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Can Blockchain Help Save the Wilderness? These Groups Think So.

Cryptocurrency and the technology around it has gained a reputation as an environmental disaster. Armed with computer savvy and more efficient tech, a new class of conservation groups think it could be a force for good.

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Traditionally, organizing for conservation has looked something like this: Get a bunch of like-minded friends and create a non-profit; appoint a board, apply for tax-exempt status, pick some worthy projects, fundraise, maybe rally volunteers and go help build a trail or plant trees. Pretty standard stuff—but like a lot of other things in modern life, supporters of the blockchain want to change how we do it.

A new wave of decentralized autonomous organizations (DAOs), which are reliant on blockchain, are popping up all around the globe with the same mission in mind: give the power back to the people by allowing participants to collectively make conservation decisions, and using smart contracts to execute on them. And the conservation field could be the next target for social change.

If you’re not familiar with the concept, a DAO is basically a leaderless group of people who have organized in order to pursue a common goal; some high-profile ones have done everything from collecting rare NFTs (“non-fungible tokens,” or digital collectibles) to trying to buy a copy of the U.S. Constitution. This organization is then represented by a collection of rules that are coded into a smart contract that executes when certain conditions are met, largely cutting out the need for a central authority. The entire thing depends on a blockchain—essentially, a high-tech, decentralized digital ledger, though the full explanation gets complicated.

Since conservation issues are heterogenous, creating multiple conservation DAOs could offer a more tailored approach to saving the planet. Finding solutions to deforestation in the Amazon may require a different strategy than the protection of wetlands, for example. And DAOs could give do-gooders a new way to organize in the name of a specific conservation effort.

The Columbia River Gorge (Photo: Tyler Hulett via Getty)

While blockchain-based conservation is still in its infancy, groups like the ones built around Open Forest ProtocolWildEarthMoonjelly, and KilmaDAO already offer a window into how decentralizing conservation could change it and potentially make it easier to do at scale. Each conservation DAO relies on its own unique set of rules to impact change. The Open Forest Project, for example, was developed to create an inclusive platform where participants can report data about forest restoration and tree planting, and the community can use that data to connect project managers to funding. Moonjelly, an ocean-focused DAO named after a jellyfish that some scientists believe might be able to reverse the aging process, plans to raise money to fund science-based marine conservation projects by the end of 2022. KilmaDAO, on the other hand, is attempting to buy up carbon credits in order to drive up the cost of polluting, in hopes of accelerating the transition to a green economy. As of March 31, 17,261,875 tons of carbon have been absorbed by KilmaDAO.

Other projects are using NFTs to raise funds for conservation more directly. WildEarth, a for-profit enterprise that runs a 24/7 wildlife-focused broadcast, was originally established in 2007 with the stated goal of making nature more accessible without increasing human impact. Its new collection of NFTs directly contributes to the conservation of the animal habitats that they feature. 40% of WildEarth NFT profits go back to the custodians of the animals’ habitats, which the company hopes will help provide an incentive for them to protect local wildlife.

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Critics of using blockchain and web3 point to their environmental impacts as a concern for supporting this conservation medium. A large portion of DAOs rely on Ethereum, a “proof-of-work” network that’s become notorious for the large-scale computing power and energy usage it requires. Kyle McDonald, an artist and environmental activist specializing in NFTs, estimated in a February interview with Backpacker that each transaction on Ethereum is responsible for about 17 kilograms of carbon dioxide, roughly the equivalent of a 41-mile trip in a typical gas-powered car. While Ethereum is working on moving to a lower-energy proof-of-stake model that its backers say could cut emissions by up to 99%, some critics charge that it’s hypocritical for conservationists to utilize a carbon-heavy technology in the name of the planet.

In response, some DAOs and NFT-backing conservation organizations are using more environmentally-friendly alternatives. The Open Forest Protocol, for example, is being built on NEAR Protocol,  a carbon-neutral, proof-of-stake, layer-1 blockchain (meaning, basically, it stands on its own rather than piggybacking on another blockchain’s infrastructure). WildEarth relies on Polygon, another proof-of-stake blockchain which is also relatively low-emission, though its reliance on Ethereum means that it does produce more than other, more sustainable blockchains. How well they can address those public concerns about pollution—like the ones that sunk the World Wildlife Fund’s planned NFT fundraising project back in February—may well determine whether they can make a difference in the future.

This story was first published by Backpacker.