Protecting the environment on a global scale is a matter of trust. When many disparate parties come together for a like goal, particularly one that has very specific costs attached, each member is forced to rely on every other member keeping their commitments. No one wants to be the one honest country on a planet of cheaters because, well, that country is going to lose.
Trust in governance is the central premise behind a commentary published Monday in Nature arguing that effective environmental protection at the scale needed to protect civilization from climate change and other global woes may rely on a whole new model of collaboration inspired by blockchain technology, most commonly understood as the foundation of Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies. This model has come to be known as cryptogovernance.
"Governing institutions need to establish trust between individuals, groups, firms and societies," writes Guillaume Chapron, an ecologist at the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences. "If humans repeatedly fail to build trust, perhaps algorithms should replace them. The environmental crisis is growing partly because of a lack of trust—the increasing distance between multiple actors who are unknown to each other, from companies and governments to individual consumers, creates many opportunities for fraud and failed policies."
If the whole Bitcoin-governance connection is a bit murky, let's step back for a moment. The central technology of cryptocurrencies is called a blockchain. It's kind of just a way of guaranteeing that some digital document really existed. Said digital document undergoes a one-way version of hashing, wherein some piece of information is encrypted according to some algorithm. This hash is added to a public blockchain and everyone then knows that the original document did really exist, even though that cannot recover the document from the hash. Its existence is certified.
Chapron imagines "smart contracts" guaranteed by blockchain certificates. Here, governmental action is replaced by the strictures of computer code. It's rule by if-then statement: if some condition is met, then a response is automatically meted out. In the environmental context, we might imagine some smog sensor registered a sufficiently high reading to trigger escalating highway tolls. Rather than relying on human governance to enforce this, it just happens and we know that it was supposed to have happened because enough citizens certified the policy on the blockchain.
"The blockchain will disrupt all institutions, including governments," Chapron writes. "A public, shared and immutable register of assets and transactions can help the public to hold politicians accountable. Authorities cannot withdraw or forge evidence, nor seize or shut down blockchain-based institutions."
If you're still not totally making the connection between sustainability and cryptography, that's cool. This stuff can sometimes sound like techno-libertarian ipsum. I do think there is some value for governance in cryptographic trust systems, but direct democracy-by-blockchain is probably quite a few iterations away.