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Leonardo Dellanoce

Terraforming via the digital twin of everything

He had been the original claimant of Obania, forty years ago; and Drake was the young spatial engineer he employed to terraform the little rock, only two kilometers through—by sinking a shaft to its heart for the paragravity installation, generating oxygen and water from mineral oxides, releasing absorptive gases to trap the feeble heat of the far-off Sun.5
Jack Williamson, Collision Orbit

Terraforming is a term which comes from science fiction, specifically from Collision Orbit by Williamson, that came to be relevant to understand human’s ecological, economical and legal approach in contemporary society. The word means ‘to make an alien environment Earth-like’ and it has been used mostly to indicate plans to transform other planets into liveable environments for humankind (starting with Mars), but also to define extreme geoengineering practices, like reclaiming ground from the sea, that enormously impact terrestrial ecosystems.

Therefore, the term implies colonization, exploitation and manipulation that undergirds specific political imaginations, often leading to violent outcomes. In fact, terraforming does take into account animals and plants as far as the latter are beneficial to human existence, according to human-centred hierarchies.

Terraforming is not only a term to define a radical process of geoengineering, but it is to an extent a speculative tool to imagine the possibility of making an environment Earth-like. The discussion around Mars especially, is an example of it: To human has put foot on the red planet ground, yet debates on terraforming it have been already held at NASA.

As a tool for speculation, terraforming is a cognitive instrument to think certain political imaginations of colonization, financialization and extraction.
In this light, terraforming is a strongly anthropocentric imaginative tool that engenders and justifies techno-political solutions.
But in the frame of a 21st century society of users (human and not), can terraforming be hijacked and flipped on its head to open the possibility of a non-anthropocentric society? In other words, can we depart from technical tools for geoengineering to imagine and make into being a society for animals, plants and machines too?

This question cannot be answered fully in the scope of this text, but a few examples can be looked at where the law is the primary framework and tool for an alternative form of geoengineering. Both examples do not shy away from a techno-scientific understanding of reality but rather embrace it to come to effective solutions.

The first example is the rather well-known court case of the Whanganui river in New Zealand. After 140 years of litigation and negotiation, the Whanganui river, that is sacred to the Maori groups living the region, has been granted the status of legal person in 2017.6 This decision is a first of its kind in which a river acquires rights and duties of a legal person. The event is of historical relevance for many reasons, among which two stand out: one relates to personhood, the second one to world making. The former validates for the first time that a river is granted legal status not only as a unit, the Whanganui river, but also as an ecosystem. In fact, the entirety of complex relations of dependencies among beings and not, endemic to the river, are now represented in court as one legal person.

The latter represents a point of encounter between the Maori cosmology, for whom the river is an ancestor of the Iwi group, and law making coming from the Anglo-Saxon legal tradition. The chief negotiator Gerrard Albert remarked that legal personhood was the closest lawful status to the Maori understanding of the river that could be successfully claimed and implemented.

This success is not without shortcomings as law is inherently anthropocentric and, in this case also Anglo-Saxon, thus more questions are raised than answered. However, it is an interesting attempt to terraforming by way of law for the interests of humans and non-humans alike.

The Whanganui river. Image courtesy of James Shook.

Even though this court case has raised attention for its uniqueness, it is important to notice that is not uncommon to grant legal personhood to non-humans like in the case of corporations. The extent to which corporations are safeguarded as legal people went all the way to grant them even religious beliefs.7 In the US, the Supreme court ruled against the right of women employees to use their corporate insurance for abortion as that would go against the religious rights of the corporation they worked for. It is clear that, in practice, economic relevance goes hand-in-hand with legal recognition and rights, thus determining a bigger or smaller role in society.

For this reason, other projects explored the possibility to grant economic agency and independency to natural formations, which by definition implies a legal status too to operate in the market. Among those there is terra0, a speculative project initiated by Max Hampshire, Paul Kolling and Paul Seidler, to augmented ecosystems through the Ethereum blockchain8. terra0’s aim is to create a techno-legal structure that would give to ecosystems the capacity to self-manage themselves economically. In order to achieve that, a forest, for instance, would be overlayed by a DAO structure that manages its own assets. A DAO is a distributed autonomous organization of smart contracts running on the blockchain. Smart contracts are pieces of self-executing software able to hold crypto-tokens and interact with other web applications and among themselves based on the occurence of certain events. In other words, the forest would be able to sell its assets (portions of land for instance) to investors during the first stage and consequently issue its own crypto-tokens to buy them back. Although this sounds not only speculative, but also sci-fi like, the technical means to implement it are already present and the project has already gone through the proof of concept stage. As Hampshire put it “It is terraforming via the digital twin of everything”.9

Physical representation of the smart contracts part of the terra0’s DAO. Image courtesy of the terra0’s team.
The Whanganui’s case and the terra0 project are embryonic efforts to open the possibility of integrating natural formations in the current techno-political system of beliefs and rules. Although both projects ultimately push forward a preservative approach towards those ecosystems, namely using legal-economic tools to protect them from exploitation and destruction, which is far less radical than what it might seem at first glance, both initiatives depart from the tools at hand to imagine new political possibilities. In one case, the Whanganui river is reduced in importance from a god-like ancestor in Maori’s cosmology into a legal person for its own good; in the other one, the possibility to datafy a forest turns out to be a convincing strategy to help it perform within human systems in an economically viable way. It is difficult to say whether this approach will have a future, but it surely points to a new type of terraforming, where geoengineering becomes a protective tool not only for humans. In an economy run by algorithmic agents and corporations, natural formations are finding a sustainable role through old (law) and new (blockchain) technologies. The political imaginations that go with it are now ready to be explored, ranging from human-centric scenarios (terraforming) to non-human landscapes (like a self-sustaining, non-human, computational economy of algorithms, DAOs and corporations) and everything in between..

This piece is based on the discussion that happened at Het Nieuwe Instituut in Rotterdam during the first Terraforming Earth Lab, initiated by Klaas Kuitenbrouwer among others.

[5] J. Williamson, Collision Orbit, in Astounding Science Fiction, July issue, 1942. [6] https://www.theguardian.com/world/2017/mar/16/new-zealand-river-granted-same-legal-rights-as-human-being 
[7] http://knowledge.wharton.upenn.edu/article/after-hobby-lobby-is-there-a-limit-to-corporate-religious-freedom/
[8] https://terra0.org
[9] M. Hampshire, Informality in Times of Blockchain, in The End of Informality, Volume #52, 2017, Amsterdam.

published by Gluqbar Editions