Chase Webber, MJLST Staffer
This post focuses on two political questions reinvigorated by Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine: the energy crisis and the increasing popularity and potential for blockchain technology such as cryptocurrency (“crypto”). The two biggest debates regarding blockchain may be its extraordinarily high use of energy and the need for regulation. The emergency of the Ukraine invasion presents a unique opportunity for political, crypto, and energy issues to synergize – each with solutions and positive influence for the others.
This post will compare shortcomings in pursuits for environmentalism and decentralization. Next, explain how a recent executive order is an important turning point towards developing sufficient peer-to-peer technology for effective decentralization. Finally, suggest that a theoretical decentralized society may be more well-equipped to address the critical issues of global politics, economy, and energy use, and potentially others.
Relationship # 1: The Invasion and The Energy Crisis
Responding to the invasion, the U.S. and other countries have sanctioned Russia in ways that are devastating Russia’s economy, including by restricting the international sale of Russian oil. This has dramatic implications for the interconnected global economy. Russia is the second-largest oil exporter; cutting Russia out of the picture sends painful ripples across our global dependency on fossil fuel.
Without “beating a dead dinosaur” … the energy crisis, in a nutshell, is that (a) excessive fossil fuel consumption causes irreparable harm to the environment, and (b) our thirst for fossil fuel is unsustainable, our demand exceeds the supply and the supply’s ability to replenish, so we will eventually run out. Both issues suggest finding ways to lower energy consumption and implement alternative, sustainable sources of energy.
Experts suggest innovation for these ends is easier than deployment of solutions. In other words, we may be capable of fixing these problems, but, as a planet, we just don’t want it badly enough yet, notwithstanding some regulatory attempts to limit consumption or incentivize sustainability. If the irreparable harm reaches a sufficiently catastrophic level, or if the well finally runs dry, it will require – not merely suggest – a global reorganization via energy use and consumption.
The energy void created by removing Russian supply from the global economy may sufficiently mimic the well running dry. The well may not really be dry, but it would feel like it. This could provide sufficient incentive to implement that global energy reset, viz., planet-wide lifestyle changes for existing without fossil fuel reliance, for which conservationists have been begging for decades.
The invasion moves the clock forward on the (hopefully) inevitable deployment of green innovation that would naturally occur as soon as we can’t use fossil fuels even if we still want to.
Relationship # 2: The Invasion and Crypto
Crypto was surprisingly not useful for avoiding economic sanctions, although it was designed to resist government regulation and control (for better or for worse). Blockchain-based crypto transactions are supposedly “peer-to-peer,” requiring no government or private intermediaries. Other blockchain features include a permanent record of transactions and the possibility of pseudonymity. Once assets are in crypto form, they are safer than traditional currency – users can generally transfer them to each other, even internationally, without possibility of seizure, theft, taxation, or regulation.
(The New York Times’ Latecomer’s Guide to Crypto and the “Learn” tab on Coinbase.com are great resources for quickly building a basic understanding of this increasingly pervasive technology.)
However, crypto is weak where the blockchain realm meets the physical realm. While the blockchain itself is safe and secure from theft, a user’s “key” may be lost or stolen from her possession. Peer-to-peer transactions themselves lack intermediaries, but hosts are required for users to access and use blockchain technology. Crypto itself is not taxed or regulated, but exchanging digital assets – e.g., buying bitcoin with US dollars – are taxed as a property acquisition and regulated by the Security Exchange Commission (SEC). Smart contract agreements flounder where real-world verification, adjudication, or common-sense is needed.
This is bad news for sanctioned Russian oligarchs because they cannot get assets “into” or “out of” crypto without consequence. It is better news for Ukraine, where the borderless-ness and “trust” of crypto transaction eases international transmittal of relief assets and ensures legitimate receipt.
The prospect of crypto being used to circumvent U.S. sanctions brought crypto into the federal spotlight as a matter of national security. President Biden’s Executive Order (EO) 14067 of March 9, 2022 offers an important turning point for blockchain: when the US government began to direct innovation and government control. Previously, discussions of whether recognition and control of crypto would threaten innovation, or a failure to do so would weaken government influence, had become a stalemate in regulatory discussion. The EO seems to have taken advantage of the Ukraine invasion to side-step the stagnant congressional debates.
Many had recognized crypto’s potential, but most seemed to wait out the unregulated and mystical prospect of decentralized finance until it became less risky. Crypto is the modern equivalent of private-issued currencies, which were common during the Free Banking Era, before national banks were established at the end of the Civil War. They were notoriously unreliable. Only the SEC had been giving crypto plenty of attention, until (and especially) more recently, when the general public noticed how profitable bitcoin became despite its volatility.
EO 14067’s policy reasoning includes crypto user protection, stability of the financial system, national security (e.g., Russia’s potential for skirting sanctions), preventing crime enablement (viz., modern equivalents to The Silk Road dark web), global competition, and, generally, federal recognition and support for blockchain innovation. The president asked for research of blockchain technology from departments of Treasury, Defense, Commerce, Labor, Energy, Homeland Security, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB), Federal Trade Commission (FTC), SEC, Commodity Futures Trading Commission (CFTC), Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), and a handful of other federal agencies.
While promoting security and a general understanding of blockchain’s potential uses and feasibility, the order also proposes Central Bank Digital Currencies (CBDC). CBDCs are FedCoins – a stablecoin issued by the government instead of by private entities. Stablecoins (e.g., Tether) are a type of crypto whose value is backed by the US Dollar, whereas privately issued crypto (e.g., Bitcoin, Ether) are more volatile because their value is backed by practically nothing. So, unlike Tether, a privately issued stablecoin, CBDCs would be crypto issued and controlled by the U.S. Treasury.
Imagine CBDCs as a dollar bill made of blockchain technology instead of paper. A future “cash transaction” could feel more like using Venmo, but without the intermediary host, Venmo.
Relationship # 3: Crypto and Energy
Without getting into too many more details, blockchain technology, on which crypto is based, requires an enormous amount of energy-consuming computing power.
Blockchain is a decentralized “distributed ledger technology.” The permanent recordings of transactions are stored and verifiable at every “node” – the computer in front of you could be a node – instead of in a centralized database. In contrast, the post you are now reading is not decentralized; it is “located” in a UMN database somewhere, not in your computer’s hard drive. Even a shared Google Doc is in a Google database, not in each of the contributor’s computers. In a distributed system, if one node changes its version of the distributed ledger, some of the other nodes verify the change. If the change represents a valid transaction, the change is applied to all versions at each node, if not, the change is rejected, and the ledger remains intact.
These repeated verifications give blockchain its core features, but also require a significant amount of energy.
For most of the history of computers, computing innovation has focused primarily on function, especially increased speed. Computer processing power eventually became sufficiently fast that, in the last twenty-ish years, computing innovation began to focus on achieving the same speed using less energy and/or with more affordability. Automotive innovation experienced a similar shift on a different timeline.
Blockchain will likely undergo the same evolution. First, innovators will focus on function and standardization. Despite the popularity, this technology still lacks in these areas. Crypto assets have sometimes disappeared into thin air due to faulty coding or have been siphoned off by anonymous users who found loopholes in the software. Others, who became interested in crypto during November 2021, after hearing that Ether had increased in value by 989% that year and the crypto market was then worth over $3 trillion, may have been surprised when the value nearly halved by February.
Second, and it if it is a profitable investment – or incentivized by future regulations resulting from EO14067 – innovators will focus on reducing the processing power required for maintaining a distributed ledger.
Decentralization, and Other Fanciful Policies
Decentralization and green tech share the same fundamental problem. The ideas are compelling and revolutionary. However, their underlying philosophy does not yet match our underlying policy. In some ways, they are still too revolutionary because, in this author’s opinion, they will require either a complete change in infrastructure or significantly more creativity to be effective. Neither of these requirements are possible without sufficient policy incentive. Without the incentive, the ideas are innovative, but not yet truly disruptive.
Using Coinbase on an iPhone to execute a crypto transaction is to “decentralization” what driving a Tesla running on coal-sourced electricity is to “environmentalism.” They are merely trendy and well-intentioned. Tesla solves one problem – automotive transportation without gasoline – while creating another – a corresponding demand for electricity – because it relies on existing infrastructure. Similarly, crypto cannot survive without centralization. Nor should it, according to the SEC, who has been fighting to regulate privately issued crypto for years.
At first glance, EO 14067 seems to be the nail in the coffin for decentralization. Proponents designed crypto after the 2008 housing market crash specifically hoping to avoid federal involvement in transactions. Purists, especially during The Digital Revolution in the 90s, hoped peer-to-peer technology like blockchain (although it did not exist at that time) would eventually replace government institutions entirely – summarized in the term, “code is law.” This has marked the tension between crypto innovators and regulators, each finding the other uncooperative with its goals.
However, some, such as Kevin Werbach, a prominent blockchain scholar, suggest that peer-to-peer technology and traditional legal institutions need not be mutually exclusive. Each offers unique elements of “trust,” and each has its weaknesses. Naturally, the cooperation of novel technologies and existing legal and financial structures can mean mutual benefit. The SEC seems to share a similarly cooperative perspective, but distinguished, importantly, by the expectation that crypto will succumb to the existing financial infrastructure. Werbach praises EO 14067, Biden’s request that the “alphabet soup” of federal agencies investigate, regulate, and implement blockchain, as the awaited opportunity for government and innovation to join forces.
The EPA is one of the agencies engaged by the EO. Pushing for more energy efficient methods of implementing blockchain technology will be as essential as the other stated policies of national security, global competition, and user friendliness. If the well runs dry, as discussed above, blockchain use will stall, as long as blockchain requires huge amounts of energy. Alternatively, if energy efficiency can be attained preemptively, the result of ongoing blockchain innovation could play a unique role in addressing climate change and other political issues, viz., decentralization.
In her book, Smart Citizens, Smarter State: The Technologies of Expertise and the Future of Governing, Beth Simone Noveck suggests an innovative philosophy for future democracies could use peer-to-peer technology to gather wide-spread public expertise for addressing complex issues. We have outgrown the use of “government bureaucracies that are supposed to solve critical problems on their own”; by analogy, we are only using part of our available brainpower. More recently, Decentralization: Technology’s Impact on Organizational and Societal Structure, by local scholars Wulf Kaal and Craig Calcaterra, further suggests ways of deploying decentralization concepts.
Decentralized autonomous organizations (“DAOs”) are created with use of smart contracts, a blockchain-based technology, to implement more effectively democratic means of consensus and information sharing. However, DAOs are still precarious. Many of these have failed because of exploitation, hacks, fraud, sporadic participation, and, most importantly, lack of central leadership. Remember, central leadership is exactly what DAOs and other decentralized proposals seek to avoid. Ironically, in existing DAOs, without regulatory leadership, small, centralized groups of insiders tend to hold all the cards.
Some claim that federal regulation of DAOs could provide transparency and disclosure standards, authentication and background checks, and other means of structural support. The SEC blocked American CryptoFed, the first “legally sanctioned” DAO, in the state of Wyoming. Following the recent EO, the SEC’s position may shift.
To summarize: The invasion of Ukraine may provide the necessary incentive for actuating decentralized or environmentalist ideologies. EO 14067 initiates federal regulatory structure for crypto and researching blockchain implementation in the U.S. The result could facilitate eventual decentralized and energy-conscious systems which, in turn, could facilitate resolutions to grave impending climate change troubles. Furthermore, a new tool for gathering public consensus and expertise could shed new light on other political issues, foreign and domestic.
This sounds suspiciously like, “idea/product X will end climate change, all political disagreements, (solve world hunger?) and create global utopia,” and we all know better than to trust such assertions.
It does sound like it, but Noveck and Kaal & Calcaterra both say no, decentralization will not solve all our problems, nor does it seek to. Instead, decentralization offers to make us, as a coordinated society, significantly more efficient problem solvers. A decentralized organizational structure hopes to allow humans to react and adapt to situations more naturally, the way other living organisms adapt to changing environments. We will always have problems. Centralization, proponents argue, is no longer the best means of obtaining solutions.
In other words, one hopes that addressing critical issues in the future – like potential military conflict, economic concerns, and global warming – will not be exasperated or limited by the very structures with which we seek to devise and implement a resolution.