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Nature Isn’t a “Vault” Full of Material Value. It Is a Treasure to Be Valued.

If companies have their way, the rights to entire ecosystems will be held exclusively by investors.

A & G Coal Corporation surface mining operations are seen in the Appalachian Mountains on April 16, 2012, in Wise County, Virginia.

On June 17, 2022, Creamer Media’s Mining Weekly published the article “Nature’s Vault offers investors a ‘green’ gold option” to little fanfare. Like so much of what passes for news from institutionalized sources reporting breathlessly about opportunities for wealth accumulation, it’s a story ostensibly about a “win-win” scenario for capital investment and environmentalists. The piece dangles the tempting prospect of making money from so-called “natural resources” while leaving them unharvested or unextracted, ensuring that the integrity of the ecosystems in which they are found remain unspoiled. But what’s really going on here?

The article describes Nature’s Vault Ltd. as an “environmental, social and governance finance company” which “aims to keep gold in the ground, thereby avoiding the carbon emissions and environmental impact of mining, while providing investors with stable, tradeable tokens representing what they dubbed ‘nature’s gold’ or environment-friendly gold.” It sounds like a dream come true. What could possibly go wrong?

Phil Rickard, Nature’s Vault’s CEO, says that the corporation buys up mining assets and “tokenizes” some of them, selling the tokens at private sales. The corporation, he claims, “verifiably commits not to exploit” the monetized assets, assigning quantifiable value based on “international mining and geological standards,” according to Mining Weekly. Moreover, “the company guarantees investors that they will retain their assets in perpetuity, based on the ownership of mining rights for the deposit” [emphasis added].

The polished rhetoric of Nature’s Vault suggests a commitment to addressing the climate crisis while expanding opportunities for profit through investment in a fully monetized world of untouched riches. One doesn’t need an advanced education in logic to sense something incoherent and irrational in their message.

The intended implication is that tokenizing gold and other commodities while they’re still in the ground is a “win-win” for environmentalists and investors in natural resources because the investment can still happen, while the continued integrity of nature is respected. But once the investments are made, property interests are created. It cannot be emphasized enough that investors “will retain their assets in perpetuity, based on the ownership of mining rights for the deposit.” The right to mine is a legal right to actually extract, not a virtual right. The law is nothing if not deferential to rights attached to property.

Wherever there are natural resources “in reserve,” whole ecosystems have been privatized — turned into legal property — and the rights to that property are held exclusively by the investors. And although the hype being amplified by Nature’s Vault is that the resources will remain untouched since they’d only be held in reserve and not extracted; the right to extract may, like the gold itself, be held in reserve, while remaining as palpably real as the assets in the ground. A “don’t touch!” sign on the cookie jar is thin reassurance the chocolate chips won’t disappear.

Attorney Terry Lodge, my colleague at the Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund, pointed out some prosaic advantages to be gained by investors in such a plan to hold natural resources in reserve. He wondered if tokenization isn’t a cynical ploy to devalue mineral-bearing land in order to acquire it more cheaply. “If tokenization became somewhat popular, pushing actual mining possibilities into the future, isn’t that going to cause a downward adjustment in gold futures? So, it might just be a market feint,” he told me.

He also wondered whether, by deferring the opening of a mine, Nature’s Vault is creating what he called a ploy aimed at state and local government tax agencies that could also have federal capital gains implications. “In other words, is the gold industry just manufacturing golden tax opportunities, even as it holds actual gold extraction (which is far and away the dirtiest form of mining) as a future option?” he said.

More and more of Earth is being transformed into property, with a minority of ultra-wealthy owners having monopolistic control of the world we inhabit. On the slimmest pretense of conservation, environmentalists could be persuaded to buy into this scam. If that happens, the opposite of emancipation of nature will have occurred. Private “management” of nature will be the rule of law, held in the hands of an elite few. Who will stop owners from doing what they will with their property? In this scenario, the majority of humanity will be dispossessed and alienated from the natural world — it having been fully transferred into private hands as property — and the owners will be legally able to begin extracting whenever it is expedient for their agenda.

We are derelict in exercising our vaunted capacity for reasoned thinking if we don’t ask what value monetization and tokenization of nature actually brings to the planet and to humanity. Even if we could believe that the token-valuated gold, timber, water, copper, lithium, and other resources would remain unharvested, and the ecosystems in which they are situated continue unmolested, why do it?

What is the point of monetizing those so-called natural assets, based on the ownership of mining rights, if the right to extract (mine) is never exercised? Is it really innocent, this virtual “mining” — and here I mean making Earth’s resources “Mine,” while not mining them? Never mind the ironic homonyms here. Even without extraction, the creation of property in the abstract form of monetized wealth is the whole and only point of minting and selling the “legacy tokens” by which Nature’s Vault will know its market. But let’s be very clear: There is no value to humanity and the Earth in an exponential increase in concentrated wealth based on the ownership of a privatized planet by an aristocracy of investors.

Even if Nature’s Vault is not a cynical Ponzi scheme for concentrating full ownership of the planet into a small number of bank accounts, or a tax-avoidance ploy for the in-crowd — and even if we can take CEO Rickard’s word that the company really cares about climate catastrophe and environmental decimation — the best we can conclude is that it’s the most naive of solutions, recognizing as we must the infantile instinct of capital investors to “mine” (make mine) the world, even if they don’t grab it in their hands and consume it on the spot.

It is a scheme that suggests we base human participation in the natural world on possession of rights attached to nature’s status as property, and that the advantages over fellow humans that arrangement gives to the owners of the natural world is in the best interests of nature, including the human species. That’s patently absurd.

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