Merit Valdsalu is the CEO & Co-Founder of Single.Earth. In October 2021, she shared what she and team Single.Earth have been working on for the past two years on the TEDxTallinn stage. Hear her out and find out what’s the driving force behind the revolution to save the natural world.
Read the full speech below
It was the year 1989 in Soviet Estonia, two years before the collapse of the Soviet Union, right in the middle of the Singing Revolution that I was born into this world. I grew up with the stories of how my family was a part of this amazingly brave and beautiful time that led to the restoration of independence of our home country. I’d always get chills listening to these stories and I still tear up every time I think of these events.
Later on in my life, as a kid in free Estonia, I’d participate in song festivals - even though I’m a lousy singer - to try to experience the same feeling of being a true Estonian. I’d ask my mom if these song festivals were anything like the night song festivals during the Singing Revolution - and she’d always say that it’s similar, but not the same.
And I have always had the feeling that I missed out on something big. I would never experience the feeling of standing up for what you believe in together with the whole nation, side by side.
My father was in the Baltic Way, the human chain of a million people that ran across Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. The people there were potentially risking their lives for our freedom - for something bigger than themselves. And I was a three-month old baby, doing pretty much nothing. I grew up feeling extremely grateful to the generation who fought for our freedom - but always wishing I had been part of this revolution and envying my parents for being there.
Little did I know that the revolution of my lifetime is yet to come. This time it’s not about countries or nations, but the entire humankind. And it’s not about freedom, but survival. And we’re not fighting against an external intruder, we’re fighting against ourselves.
The threat of collapsing the natural ecosystem around us is real. The ecosystem that provides us with the air we breathe, the food we eat, the water we drink - everything that is keeping us alive is at risk. Because we - humans - are destroying it every single day.
In just 40 years - a little more than my lifetime -, a forest area the size of Europe has been lost forever. If we continue at today’s pace, all of the world’s rainforests will be wiped off of this planet completely and irreversibly in less than 80 years - in one human generation. The children born today are quite likely to see that day - if the ecosystem as a whole has not collapsed by the time.
My children were already born into a world with 30% less wildlife than in the year I was born, and almost 70% less than when my parents were born.
This causes a phenomenon known as the shifting baseline syndrome. The less biodiversity we’re used to having around us, the lower our nature protection goals become. We don’t set the baseline based on what was normal for our parents or grandparents, we set our baseline, our expectations, based on the little that we have known.
Biodiversity loss and climate change are two of the biggest risks to our life on this planet. If the temperature becomes too hot, or if we lose the bees that pollinate our crops, the planet becomes inhabitable for humans and we die.
The bad news is that we ourselves are destroying the ecosystem that is keeping us alive - by emitting greenhouse gases into the atmosphere and with intensive land use - cutting down forests, destroying wetlands, degrading croplands. The good news is that if we’re to blame for all of this, we can fix it as well.
And I know how.
The first part of the solution is that we need to start valuing and monetizing nature for more than just raw material. Today, the only way for a landowner to earn money from their natural resources is by selling raw materials - cutting down forests for timber, or digging up wetlands for peat. Landowners don’t really have any other financially feasible alternatives. So, if we pay the landowners only for destroying nature, then destruction is what we get.
But nature is so much more than raw materials. However, we’re not used to paying for any of the ecosystem services that we consume every single day - including air, water, and food.
And now you might think that “wait a minute, I do pay for water and food.” But what you’re paying for is the extraction of these resources, not the maintenance of these ecosystem services. We don’t pay wetland owners for keeping the water cycles functioning on this planet nor do we pay forest and grassland owners for protecting the habitats of bees and other pollinators who enable farmers to grow us food in the first place.
So, the first part of the solution is paying landowners for protecting and maintaining the ecosystem that makes this planet habitable for us humans.
The second part of the solution is shifting how we create financial value for everything around us. Today, the financial value of products or services mostly reflects the costs of destroying something - you compensate for the raw material and human power that went into producing something.
So, when you buy a plane ticket you compensate for the costs of digging out the fossil fuels to fly from one country to another. The big problem is that there’s more and more money in the world to be used to compensate for destruction. Since money was detached from gold in the 1930s, there’s basically no limit to how much money we can have in this world.
But nature is limited. We will never have more of it on this planet than what is physically possible.
With an ever-increasing amount of money that is used for destruction, we’ve built ourselves an economic system that will eventually end with a huge amount of money and no nature. This would mean the end of us, humans, as well.
So, the second part of the solution is turning the economy upside down. We need to shift from a world that is based on economic growth, to a world where the economy is built on how much nature can provide us with.
So how do we do that?
Imagine a world where the amount of money that we have is directly connected to the amount of intact nature on this planet. The more nature we have, the richer we are. The more of it we destroy, the less wealthier we become.
How does that sound for an incentive for humans to start protecting nature?
I have spent two years on building this new financial system at Single.Earth. To enable it we are creating a digital twin of the world’s nature - everything that nature does in the physical world, we represent in the digital world. We use satellite data, big data analysis, and machine learning to build global carbon, biodiversity, and other ecosystem services models that show how nature works.
Although we have thousands of satellites orbiting around Earth, nobody has described what nature does on this scale ever before.
Based on these open source and fully decentralized models, we start emitting tokens for CO2 captured in biodiverse nature in real time. By packaging ecosystem services around a common unit like carbon sequestration, we can tackle climate and biodiversity goals together.
Landowners continue to receive these tokens for as long as they keep their forest or any other natural resource intact. As these tokens become tradable and usable as a new currency, landowners receive a huge incentive to protect nature to continue minting money.
The money itself can be used in exchange for any goods or services like any other currency - except for the fact that the value of eve rything purchased with this money is now attached to the protection of nature, and not the destruction of it.
So who is responsible for shifting to this new financial system? The governments? Businesses? Or people like us?
As much as I want to believe in the willingness of governments and businesses to take action, then knowing that they are at the same time, continuing oil exploration and investing huge amounts of money into developing the fossil fuel industry, I find it hard to place all my bets on them.
That leaves it on us. Me, you - every single person has the power to make this shift towards a new nature-backed economy. We are the economy.