Jonathan Ledgard, Founder of Interspecies Money Group. PC: Atria University

Understanding Interspecies Money

Have you wondered about how many things nature provides us with for free? Water, air, soil, forests, energy and biodiversity in our oceans as well as on land have been supplied to us on a silver platter. Typically, they’re known as “invaluable resources” because they’re so important that they’re worth more than any amount of money.

As human beings, we’ve unabashedly used and abused invaluable resources to such a great extent that we seem to have forgotten their value. Last month, Swissnex in India partnered with Atria University in Bengaluru to organise a conclave that facilitated discourse around protecting and enabling biodiversity by letting more-than-human species participate in the financial system that governs our lives.

One of the ways to have a more inclusive ecosystem is by looking at it through the lens of Interspecies Money, a concept formulated by the writer and technologist Jonathan Ledgard. Interspecies Money, in fact, insists that we put a value on some of what we consider invaluable resources—It could be a crucial approach in being fair to other species that coexist with human beings. This could also be our chance to finally pay for what we take for granted. Doing this will have secondary benefits for us as human beings—think of it as a long-term investment that will generate high returns and more stability. Interspecies Money, therefore, provides us with a one-of-a-kind opportunity to go beyond focussing on saving a few flagship species by concentrating investments in isolated conservation projects. It gives us a chance to democratise the ecosystem, which needs to be considered holistically if we want to prevent biodiversity from depleting.

But what exactly is Interspecies Money?

Interspecies Money is currently a hypothetical form of currency that would be used by different species to trade not only with each other but also with human beings. So even trees and creatures like insects, which do not have an obvious relationship with human beings but play an important part in keeping food chains and habitats stable, would be able to use this money for their own needs. But insects and trees and birds and the bees cannot represent themselves because we don’t speak their language and they don’t speak ours.

So who decides what value to assign to which species? Who negotiates on their behalf? And on what basis is the value decided?

Then there is the question of cultural value. “How do we value an animal like an elephant culturally?” asks Dr. Nishant Srinivasaiah who studies elephant behaviour. In Hindu culture, Lord Ganesh has a half-elephant half-human form.

It is the particular human communities themselves that co-exist in a specific ecosystem with non-human communities that will decide the value, Ledgard said at the Interspecies Money Conclave. The human and non-human communities both stand to gain if Interspecies Money is implemented—the human community in a more indirect way over a longer period of time, and the non-human community hopefully in a more direct way by, for example, having the luxury of existing in a better protected habitat. The event was attended by a host of conservationists, ecotech entrepreneurs, high-level professionals from finance and tech, government representatives, journalists as well as people from backgrounds that are outside conservation to enable more inclusive dialogue and gauge how they could contribute.

The environmentalist and writer Leo Saldanha mirrored Ledgard’s view and noted that indeed it is not for any government to decide the value of nature and that it must be determined in a democratic, ethical, egalitarian and equitable manner.

More importantly, however, Saldanha challenged the very concept of Interspecies Money, noting that it “assumes that the world is running only on capitalistic economy. What if it is not?” He added that it also presumes that “neo-liberal economic policies that hold up the capitalist economies will survive. What if they don’t? What if they collapse? And when capitalistic economy collapses, what happens to the values that we ascribe through Interspecies Money?”

A panel discussion on how language plays a crucial role in biodiversity conservation. PC: Atria University

Some of the most profound insights were from conversations around language. Local communities in India speak very different languages and dialects. “How does financial language translate to the local population? How do we explain the history of why money works the way it does? How do I explain the IMF (International Monetary Fund)?” said Manisha Kairaly (Molly) of the sustainable development nonprofit, The Timbaktu Collective. Molly works with rural communities in the drought-prone Anantapur district of Andhra Pradesh.

In a sense, many local human communities in India are in the same position as our flora and fauna—they all face language barriers that prevent them from understanding the financial nitty-gritty that would empower them to make decisions for themselves.

Another problem when it comes to language is the vocabulary we choose to define the elements of our environment. The Indian Forest Act of 1972 defines ‘forest’ as “any area of land which is covered with trees, shrubs, or any undergrowth, whether or not it is capable of yielding timber or other produce or is suitable for grazing or the growth of grasses”. Under the Act, one cannot cut trees without permission, graze livestock, set fires in forests or hunt animals in forests.

Yet, outside of this definition, as a population we view other forms of land—such as wetlands and grasslands—as “wastelands”, said the conservationist Siddharth Rao, Molly’s colleague at The Timbaktu Collective. “Wastelands” is a term coined by the British when they ruled India in the 19th century. To them, wastelands were areas they deemed unproductive for and uninhabitable by humans, even though large parts of these were home to a wide array of wildlife and tribal peoples, whom the British considered backward and primitive. Deforested lands were also seen as “wastelands”.

Rao noted that not much is being invested in preserving mangroves and grasslands even though they are equally important to the ecosystem considering how they are essential habitats for thousands of species of birds, marine life and wildlife.

The Indian filmmaker Anand Gandhi said that “a lot of money is being pumped into things like cryptocurrency and blockchain, which are imaginary, but nobody is thinking about pumping money into real resources that people need.”

Rao from The Timbaktu Collective believes bringing people from the corporate sector, developing more apps and utilising AI proficiently to address these issues would make a significant difference.

But he said that technology and money are tools that have to be used strategically. None of it will matter if as humans we don’t care about conservation. He believes that there is a need to rally more people to do something about wildlife and biodiversity.

Before we can think about Interspecies Money, we need to first figure out the small pieces of the puzzle, said Priyank M. Kharge, the technology and rural development minister of Karnataka.

Local communities may have more awareness than the financially-empowered tech-driven upper middle class living in urban India, but they wield far less power.The difference local communities can make will be insignificant if the educated and financially-secure population—especially large corporates—don’t pay attention and commit to backing their efforts. The small pieces of the puzzle need to fit together in order for change to take place.

A statement—not his own—Kharge made has stayed with me since the conclave, and I hope you find it equally moving and thought provoking. “We don’t inherit the land from our ancestors. We borrow it from our children.”