Today’s piece is a really special one on a lot of levels—not least because I’m launching a DAO: ecodao. For the full experience, read and follow along through ecodao’s mirror and follow ecodao’s twitter.
“You cannot soundly monetize land, but only its produce.
Siena had grazing lands, down toward Grosseto, and the grazing rights worth 10,000 ducats a year. On the basis of taking it for his main security, Cosimo underwrote a capital of 200,000 ducats, to pay 5 percent to the shareholders, and to be lent at 5 percent; overhead kept down to a minimum, salaries at a minimum and all excess of profit over that to go to hospitals and works for the benefit of the people of Siena.
And the lesson is the very basis of solid banking. The CREDIT rests in ultimate on the ABUNDANCE OF NATURE, on the growing grass that can nourish the living sheep.”
— Ezra Pound, “Social Credit: An Impact” (1935)*
“When we speak of these not as things or products or commodities, but as gifts, the whole relationship changes. Gratitude creates a sense of abundance, the knowing that you have what you need. In that climate of sufficiency, our hunger for more abates and we take only what we need, in respect for the generosity of the giver. If our first response is gratitude, then our second is reciprocity: to give a gift in return.”
— Robin Wall Kimmerer, “The Serviceberry” (2020)
One challenge of defining public goods is that the public has always been, after all, fairly private, if not entirely privatized. A public road in France helps France, an entity defined by borders separating it from neighbors; these roads may help it conduct trade of vital materials to regions historically crippled by French colonization at exorbitant prices in order to extract more money to enrich the French nation.
Let’s speak simply. Traditionally-cited public goods like the “national defence” of the military and police gear often serve a dominant coalition to extract value from a global underclass in a kind of violent mirroring of private powers—sweatshops, landlords—that extract value from the labor of the working class. The 20th century political spectrum does little to help align our views. Rightwing police departments, communist dictatorships, and giant oil corporations are all, after all, centralized authorities that willfully plunder global reserves of what we might consider a truer public: a commons of people, plants, and animals whose epitaphs are written, if at all, on a balance sheet.
The issue is not public goods, per se; it’s that we often speak of a “public” that in many ways operates as private power in the wider scope of competing states, rather than the traditional framework of competing firms. But in that sense, the internet has in some ways given us our first real public commons. In theory, at least, the internet is an unbounded landscape of infinite abundance, free information, and open-source development; any scarcity of data is artificially imposed. For once, the commons is a commons. It knows no bounds.
There are, however, two issues. The first is that this theoretical internet, a beautiful sandbox where we can create our own identities and economics as a form of play, awkwardly abuts a material world that finds us tethered to capitalist economics and the various, largely terrifying ways that history has inscribed and contextualized our real-world identities. Even to be on-chain requires not only the technology but the time to pursue collectivization and socialization online. And so, there is no on-chain self that is not, at least in part, a product of a more embarrassing off-chain self that inevitably trails us like an overly-gregarious dad crashing his own kid’s pizza party—a kind of phantom of The Real.
The second issue is that even on its own terms, the internet is stuck within, well, its own terms, as an entirely human-founded and human-focused enterprise that increasingly enables a hyperfinancialization that can make all art, thoughts, feelings, and relationships legible as data. Yes, the internet is a culture, a commons, a public terrain for public goods that allows us to code new opportunities—but what if it also forces us to reductively decode these opportunities in dollar signs?
We step back to see the more terrifying implication. Even if we accept that the internet truly is a utopian commons—a big if—it can only be one to the exclusion of a burning natural world.
But what if we imagined an internet that could learn from ecology—and support it in turn?
Ecology, we’ve learned, has a lot to teach us about economics.
For one, ecology tends to be far better at allocating limited resources than our monetary economies. Note how snow leopards have one or two offspring that live solitary lives compared to a domestic cat’s four-to-eight that often live semi-communally: the difference is one of optimizing resources for the cold. Males of many species often die after mating so as not to compete with mothers for resources that ensure the propagation of their species. Fungi, meanwhile, have an advanced economic system of “deals and embargoes” in trade networks that enable trees to shuttle excess carbon to seedlings and injured elders in need of support, even while denying nutrients to plants that have denied nutrients to the network historically; in exchange, they exact a variable commission in natural resources that can soar when plants are desperate for help.
The point of such limitations, in fact, is to ensure that all species have more than they need, that they exist in a state of surplus. With proper economic allocation, natural resources no longer appear limited either—rather, as the botanist Robin Wall Kimmerer has suggested, their abundance enables gift economies in nature. The tree produces a fruit, its sweetness a surplus that feeds a bird who spreads its seeds. Both benefit from this surplus, this consumption. “From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs” might describe the ways that, per Kimmerer, “those who have give to those who don’t, so that everyone in the system has what they need.”
Let’s take two lessons from this ecological economy. First, nature is an expansionary economy, as long as we have a sun. Light can continue to be provided to plants to develop their populations as well as those who feed on them, and this abundance is what enables the growth of grass as well as the growth of, say, two sheep to four to eight in an expansionary offering of wool blankets and clothes. In a free-market economy, the money to grow a business would need to come from within the economy, from the paychecks of consumers or the expropriation of land, in a game that would be zero-sum if not for the fictional capital of loans and debt, but in nature, a wealth of nutrients comes from outside in the inflationary supply, if you like, of sunlight. That means that all creatures offer, in some way, excess resources to be redistributed ecologically at large. We all have the sweetness of the berry to offer the commons. We are designed to perform public funding.
The second lesson is that the diversity of functions, consumption habits, and complementary needs across lifeforms allows this economy to thrive. Economic systems in nature operate as relationships between species. Lifeforms position themselves in relationship to different lifeforms with which they interact everyday; they have their “on-chain” world—a world exclusive to their own communications—that serves primarily to help them navigate an “off-chain” world of each other.
So as long as we only think of the human, we are still privatizing the public. As Kimmerer puts it, “this specialization to avoid scarcity has led to a dazzling array of biodiversity, each avoiding competition by being different. Diversity in ways of being is an antidote to scarcity-induced competition.” This ecological-economic model of abundance through diversity is, in some ways, a kind of rejoinder to an electronic-economic model of abundance through homogeneity, through the reduction of human behavior in human-exclusive spaces online to strictly financial terms.
And here we see our challenge. Our human economy doesn’t just fail ecology’s two lessons—it actively works against them by plundering natural resources for financial gain. Despite our best intentions in trying to construct a sustainable economic model online, we’re faced with the terrifying proposition that we may only be able to draw value from an offline human economy that expropriates the resources of the land to provide us with more glossy Penguin jpegs. This is, per Kimmerer, the threat we must work against, “a grotesque economy that grinds what is beautiful and unique into money, a currency that enables us to purchase things we don’t really need while destroying what we do.”
If you believe the above, you might conclude that we need to create entire new economic systems. And you might conclude, happily, that it’s possible to do so with DAOs that can create their own tokens that each serve as a kind of loan for the future value—emotional, spiritual, ecological—we’ll provide each other. A social token is our berry.
The problem is that this token must be equated to some value in fiat terms: that it must intersect with our current economic models, just as we must live under these in our own life. Hyperfinancialization is inevitable, and there is no separating our on-chain fantasies from our off-chain afflictions in a world of climate crisis.
The way to change this system, then, is not simply to be permissionless but to be intentional. Undoubtedly, permissionless building unleashes creativity that has traditionally been stifled and siloed by centralized corporate structures. The issue is that when everyone has equal permission to invest time and money, those most likely to do so are the ones with the most resources, education, and risk-tolerance to enable and incentivize them—the ones with the most human capital to invest. Though permissionless systems in web3 lack any inherent inequalities of their own, they can only replicate the inequalities of the off-chain world if they fail to build a strong community intentionally.
Intentional building, then, works to actively confront real inequities in order to create a better world on-chain—deliberately picking a diverse team of talent whom the DAO can support in effectively working for its workers. Intentional building, in other words, ensures that resources are going to those who will benefit from them most and might be least likely to receive otherwise. It is this team, after all, which not only will make the foundational decisions for a DAO in its first year by building on each other’s work and filling in each other’s gaps, but provide the fundamental talent drawing newcomers through the one real moat available to web3 protocols: community.
ecodao is intended to be exactly that kind of community. An artists’ collective supporting ecological causes, ecodao is structured to enable members to drive value to each other through an internal gift economy inspired by the same ecology it intends to support—while actively recruiting and drawing outside talent as well.
The model is open to revision at the discretion of ecodao’s members:
ecodao releases and promotes artists’ work in limited editions representing community membership to ecodao and access to events.
50% goes to artist; 25% goes to ecodao; 25% goes to ecological organizations selected by each artist, minus platform fees. Parties receive a proportional percentage of all resales as well.
ecodao funds events to build meaningful community between collectors and artists: parties in particular will be exclusive to ecodao members and those who collect specific works.
Participating artists shared governance control in order to determine fund allocation and recruitment of future artists—or delegate to those who want to play such roles.
Editions of each work are donated to or bought by the DAO, so artists own each other’s work. Works may also be airdropped as gifts to individuals approved by ecodao.
ecodao is gradually decentralized as more and more artists participate.
To be clear, ecodao’s underlying objectives include both communal wealth redistribution in the absence of a coercive state—and, yes, a thriving and joyous community that can do fun things together. These goals are not mutually exclusive.
Let’s break that down. One way to understand the entire history of art is a series of investments patrons have made to build their own social capital in various forms: art, we might say, has always been finance’s finest abstraction layer. So NFTs, as a form of financial capital in disguise as social capital and vice-versa, offer artists new opportunities not only to earn, but to build a sustainable gift economy by collectivizing.
For Artists Promoting and Selling Work
A successful artists’ collective can enable artists to support each other not only as curators but in drawing patrons to back underrepresented creators. ecodao aims to be a value-add intermediary that can continue sustainably by claiming less value for itself than what it offers its participants. To that end, ecodao will work to provide value for artists not only by promoting work through fundraisers and events, but by thoughtfully contextualizing work with interviews and original writing, introducing artists to a collector network, giving artists an online community to support each other, and cultivating ongoing streams of resources that help them maintain stability so they can focus on their craft. After all, an artist’s future work is dependent upon their ability to cultivate abundance consistently in the present.
In that sense, ecodao is inspired by many of the great real-world galleries run by artists. Most significantly, however, NFTs offer three new ways that a collective can provide far more value to artists long-term than galleries traditionally have been able to do.
First, by offering a commission on resales, NFT fundraisers offer a value-add that traditional art fundraising would not: artists enjoy the upside on all future sales of their work for the first time in history.
Second, the multimodal nature of NFTs means that they can gain value by adding a communal, participatory layer to the experience of collecting—serving as passes to ecodao’s parties and events, rights to tokens, puzzle pieces that unlock new functions when combined, or keys to experience live events in new ways. On the simplest level, they let artists get paid more for their work—and get more out of their work—by serving as real-life passports to join in-person events and an online community around the globe.
And finally, NFTs are badges, status symbols that are visible to the entire digital universe. Whereas an important work of physical art might only be seen by close neighbors, an NFT can be seen by everyone—and confer particular status when it represents not only acclaimed art but a donor’s giving to a worthy cause. Eventually, NFTs could even be renewable energy certificates.
In its own small way, ecodao aims to shift towards a world where our status symbols no longer stand for what we’ve gained, but rather for what we’ve given.
And as all art plays on the edge of legibility, it’s possible that in their own way, these badges will themselves serve to educate a wider public as reflections on the artists of the natural world—the beavers, the robins, the wasps.
For Artists Building a Sustainable Economy
Because artists who participate will have joint governance rights over ecodao’s treasury, the collective could simply vote to disperse funds among its members. Or they might even just choose to use the treasury to buy each other’s art while setting price floors on each other’s work.
But many other options are available to artists in how they might use ecodao’s funds from sales. For example, they might vote to fund smart contract development of new NFT uses: audio NFTs that could be used in multiplayer DJing at live events, composable NFTs that would unlock experiences when different wallet holders met in the same space, NFTs that could be scanned as tickets, and so on. ecodao could then develop these into free and open-source protocols of their own that would only earn commissions when monetized by users.
Likewise, the money could be used as a kind of UBI for participating artists. Artists could choose to use the money to collectively purchase a house where they could stay and offer residences to emergent artists. ecodao could, in exchange, take a commission of work produced during the residence. And finally, artists could simply invest the treasury in DeFi and distribute a portion of the annual interest among the members as a dividend.
The final decision will be left to ecodao’s governing members—the artists and governance committee—and as the DAO grows, it may even split into smaller pods with portions of the treasury to handle as they each like. The intention is to create a true gift economy where each new artist will not only have their work presented and promoted thoughtfully while giving back to to ecology—but to participate in the formation of an organically expanding, mutually beneficial community of artists, patrons and facilitators offering a lifetime of economic support.
As consumers’ growing demand for interactive communities forces industries to shift from passive “read” to participatory “read-write” experiences for their users, it is tempting to see the outsized importance of “community roadmaps” in NFT projects as a sign that web3 collectors, too, are consumers who consume for the sake of social engagement above all else. In fact, this has always been the case: for patrons, art has always been the currency of community, and collecting art has always been a form of social signaling to identify as part of a tribe (traditionally, “the ultra-wealthy”)—as well as to attend community events like openings, galas, and fundraisers.
In code, no less, ecodao dares to articulate the art world’s tacit presumption that art is a gift and a ticket to community: for collectors, individual works will entitle them to individual parties and events. In that sense, ecodao certainly offers opportunities to acquire passes to these events as an investment in art rather than a traditional expense in tickets. Above all, however, ecodao aims to introduce the web3 community to artists they may never otherwise have encountered—and vice versa.
Finally, for collectors looking to support ecological causes, NFTs are far better vehicles for giving than traditional donations because here, too, they represent an investment rather than an expense. While standard donations are tax-deductible, NFTs have the potential not only of recouping their original cost but rising in value. As a result, donors would be incentivized to spend far more—perhaps ten or twenty times as much—for an NFT whose proceeds are not only donated to charity but can also generate a return on investment. Compared to a traditional donation whose cost donors could never recover, NFTs offer a massive unlock for charities to raise far more funds than they could in the web2 world.
Challenges remain. It is important to ensure that the charities supported actually, well, make some worthwhile difference in the world. (The Rainforest Foundation, which supports indigenous efforts at reforestation, will be the recipient of the initial exhibitions.) A more sustainable economic model that prevented gains from accruing to the ultra-wealthy might cap the upside of the investment to any purchaser. Within the DAO, governance mechanisms will need to be devised to handle growth and delegation. And forging genuine connections between artists, patrons, curators, and writers online requires an organic process that can’t necessarily be streamlined or scaled.
But it is important to emphasize that NFTs have one other advantage over traditional art as well. They easily allow multiple editions of works to be minted and held by the DAO itself as an NFT treasury that can even be collateralized to create its own token, which could in turn be distributed to participating artists while gaining value with each addition to the vault. The DAO would be in its own way, then, a gift economy: one enabling each member to share their work with favorite artists, and in so doing, inviting them into the community as well to share their work too. The principle of reciprocity is one of sustainability, to be sure, but done right, it can also be one of growth and expansion.
For in our own lifetimes, art is our own berry-like produce we make to share our identity and ideas with an outside world that can recompose these as its own. Creation, like sunlight, is inflationary—a gift produced in perpetuity, its process enabled when creators are granted the freedom of time and space, through ongoing support, to honor cycles of output and rest. Liberating time and space for individuals liberates creation for our collective world. At its heart, then, ecodao doesn’t exist simply to funnel financial support to the environment; it works to create a sustainable expansionary economy, an ecological economy, that should increasingly become our objective in caring for a commons that extends well beyond humans, to plants, animals, fungi, and all the illegible wonders of the dirt and sky.
*No, this essay is not an endorsement of Ezra Pound, nor of his abysmal politics.
**ecodao will be having a slow launch. Throughout the next month, we’ll be dropping a series of multimedia works by artist Lani Trock across multiple platforms as genesis pieces for ecodao (owners will have access to presales as well as a share of tokens if they’re holding at a given point before (if) ecodao decides to tokenize). Likewise, ecodao will be throwing its first party late-night on November 5th in New York for collectors of its first full exhibition of works by artist Wendi Yan. All drops will be announced 24 hours in advance on ecodao’s twitter.
Special thanks to Ria Bhutoria, Scott Moore, Brenda Sandoval Cuervo, Kinjal Shah, Lani Trock, Jasmine Wang, and Wendi Yan for their edits, comments, and support.