Why We Should Stop Trying To Invent New Wheels, and Remember How To Walk
As a species, we need to value something we’re made of (carbon) as much as we value something we’ve made up (money). One of three linked articles on money and climate change. Money, It’s a Gaslight examines why problems caused by money may not always be best solved by money, and 5 Ways To Measurably Reduce Carbon Without Money describes five ways this works in practice.
Humans are social animals. We love shopping and haggling, but we’ve lost the knack of bartering.
Ever since we started using cowrie shells and precious metals as debt tokens, humans have got used to interacting via money. We’ve had our Money Goggles strapped on tight ever since.
Economists like Nobel Laureate Richard Coase, of Coasian Theory fame, reminded us of the benefits of different parties acting in concert to mutual benefit, without cash.
Coase’s research was inspired by a study of local radio stations who all ‘owned’ particular AM frequencies, but in the post-war boom were finding their broadcasts could interfere with neighbouring stations. By simply agreeing to stick to particular bands, they could all prosper while retaining their legal ownership, and preventing non-bandwidth owners from taking advantage.
Coase developed this into a Laureate-winning theory. Coasian theory promotes the notion that commercial businesses can benefit from a barter mentality while reducing transaction costs to nearly zero and deterring free-riding.
Given that these arrangements were the basis for human interaction for all but the last 5,000 of Homo sapiens’ 300,000-year existence, it’s odd that we find this odd.
Reverting to barter-based/win-win transactions, without involving money, isn’t inventing a new wheel. It’s reminding ourselves we could always walk, or give each other piggy-backs. Like we did before inventing the wheel…
Reverting to this older form of transaction passes the common sense test. Prioritising our abstract invention (money) over the building block for life on Earth (carbon) is what got us into the climate mess of our own making. Maybe reversing our priorities might be part of the solution.
So much for the economic theory behind why See Through is adopting the money-free model that stood us in such good stead.
Until we started digging up fossil fuels a couple of hundred years ago.
Money v Regulation: Uber & Airbnb Cautionary Tales
1950s Nobel economic theory aside, the Internet age provides multi-billion-dollar examples of how matching owners with too much underutilised goods/services with users who need them, to mutual benefit.
Uber (market cap US$110Bn) and Airbnb (($80Bn) are familiar examples, but also cautionary tales. These valuations are in the scale of investments required for rapid carbon drawdown, but which the current offsetting/pricing system isn’t coming close to providing, after 30 years trying.
The Internet has made this old-school, bartering even more accessible and straightforward. This was the simple idea behind car-sharing services like Uber, or spare-room brokering like Airbnb. They were never pure bartering, as hitching a lift from a stranger, or crashing in their spare room, involved cash transactions. Still, their original spirit was one of community service. Their founders didn’t conceal their ambition to cash in big time, but talked up carbon reduction, at first.
Some people still generously classify what Uber and Airbnb actually turned into as examples of ‘Sustainable sharing economies’ (SSEs). In climate circles and COP meetings, SSEs are becoming increasingly discussed as essential to meeting the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), which are themselves under review as being fit for purpose.
Governments are recognising SSEs as ways to incentivise old and new enterprises to facilitate sharing of goods and services to mutual benefit – for commercial as well as reputational gain.
It’s an appealing notion. Aided by the Internet, SSEs drive carbon emissions down through efficient recycling and uptake of pre-existing and underutilised capacity. They’re even vote-winners.
But the devil, as always, is in the detail. Uber and Airbnb also provide great cautionary tales of what happens when in practice noble-minded proto-SSEs become indistinguishable from rapacious commercial ventures.
Unrestrained by regulation, intoxicated by investors seeking to maximise profit by ‘moving fast and breaking things’, they join the other Silicon Valley Overlords, disrupting not just complacent industries like hotels and taxis, but the social fabric that binds them together. They certainly stop talking about carbon reduction pretty quickly.
The inflection point at which Cash trumps Carbon is familiar – it’s when the bean-counters take over.
Whatever the original intentions of the Silicon Valley dudes who came up with a cool idea for using spare rooms as hotels and cars as taxis to ‘save the planet’, any carbon-reducing ambitions are soon ditched once the investors want to cash in. This isn’t necessarily a problem until they start spending some of their piles to lobby governments not to regulate them, and to place ads urging us not to demand regulation.
They then simply join the older Government, Business and Media collaborators that make up the Three-Headed Beasts standing between us and carbon drawdown.
There are other businesses that cleave more closely to the spirit of the SSE model, like car- and bicycle-sharing schemes that theoretically reduce demand through efficient use of limited resources.
But they too, when let off the financial leash in an unregulated environment, tend to crash. The monuments to their greed appear as mountains of abandoned bicycles offered by competing bike-share ventures, or lines of liveried vehicles at car auctions following the collapse of yet another failed car-sharing scheme.
The lesson appears to be that for the SSE model to actually reduce carbon, rather than get sucked into the opposite outcome whenever it comes into conflict with the profit motive, requires government regulation and enforcement.
Kerbside recycling collections are better examples of SSEs. Individuals are motivated/compelled to promote sustainability by sorting their rubbish, which reduces landfill and moves closer to a circular, sustainable economy.
This works because the government sets targets for local councils to meet, and enforces them. Councils can either outsource this duty to a commercial company, passing on the strict regulations, or, if they reckon they can do it cheaper, do the job themselves.
Either way, it:
- Requires government to set and enforce rules
- Still involves money
Rather than wait for 1) and depend on 2), See Through is taking a third option
- Trade commercial gain, data, and reputational gain for carbon reduction, without a bank account.
Money v Volunteers
See Through is a global volunteer network with the goal of measurably reducing carbon.
We’re often asked how big businesses can take a zero-budget organisation seriously. The implication is that in the ‘real world’ (i.e. the one that’s based on a recent abstract invention) dollars are the only designator of integrity, the only currency by which reliability and endurance can be evaluated.
This reflexive assertion doesn’t bear much logical scrutiny.
Imagine two groups of people competing for your trust.
Group A is formed entirely of people motivated by money. This means:
- any individual will disappear if someone offers them more
- they’ll all disappear if whoever’s funding it (banks, investors, hedge funds, governments etc.) decides to turn off the tap
Group B is formed entirely of people motivated by carbon reduction. This means:
- The more it grows, the more motivated they are to stay around and work more
- The more it grows, the more other volunteers will join
- No funder can ever withdraw funding
Which group is more stable? We reckon Group B.
Money v Carbon Drawdown
Even more often, we’re asked how we can expect to achieve this with no bank account. ‘Sooner or later’, we’re told, ‘you’re going to need money to do anything effective’.
See Through is not ideologically committed to proving capitalism can, or can’t, be sustainable. Our focus is simply on the shortest route to measurably reducing the most carbon quickest. We think deeply about how to do this, which is why we study Coasian theory and SSEs, but as means to the end of the See Through Goal of:
Speeding Up Carbon Drawdown by Helping the Inactive Become Active
The first 4 words are simple physics, the last 5 the reason why humans have so far not applied our powers of reason to overcome our powerful emotional drivers.
As pragmatists operating in a money-driven world, See Through needs to address the issue of how to reduce carbon without involving fiat currency.
This article outlines the theory behind money–free carbon drawdown. Companion article 5 Ways To Measurably Reduce Carbon Without Money gives practical examples.
But we also need to explain the mechanisms by which bartered goods & services can be leveraged to reduce carbon, without requiring bank accounts.
Case Study: Content-to-CO2e Reduction
To date, See Through has developed three such mechanisms:
- See Through Carbon: 1st pilot launched Sept 2023
- The Magic See-Through Mirror: in development, with AI advances in Large Language Models making it more feasible by the day.
C2C, or ‘Content-to-CO2e Reduction’, combines state–of-the-art AI tech with old-school storytelling craft. It involves quite a few moving parts – here’s an graphic overview:
Like See Through Carbon and The Magic See-Through Mirror, C2C is a mechanism that converts bartered goods and services (including unique, engaging content) into original, unique data assets, which in turn are leveraged to measurably reduce carbon.
See Through is developing two pilots to test this C2C mechanism on specific carbon-related sectors, Forestry and Live Music.
Cash-Free Carbon Drawdown
As with all See Through projects, these 3 mechanisms neither involve nor require money.
Indeed, their success so far is down to them being cash free, because it:
- Promotes agility, responsiveness and flexibility, so we can move fast
- Guarantees integrity, so we attract, motivate and retain volunteers
The C2C diagram shows the process by which raw material, in the form of unique, engaging content, either donated by third parties or created by See Through projects, is converted into unique ‘social design’ datasets.
- These datasets are valuable to third parties, such as governments or businesses
- Only See Through can access them
- See Through trades access to this valuable data in exchange not for cash, but for measurable carbon reduction
The ‘social design’ and unique nature of See Through’s datasets mean they’re not accessible via AI data-scraping. This may be unfashionable, but even in the era of Large Language Models, quality sometimes trumps quantity.
See Through’s data model is similar to any commercial data-based business, like Facebook or Uber, apart from two critical respects:
- The datasets are created for free
- Instead of monetising the data, it’s exchanged for measurable CO2 reduction.
C2C uses the same tools – social media platforms, computing, and AI – as commercial businesses. Unlike LLMs or other big data businesses, See Through doesn’t depend on large-scale data-scraping of existing public databases, like The Internet or Twitter.
Computer scientists call this brute-force approach the Big Data model. It’s what lies behind nearly all AI startups these days.
This is significant because:
- There’s no shortage of Big Data AI contributes to carbon emissions
- unique datasets of value to businesses, politicians and media can be leveraged to reduce carbon without the need for cash
In combination with our social media platform integration, See Through Carbon is creating an eyeball-to-carbon drawdown data flow that adopts the SSE model to kickstart serious carbon drawdown at scale.
Our global volunteer expert network has proved it has the technical, marketing, and storytelling skills to make this happen without a bank account. The challenge to commercial companies, non-profits, government bodies and NGOs is whether they find the absence of a See Through bank account intimidatingly unfamiliar, or recognise it as an imprimatur of integrity.
If the latter, they’re welcome to explore ways of collaborating, and contributing to this sharing network.
If you’re wondering what exactly this cash-free model might look like, here are our top five answers.
Do let us know if you have any better ones.
Details in 5 Ways To Measurably Reduce Carbon Without Money.