Tim Morgan inspects the ownership of resources by themselves in his ninth blog post for our Emerging Fellows program. The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of the APF or its other members.
In April 2016 the world’s first decentralized autonomous organization was launched. This crowdfunded organization, aptly named “The DAO”, was a collection of interlocking digital smart-contracts designed to use the Ethereum blockchain to fund investor proposed projects. The only human interactions allowed were voting on new projects by shareholders. All other management activities were conducted according to its founding smart-contract rules. This organization worth US$150 million existed as a purely digitally managed company with no legal charter, no physical address, no board of directors, no CEO, and no human management. It was the world’s first stateless autonomous company. Though The DAO was shut down later that year after hackers compromised it, new frameworks like the Aragon project and DaoStack are actively being developed.
Decentralized autonomous organizations (Daos) represent a new stage in capitalism, one that embraces the idea of giving ownership control to non-human algorithmic entities. This is a continuation of a centuries old trend of owners progressively giving up more and more control of capital to managers, corporations, investment funds, and the like. This takes that progression one step further. A Dao controls itself and all the value associated with it. It can have investors. It can pay people for work performed. It could even own physical property if a government chose to charter a Dao as a corporation. We are one legal step from autonomous organizations getting personhood-like rights of a human-chartered corporation. Is it plausible we could take the next step? Can non-human entities have human-like legal rights?
The International Center for the Rights of Nature maintains a timeline showing the accelerating adoption of legal rights for nature. Ecuador wrote Rights of Nature into their constitution in 2008. Mexico City put language into its city constitution in 2017 that would “recognize and regulate the broader protection of the rights of nature formed by all its ecosystems and species as a collective entity subject to rights”. There are many other examples. However, one right seems to always be neglected: the right for nature to engage in commerce. That leaves even legally protected natural resources at the mercy of market pressure on governments and the court of public opinion.
What happens though if we put Daos and rights-holding natural resources together? What we get are autonomous resources that can become full active participants in markets and the legal system. These “deodands”, as futurist Karl Schroeder has named them, could protect themselves from exploitation by entering into commercial contracts for sustainable extraction of their resources, hiring security, funding scientists to monitor their health, and maintaining lawyers to sue contractual or rights violators. They could even hire programmers and engineers to improve their own decision-making algorithms and sensing technologies as the state-of-the-art progresses.
Can resources own themselves? They can if we let them. If we blend a bit of technology with a dash of nature and a smidgen of legal rights, then a whole new level of ecologically sustainable development will be unlocked. Best of all is that markets will be working for sustainability. Their new owners will demand it.
© Tim Morgan 2019