A group of smartly dressed executives stands on a viewing platform, looking out over a verdant forest teeming with wildlife. A waiter glides among the party topping up glasses of champagne, while another offers elaborate canapés. A man steps forward and claps his hands.
“Ladies and gentlemen, as Chief Executive of Conservation plc, may I welcome you to this exclusive viewing of the wonderful place that we call PristinePark2.0™. You have been carefully chosen to have the first opportunity to visit this paradise, and to purchase a stake in it. But first, let me tell you our story.
As you all know, development is a necessary step to improve the wellbeing of mankind, but it comes with some unavoidable downsides. For decades now these have been mitigated using sophisticated restoration and offsetting strategies. We are all rightly proud of their success! However, as time has gone on, suitable sites for offsetting have become increasingly difficult to come by, and unfortunate recent legislation has taken away our innovative TripleCounting™ mechanism for using one site to offset multiple developments. As a result, we have had to change our thinking. What, we have asked ourselves, is an offset? At heart, we have realised, it is a fantasy – a representation of nature in some other place that can never truly match the original. It is fundamentally flawed.
PristinePark2.0™ changes all that. It is a completely new form of offset, in which the offset site is the development site! It is identical in every way! It carries on for eternity, undamaged by the ravages of industry, playing out the wonders of ecology and evolving new life forms! It is as if the development never happened!
You are wondering how this can be possible. How can a site be both damaged, and preserved? The answer, ladies and gentlemen, is virtual reality. Prior to the beginning of development activities, our team undertake the most sophisticated analysis of a site ever attempted, recording every contour, every species, every food web. We scan every organism to record its DNA, and sample rocks and soil to uncover climatic conditions and environmental history. All of this variety is reproduced, precisely, in our virtual PristinePark2.0™. Nothing is lost! Everything remains! And what is more – it is not simply a snapshot in time. No! Using our Madingley10 algorithm, the ecological relationships from the site continue to play out in PristinePark2.0™, with fluctuations in populations over time, and even the possibility of entirely new species emerging. Truly, this is what our forefathers would have meant by Net Positive Impact if they only knew what was possible today!
When you purchase a PristinePark2.0™ product, you gain not only an offset that enables you to carry out your development work. You also gain tickets to this paradise for you and up to ten of your friends and colleagues. All you need is a suitable VR headset and an access code, and you can visit your site at any time, wherever you happen to be in the world! Your site will remain completely private and untouched by any other human, unless (for an additional cost) you want to open it up for ecotourism, or for visits by displaced residents (we find the latter a useful offer when negotiating access to sites with stubborn locals).
Ladies and gentlemen, our planet is suffering. Development must happen, but damage to life on Earth is unavoidable. Something must be done. By purchasing PristinePark2.0™ you can create life off Earth, solving these problems and giving our wonderful biodiversity the chance to thrive forever!”
The man stops speaking and beams at the audience, which looks on in stunned silence. Then, one or two begin to clap, building slowly into a thunderous round of applause from the whole group. A man shouts bravo! Another slaps his neighbour on the back, spilling his champagne. Waiters rush to top up empty glasses.
One woman, who is not clapping, raises her hand.
“This is all, very…. innovative. But how can virtual reality possibly offset damage to the real world? VR has come a long way, but it’s still just imaginary, isn’t it?”
The host beams with pleasure and gives a small hop of delight.
“Madam! I am so glad you have asked this excellent question! To answer it I must ask you to open your mind, and question the very meaning of what is real, as you put it. We here at PristinePark2.0™ are students of philosophy. We believe that there is no such thing as objective reality. Rather, reality is in the eye of the beholder. There is the actual world, in which development takes place, and there is the virtual world, in which we stand today. Both are equally real, in that they can be experienced as real by us, and indeed, by the wildlife living within PristinePark2.0™. In fact, some have suggested that our so called ‘real’ world is in fact a computer simulation!
Nature has existed in virtual worlds for longer than you might think. The famous Professor Buscher showed us that Nature2.0 is in fact co-constructed by events in actual and online worlds. PristinePark2.0™ is a natural extension of this logic. As the historian Bill Cronon demonstrated in the last century, there is no such thing as true wilderness on Earth. On a planet where humans have damaged every blade of grass, every mountaintop, every deep sea bed, wilderness exists only as a figment of the imagination. But not in PristinePark2.0™! Here, there is truly no impact of people. You can forget the Anthropocene, and create a true wilderness! In this sense, we see PristinePark2.0™ as doing a favour to wildlife – freeing it from the choking pressure of humans, to live the life nature intended in a protected virtual world. In fact, I find it quite moving.”
The man takes a handkerchief from his pocket and dabs a tear from his eye, before asking if there are any further questions. A man raises his hand.
“You say this place is protected, but we all know that virtual worlds are full of hackers and invasive species. How can you be so sure that our offsets will be safe from harm?”
“Ah yes sir. This is another excellent question. And I must admit, we did have a nasty experience in an early prototype with an outbreak of invasive Pokémon. But now we are confident that our site is completely impregnable. We use an approach we have called ‘firewalls and fines’. The great majority of attackers are kept out by our world-leading firewall, which surrounds the whole site. Any who make it through are subjected to punitive fines, charged to their bitcoin accounts. Our sites are monitored constantly using drones and other technology, and for high value species, we have developed WeaponisedWildlife™ with enhanced defensive features such as electric antlers and horn cannons. You can be sure that your investments are safe with us.”
The man turns to look out over the jungle below.
“Ladies and gentlemen, there is one final point, which we consider the pièce de résistance. Because PristinePark2.0™ creates a true, undamaged replica of your development site, there is no need to do any restoration work after you have finished extraction, because no damage has been done. You can pack up your machines and walk away, safe in the knowledge that nature is unharmed. It is elegant, clean and beautiful – our proudest achievement.”
The man continues to gaze out over the scene below, while behind him the group clusters around a young woman holding an iPad. Several of them are waving holographic chequebooks.
With thanks to Bill Adams for allowing me to draw on some of the ideas in his Conservation PLC article published in Oryx (2010)