talking to blockchain specialists about distributed ledger technology – a technology that not only gives credit to the data collector but also helps the collector know how their data are being used, helps track their impact, while also enabling a two-way communication/feedback loop between the data generator and the user. The basic idea was that if we could create an impact factor for data, then we would create incentives like we have for publications. To do that we need a digital ledger, and that’s really what got me started with blockchain.

I’m not a data scientist, I’m an economist. I study incentives, and try to understand what drives people to share data as a resource.

 Q. How are Decentralised Autonomous Organisations (DAOs) relevant to the conservation sector? Do you have any example use-cases?

I’ll answer that with a story. About a year ago, everyone was talking about DAOs. At that time, I was the executive director of the Ocean Knowledge Action Network, an entity established to create new ways of networking people across language differences, cultural differences, and sectoral differences. I was exploring different ways of working together and DAOs appealed to me as a way to give voice to people who often feel powerless, or as a safe space for people who feel they would be discriminated against because they weren’t the right gender or right colour, for example. As I got more into DAOs, I started thinking about the ocean data sharing issues and realised that one reason why people don’t share data is because they rarely have a say in how the data are used. They lose control. I thought DAOs might be an interesting way for people to share data and still keep some control over their use by participating in communal governance of their data.

However, as I got deeper into DAOs, I realised that they are not very good for complex problem solving. They’re good once fairly clear and specific rules have been set, including rewards for good behaviour and punishments for bad behaviour. But many of the emerging DAOs, at that time, were just completely inappropriate ones. The questions were too complex, they hadn’t yet even decided what the DAO was governing with its resources and its rules. They included incentives, but no punishment. So when I look at this curve of adoption and where we were at this time last year, everyone wanted “to DAO”. They wanted the DAO label to signal that they were technologically oriented and doing things differently. Many began to establish DAOs but soon decided that they weren’t ready to be a DAO. DAOs too often became toxic and they killed the project they were intended to govern.

Q: A critique of these new technologies is that they could contribute to perpetuating existing power dynamics. How can the use of DAOs in the conservation sector become a tool to counteract these tendencies?

Like all tools, DAOs are open to bias, and part of dealing with that bias is making sure that everyone is equally capable of participating. We need to train people to enable better participation in this space i.e. creating the codes, developing systems of tokenomics and rewards, or even just using discord (the communication tool for many DAOs). That is one of the reasons we created MoonJelly Academy – to understand where these pain points were, and find ways to address them. The dilemma with DAOs is also anonymity versus transparency. DAOs enable anonymous use and are therefore “trustless”. But participants don’t have to operate anonymously. I’ve found that when people actually show their faces in DAOs, it fosters trust. It doesn’t diminish trust. But you lose the anonymity that sometimes helps deal with power imbalances.

Q: But you can still write a code which elevates those voices which are usually unheard, right?

That’s right. Particularly voting. DAOs can have built-in codes to ensure there isn’t a concentration of power, and that everyone has equal voice. Codes can be built to reward (with more governance tokens) based on how active the participant is or how impactful they are. However, all this must be agreed upon by the DAO community. But that can be biased too because, if wealthy people have more capacity, then they may have more impact and thus get voted to have bigger voting power. It may be that wealthy people have more time to spend on DAOs than less well-off people who are busy trying to raise money for food and basic necessities.

Q. Can you tell us a bit more about MoonJelly DAO and MoonJelly Academy?

MoonJelly DAO was established to create a decentralised way of moving money from people who were interested in contributing to conservation science and action to people who had ideas about doing that. The founders created a DAO and involved me to ensure whatever was designed was scientifically sound and well thought out. But that DAO wasn’t a DAO, it was a community and, after about six months, that community realised that they weren’t ready for DAO because they didn’t have DAO-like decisions to be made.  One of the things the founders realised early on was the need to co-design. Therefore, we created Moonjelly Academy with the idea of bringing people together from conservation science and Web 3.0 to debate and discuss, in an open transparent way, the risks, challenges and opportunities of using blockchain for conservation. The goal is not to reach a consensus but to indicate where consensus exists and share that with the world. MoonJelly Academy became its own thing apart from the MoonJelly DAO.

Q. What do you believe collaborations at this intersection (the future of nature conservation and Web 3.0) could bring?

I think conservationists need to stop asking, “Could I use blockchain for conservation?”. Instead, they should ask, “Should I use blockchain for conservation?”. What I see is a lot of people saying, “We could do this with blockchain!” very excitedly and probably we could, but maybe there’s an easier way to do this and we haven’t thought carefully enough about what we want to achieve from a conservation perspective. Is it decentralisation? Is it giving more power to people who don’t have power? Is it giving more credit to people who do good? From a conservation perspective, what is it that we really want to achieve? And why can’t we do it now?

Q. Can Blockchain concepts and DAOs be used to create new markets and new incentives for conservation that were not there before?

Even with markets, is it that we need more money? Or do we need more people getting money? Or do we need to divide the pie better? In the past few years, big donors have given a lot of money to the conservation sector but, as they have found managing small donations too expensive, they have opted for fewer large donations. That hasn’t solved our problem of getting small amounts of money to lots of people. How do you do that? Maybe it’s through blockchain, maybe it’s through a DAO or smart contracts, maybe it’s through cryptocurrency, but maybe there are other ways of doing it too.

Q. Now that we start understanding the complexity of the challenges we are facing , are you still excited about the opportunities of  Web 3.0 for conservation? What is your vision?

Yes, I’m still excited because the core of blockchain technology is very sound and now that we have proof of stake as a consensus mechanism, it is getting increasingly energy efficient. Further, the fact that we have more people paying attention to cybersecurity issues means it’s a tool that really is going to be fit for purpose. However, I’m also equally frightened. The thing that frightens me the most is that there’s such a desire to do things differently, that people are thinking about blockchain and Web 3.0 technology for conservation in a very idealised, complicated, aspirational way and they are making promises they can’t deliver. They are hiding behind the blackbox nature of Web 3.0. Often, conservation is not their primary goal. Making money is, and this will impact the legitimacy and credibility of their efforts. This emphasises why more conservationists need to dive into the space and guide it towards credibility and positive impact.

My vision for this intersection is having more conservationists involved and experimenting with the technology. Getting more ideas on the table, getting more money for ideas that work and creating a system of transparency so that people who make promises about contributing to the health of the planet can show that they actually do.

The content of this thought piece represents the author’s own views and does not necessarily represent the views of the Luc Hoffmann Institute nor the Digital disruption and the future of conservation project.

For a basic introduction to Web 3.0 concepts and their potential use for nature conservation, please refer to the ‘Digital Disruption for Conservation’ toolkit. With a focus on the fundamentals of Web 3.0 and blockchain technology, this toolkit will help you understand how this technology works and how it can be used to protect nature. 

Definitions:

  1. Blockchain: at its core, blockchain is a distributed digital ledger that stores data of any kind.
  2. DAO: a Decentralised Autonomous Organisation is an entity managed entirely by all members of the community. It is governed using smart contracts and any proposed changes to the rules of these contracts require a majority vote by members.
  3. Web 3.0: is the term given to a new iteration of the internet which incorporates concepts such as decentralisation, blockchain technologies, and token-based economics (aka tokenomics).
  4. Tokenomics (or, Token Economics): is a catch-all term for the elements that make a particular cryptocurrency (digital currency) valuable, robust and appealing to its users.

    References:

    1. What is Blockchain? (Forbes, 2022).
    2. Hassan, S. & De Filippi, P. (2021). Decentralized Autonomous Organization. Internet Policy Review, 10(2). https://doi.org/10.14763/2021.2.1556