Even casual viewers of Fox News have seen commercials for companies like Goldline.com. You send them money. They send you gold. It’s a smart pitch to the network’s core daytime audience of people who worry that currency has no intrinsic value.
To be fair, inflation anxiety sells. Who among us hasn’t wondered what gives money its worth? At one time, every dollar in circulation represented a fragment of gold or silver stored in a federal vault. Today, the dollar is backed not by precious metals, but by the full faith and credit of the U.S. government. Whether our currency should derive its value from gold, silver or something more abstract is a question that has vexed capitalists of every stripe.
“It’s like a rabbit hole,” said Stan Stalnaker, an American entrepreneur. “You go down the idea of ‘What is money? What is currency?’”
In the age of BitCoin, the answer is squishy. Computer geeks, operating independently of any government, create digital currencies that are exchanged around the world. Stalnaker is one of them.
He invented a digital currency called Ven. It lives online. It can be shared across borders. And — here’s the kicker — it’s partly backed by carbon.
Don’t tell the folks at Goldline.com, but Stalnaker’s digital shekel might be the most stable currency on Earth.
A post-national currency
Stan Stalnaker has a gift for people, a knack for the kind of easy back-and-forth prized in barbers and politicians. Impeccably mannered and stylishly dressed, he would find himself the life of the party at a stranger’s wedding. Should you fall into his orbit near the open bar, prepare to shake hands with every man, woman, girl, boy and guide dog within shouting distance.
His magnum opus is, predictably, a global social network.
That network, Hub Culture, takes its name from the eponymous book by Stalnaker, which grew out of a column he wrote for Time and CNN.com. During a stint in Hong Kong, the author-turned-entrepreneur had a front-row seat to globalization. His response to the dizzying interconnectedness of humanity was to dive in.
Hub Culture was born, and with it, dozens of associated co-working spaces from Stockholm to Singapore. Members of the post-national social network needed a way to do business with each other, and the proliferation of currencies made transactions slow and expensive. In 2007, Stalnaker launched Ven, a digital currency that could be exchanged across borders with no fees.
A thing like Ven has tremendous utility, and not just for tech-savvy cosmopolitans. It is could also prove useful in developing countries where coin-and-paper currencies may be volatile and difficult to exchange. Last year, Stalnaker won a grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to bring his currency to the mobile phones of the global poor. By lubricating financial transactions, Ven could be to poverty what condoms and mosquito nets are to disease.
And this may have you wondering, what exactly is a digital currency?
A less creepy BitCoin
You have probably heard of BitCoin, the most famous and infamous of digital currencies. Like all digital currencies, it only exists electronically and incurs low transaction costs. BitCoin earns its value from its scarcity. New coins are digitally mined, unlocked by solving complex math problems. Its value is extremely volatile.
Stalnaker isn’t a hoodie-clad hacker, and his currency isn’t BitCoin. Ven is issued by a private central reserve unaffiliated with a government. It’s backed by a mix of currencies and commodities, including dollars, euros, gold, silver and wheat. A single Ven is worth around a dime.
Because Ven is asset-backed, it’s far more stable than BitCoin. A report from Arbor Research shows Ven to be more stable than traditional currencies, as well. Stalnaker was more emphatic.
“It is literally the most stable currency in the world, and it has been since 2009,” he said.
The key is diversification. Some assets will go up in value. Others will go down. Ven remains stable over time.
“It’s really a currency that’s designed for traders,” said Stalnaker. “And that’s almost antithetical to the financial trading markets, where everyone is looking for volatility so they can make money on the swings.”
“In 2014, we started trading on regulated exchanges. From there, the volume exploded. We did half a billion Ven in trading just in the first year,” he said. “These are certified financial institutions, or regulated entities who would hold Ven and trade it.”
For all its stability, Ven isn’t just a proxy for the value of dollars, euros and gold. In addition to those assets, Stalnaker’s currency is backed by another increasingly important commodity: carbon.
The first green currency
In a race toward global catastrophe, the Earth’s climate has been setting records faster than Katie Ledecky. 2014 was the hottest year on record, until 2015 supplanted it in the record books. After months of history-making heat, it is almost certain that 2016 will take the crown.
Experts say that if we want to keep the global thermostat at a tolerable level, we’ll have to do more than drive Teslas and install solar panels. We’ll have to scrub decades of accumulated carbon pollution from the skies. Techno-utopians envision planet-saving machines that would vacuum up surplus greenhouse gases, but early attempts are costly and impractical. So far, our best tool is a tree.
Trees scrub carbon from the skies and store it in their leaves and branches. They are what climate nerds call a carbon sink. Because trees soak up a quantifiable sum of pollution, forests produce what are known as carbon credits, tradable certificates representing averted carbon pollution.
What does this have to do with a carbon-based currency?
Every time Hub Culture issues more currency, it buys carbon credits, helping to protect a vital carbon sink from degradation and destruction. The company has helped protect 25,000 acres of Amazon rainforest. According to Stalnaker, it is the world’s first green currency. Carbon represents 7 percent of its value.
“We can point to forests and say, ‘This forest is helping to back this currency,’” said Stalnaker. “It creates an economic incentive for … holding and generating forests.”
This is a bright idea when it comes to the climate, but it’s also shrewd financial planning. As the Paris Climate Agreement enters into force, it will signal the beginning of the end of the fossil fuel era. World leaders are pushing through policies to put a price on carbon pollution. Depending on how these measures are structured, carbon credits will become more valuable, and so will Ven.
If carbon credits fail to appreciate, that won’t undo the currency. Carbon represents only a small portion of its total asset backing. Ideally, however, Ven would become more valuable over time. More people would use the currency, preserving more acres of carbon-trapping forests.
“If you scale Ven, you are scaling an economic value for natural preservation,” said Stalnaker. “That’s why I love it. That’s why I’m passionate about what we do.”
Asked what he envisioned for the future of Ven, Stalnaker answered in one word: “Ubiquity.”
A Ven in every wallet
Ven didn’t start off as a green currency. In its early days, it was partly backed by oil. Then Stalnaker found religion. In support of the fossil fuel divestment movement, he replaced oil with steel. Carbon credits made Ven that much greener. Soon, the currency was less a tool of exchange than an expression of his values.
Stalnaker’s next aim—a Ven in every wallet — will take some work. Currently, only Hub Culture members can use Ven, and membership is by invitation only. The currency operates in a closed system, rendering it impervious to any number of rules and regulations. If he wants to ramp up circulation, he will, at some point or another, have to enter the regulatory thicket.
Don’t expect this to slow him down. Stalnaker is an unrepentant dreamer. He talks about “self-actualization” and “self-transformation” with the casual fluency of a self-help evangelist. But he is also the rare entrepreneur who can turn buzz words into business. His digital currency speaks to his highest ideals.
“I went to Antarctica in 2005, and I saw the firsthand effects of climate change — literally everything melting,” said Stalnaker. “I have traveled all over the world and seen so much environmental destruction.”
Human history is punctuated by stories of societies cut down by environmental catastrophe. Climate change threatens to extend the list of casualties. We have every incentive to plunder the earth of its limited resources —hoarding fish from our oceans, coal from our mountains, wood from our forests — and we have frighteningly little incentive to do otherwise.
“Right now, our society is not geared to protect resources,” said Stalnaker. “There have to be financial mechanisms in place that guide us towards resource generation or resource protection.”
Ven is an attempt to turn living forests into a valuable commodity; build their value into a universal currency. Every exchange, every transaction would be an expression of our aspirations to build a safer, more verdant world.
“I don’t think it’s worthwhile to do things just for sake of doing them or especially just to make money,” said Stalnaker. “I think you have to have something more meaningful in mind.”