Animal, Vegetable, Capital

Animation of mouse drinking a cola in a market buys cheese by tapping its credit card
A Wild Pitch to Give Wild Animals Money

By Ingrid Burrington

Art By Anil Rinat

Recently, following some rounds of trial and error in search of a food that wouldn’t upset my dog’s unusually sensitive stomach, her veterinarian suggested a kibble made out of kangaroo meat. Apparently, this isn’t as niche as it sounds: A quick search shows that I have several choices for brands of kangaroo dog food (provided I don’t live in the state of California, which bans its import). 

While it feels strange to feed my dog the meat of an animal that could probably beat her up (and, for context, my dog weighs 80 pounds and could probably beat me up), as I read about the debate over kangaroo hunting, it’s the weirdness and wildness of kangaroos that produces my discomfort more than the ethics of it. Most kangaroo breeds aren’t endangered — if anything, some are considered pests. Government regulations around kangaroo hunting maintain pretty strict quotas. Aghast friends I’ve recounted this dilemma to can’t really articulate why it’s worse than the conventional factory farming behind most dog food options. 

If we follow the perspective of technologist and writer Jonathan Ledgard, the underlying problem of kangaroo dog food isn’t ethics but economics. The market for kangaroo meat offers more financial incentives than kangaroo conservation: In many cases, Ledgard observes, wild animals are literally worth more dead than alive. His solution to this? Give the animals money. 

There is mention of facial recognition for giraffes. 

Explaining this pitch in greater detail doesn’t completely fill the pause that such a galaxy-brain-sized take produces. Ledgard is the creator (promoter?) of Linnaeus, an apparently still-speculative proposal for an “interspecies money transfer service.” Citing a lack of money for conservation and the aforementioned market value of dead animals over live ones, Ledgard proposes allocating digital wallets (filled with cash he refers to as “Life marks,” like Deutsche marks) to wild animals so they can purchase conservation services and facilitate micro and macropayments between animals and humans. (Animal-to-animal transactions don’t really come up.) Allocation of Life marks would rely in part on a massive data collection project, creating comprehensive portraits of biodiversity worldwide using advanced technologies like satellites, drones, and machine learning. There is mention of facial recognition for giraffes. 

The absurdity of this almost-certainly vaporware product has consumed me since I first learned of it. Many questions remain unanswered. How would an animal articulate its desire for financial services? Do animals have to pay taxes on this “income”? What would happen to an animal’s money when it dies? For Ledgard, the stakes are too high to get caught up in specifics. According to the World Wildlife Fund, wild animal populations have decreased by 68 percent on average over the last 50 years. We are living through a mass extinction, and whether we like it or not, capitalism doesn’t appear to be headed toward extinction anytime soon. While the left wastes time squabbling over the correct way to seize the means, why not give wildlife greater agency within still-existing capitalism? 

At the moment, there is not much more to Linnaeus than a website and a series of takes and talks by Ledgard, a former Africa correspondent for The Economist and recently self-styled professional thought leader/futurist. (Ledgard did not respond to an interview request for this essay.) The project is apparently supported by Interspecies Internet, a “multidisciplinary global think-tank to encourage the acceleration of Interspecies Communication” funded by MIT, Google, and the Coller Foundation (the philanthropy project of Jeremy Coller, best known for pioneering the private equity secondaries market), but what that “support” entails is unclear. I’ve only been able to find one mention of a Linnaeus pilot project, in a 2018 press release announcing a new partnership between the Ethiopian government and engineering firm IOHK to develop blockchain technologies for supply chain and conservation services. The outcomes of that pilot, if it actually took place, apparently haven’t been released. 

While I initially took Linnaeus for the blithe gesture of neoliberal techno-solutionist frippery it most likely is, it haunts me. The pitch “What if we could send wild animals money?” packs the power of one of those mythical “touch of death” moves from old martial arts movies: It looks like the hero has merely tapped an opponent’s chest but in fact they’ve subtly manipulated crucial nerve points, paralyzing or sometimes spontaneously combusting the villain. Even as I laugh off “give the animals money,” I am undone by it. 

The market’s metaphorical wildness could be seen as a small way of reinforcing the notion that capitalism is as inevitable and natural as the wildlife it conquered and commoditized. 

Pop culture is full of animals indulging in capitalist excess (Scrooge McDuck in DuckTales), manipulating debtors into servitude (Tom Nook in Animal Crossing), and hustling in unforgiving industries (Remy in Ratatouille). Capitalism is also rhetorically rich in wildlife: Keynesian “animal spirits” enliven bull and bear markets; deals are made in shark tanks and with vulture firms. The market’s metaphorical wildness could be seen as a small way of reinforcing the notion that capitalism is as inevitable and natural as the wildlife it conquered and commoditized. 

The premise of making animals active participants in the market actually hits a much deeper meridian line of modernity than mere capitalism. It brings to the fore the entire project of categorizing life, human and otherwise, into binaries of “people” and “property,” a project going back to the Scientific Revolution and the Enlightenment. These two categories (and who/what falls into each one) have shaped capitalism, chattel slavery, settler colonialism, scientific racism, and the premise of nation-states as we live with them today. 

There is certainly precedent for giving nonhuman life the kind of agency typically afforded to people in law. Scholars and historians often cite Christopher Stone’s 1972 paper “Should Trees Have Standing?” as the foundational text for the concept known as “the rights of nature,” which affords nonhuman life legal standing to defend its right to exist (or really, to have a human lawyer defend its right to exist). In 2008, Ecuador ratified a new constitution that included a chapter recognizing the Rights of Nature; courts in Colombia, New Zealand, and Bangladesh have granted rights to national parks, mountains, and rivers. 

The rights of nature could be seen as a kind of legal hack to get around the people-property binary enforced by the state and the market: It doesn’t actually afford rivers the ability to do stuff so much as limit the ability of humans to impede on or interfere with the ecosystems of the river. It’s sometimes talked about in relation to Indigenous principles of building good relations with the natural world, but it feels like a kludgy settler-colonial approximation of that principle that keeps the state intact. If anything, there’s a bit of the missionary’s paternalism to it, considering that it’s always humans who declare and determine the parameters of nature’s personhood. 

Of course, the origins of industrial capitalism lie in humans declaring the parameters of personhood for other humans: Enslaved people weren’t people, they were property. That capacity to claim property (and declare who is or is not property) is one measure of personhood within capitalism. Expanding access to property and capital to more groups of people has been a longstanding project of civil rights movements. In the United States, women couldn’t easily  open a bank account or obtain a mortgage, business loan, or credit card on their own until the 1960s. The legacy of redlining is fundamentally one of financial discrimination, and the system of modern credit scoring was codified in the 1970s in part to address racist lending policies. Of course, credit score algorithms have ended up encoding persistent biases of their own. Today, fintech startups proffer alternative methods of evaluating credit scores with promises to raise up the disenfranchised; Linnaeus even extends its pitch as an opportunity for “the unbanked” in rural areas to get paid for conservation efforts supporting local wildlife.

Without dismissing the very good intentions and hard work of lawyers who speak for the trees or the generations of activists who fought for my right to accumulate credit card debt buying kangaroo dog food, expanding parameters of legal personhood and access to market participation are more harm reduction for living under capitalism than they are building an alternative to it. To be clear, capitalism has a lot of harms and reducing them is good, but these approaches can easily be subsumed into maintaining existing structures. 

Linnaeus arguably owes something to rights of nature legal battles, but it’s more focused on advancing those rights through market participation. Giving a giraffe cryptocurrency does not make that giraffe a legally recognized person, but it does in theory give the giraffe power. Except, again, it’s not really clear that the giraffe will personally exercise their newfound power or that some human third party or human-constructed artificial intelligence will do so on their behalf. Unless Ledgard’s just really optimistic about the future of interspecies communication — though there’s something sad and maybe a little gauche about the idea that we could learn how to talk to animals and the first complex concept under discussion is money

In an essay about Linnaeus for Wired, Ledgard acknowledged that “there will be criticism of Interspecies Money for the way it surveils nature. Some will argue, fiercely, that Life marks are crypto-colonial in design, serving only to ensnare nonhuman life in the very same human economy that has so damaged it.” But these, Ledgard claims, are “wishful” arguments. “Refusing nonhuman life the right to hold money is to deny what is possible in the regeneration of nature,” he writes, as though those who would prefer a world where agency and the value of life isn’t defined by the market are actively oppressing animals. Ledgard also argues that the world needs bold, imaginative ideas to respond to the vast, complex challenges ahead. I agree. But Linnaeus comes from a deeply cynical and small imaginary: one that cannot get past capitalism and that ignores some of the most beautiful lessons from plant and nonhuman animal life about cooperation and mutual aid. Let us not forget that beloved anarchist thinker Peter Kropotkin counted “zoologist” among his many intellectual pursuits. I’d like to believe Kropotkin would be as apoplectic as I was upon learning about Linnaeus, quoting his own Mutual Aid: A Factor of Evolution in horror. “Don’t compete! — competition is always injurious to the species, and you have plenty of resources to avoid it!” 

Then again, perhaps Kropotkin would be equally horrified by my kangaroo dog food story as a wild indulgence of capitalism (not to mention the carbon footprint of its shipping). In the end, my dog resolved the moral quandary herself: She hated the kangaroo and refused to eat it. I doubt that some deep-seated mammal-marsupial solidarity drove her decision, but as anyone who’s lived with an animal understands, they do often have their own complex, opaque motives. 

In The Companion Species Manifesto, Donna Haraway writes that in a companion species relationship “the major demand on the human is precisely what most of us don’t even know we don’t know how to do — to wit, how to see who the dogs are and hear what they are telling us, not in bloodless abstraction, but in one-on-one relationship, in otherness-in-connection.” Even taken as good-faith harm reduction, something is lost when the pursuit of otherness-in-connection gets flattened into transactional, financialized charity. I suspect that animals might have their own salient insights about preventing human destruction of their habitats, if we took the time to pay attention.                               

Ingrid Burrington is the author of Networks of New York: An Illustrated Field Guide to Urban Internet Infrastructure. She lives with her partner and her dog, who now prefers only one brand of vegan dog food.