I am so mad I had to write this, the world’s most self-evident take: but here is the article you can send to people when they say “but the environmental issues with cryptoart will be solved soon, right?”
I suppose, first, if you haven’t seen those “environmental issues”, and aren’t exactly sure what cryptoart is;
Cryptoart is a piece of metadata (including, generally- an image or link to an image/file, the creator of that file, datestamps, associated contracts or text, and the purchaser of the piece) which is attached to a “token” (which has monetary value on a marketplace) and stored in a blockchain.
An individual piece of cryptoart is called an NFT. You can think of each NFT as a trading card or a collectible with an individual value that is also affected by the general market value of NFTs as a concept, the Ethereum network and cryptocurrency in general. Like beanie babies without the beans.
Cryptoart is bought and sold with- and has its value calculated in- Ethereum, a 6-year-old cryptocurrency that was (at the time of writing, 2 pm March 2nd 2021) trading at 1 ETH = $1476.21 USD.
Several artists have written about the specific environmental costs associated with cryptoart. Numbers vary, but minting artwork on the blockchain uses somewhere between weeks, months, years, (and in rare instances decades) of an average EU or US citizen’s energy consumption. (You can see the energy usage and emissions of individual NFTs at cryptoart.wtf.)
During unprecedented temperature increases, sea level rise, the total loss of permanent sea ice, widespread species extinction, countless severe weather events, and all the other hallmarks of total climate collapse, this kind of gleeful wastefulness is, and I am not being hyperbolic, a crime against humanity.
There really isn’t much contention on ‘powering an art market with incredible amounts of burned energy’ being a bad thing, although accounts differ to what extent NFTs are directly contributing to the problem.
A recent article by NFT marketplace Superrare, who may have, uh, some skin in the game would like to remind you that Ethereum’s carbon emissions are tied to price NOT volume. To borrow a metaphor from their article- you can think of the Ethereum network as a train, which will run whether or not the seats (NFTs) are filled. They would like to gloss over the next bit of the metaphor, which is that seats on trains are more expensive when trains are full, which in the case of Ethereum makes the whole network emit more carbon.
But regardless of the general feeling that “okay yes there are some bad bits”, if someone has sent you this essay, it might be because you have asked a question like the following;
- But we can fix the environmental problems with cryptoart, right?
- If the other parts of cryptoart are useful then is it worth stopping just because of energy cost?
- Is cryptoart any worse for the environment than art fairs and physical goods?
- Can we use offsets and green energy to power the cryptoart market instead?
- Isn’t empowering individual artists to sell their work a good thing?
Or another, similar, what-if. Here’s why those questions are the wrong ones to be asking. But first;
Why does cryptoart waste so much energy?
There is nothing specific about the energy cost of cryptoart that isn’t true for anything else that can be “minted” on the Ethereum blockchain, or that is bought and sold with a currency that is dependent on burning energy.
Why is this? This is because major cryptocurrencies- most notably Bitcoin and Ethereum (which is what NFTs are traded with)- use a protocol to determine their value called “proof of work”.
Proof of work, in essence, is a way to confirm that computational effort has been expended by “the prover” (the system doing a task). The idea was originally conceived in 1993 as a way to disincentivize things like spam or bots. Proof of work was supposed to be unnoticeable by normal human users, but would make things like the thousands of requests needed for a denial-of-service attack hard to run. It is like a little puzzle for your computer.
Fast forward to 2009, which saw proof of work (along with another technology called the blockchain, a kind of public ledger) used for a very different purpose; making the digital currency Bitcoin. This is a simplified explanation, but to make a bitcoin, Bitcoin “miners” task their specialized computers to solve those proof of work puzzles, competing with one another to validate blocks on the blockchain. A successful solution- which is somewhat rare- rewards the miner with the new coin. The more a computer “works” (the more energy is expended) the more competitive it is. You can think of it as a lottery, with every kilowatt-hour a ticket. This process is called mining.
This started innocuously enough- mining in 2009 was a background process that could run on a laptop as it idled. However, the difficultly of mining blocks in the blockchain is designed to increase over time. This is because as the network grows, the relative rate of new coins mined stays stable (for Bitcoin, about 1 block is mined every 10 minutes).
To solve the problem of more computers mining, the proof of work puzzles get harder. Miners get more computers, better GPUs. The puzzles get harder. Miners move to places with cheap electricity. The puzzles get harder. Miners retrofit warehouses, air-condition shipping containers. The puzzles get harder. Monumentally harder.
After a decade+ of a growing cryptocurrency market, what we’ve been left with is a financial network that uses more energy than Argentina, with no regulatory structure or federal oversight whatsoever.
This is not a new problem; the ecological devastation rendered by an out of control proof of work system has been written about for almost as long as cryptocurrency has been around.
And lest you think we are dealing in long-term abstractions- this devastation has tangible, externalized cost; a recent study out of the University of New Mexico estimated that in 2018 every $1 of Bitcoin value was responsible for $0.49 in health and climate damages in the US, costs that are borne by those who will, for the most part, never see any return from cryptocurrency mining whatsoever.
How does cryptocurrency generate value, and why is this a problem?
The prices of cryptocurrencies have risen dramatically in the 12~ years of their existence. Bitcoin’s value in particular has increased monumentally; $100 worth of Bitcoin in 2009 would be $488,100,000 now. This kind of meteoric rise in value is not universally true of every cryptocurrency (there are thousands of cryptocurrencies, which fluctuate like any currency) but this has been the general trend. Ethereum, which is what cryptoart is traded on, has increased 354086% since launch.
There are a lot of reasons you could point to to explain this value growth, including general adoption, the anonymity cryptocurrency allows in illegal purchases, and a robust scene of scammers manipulating prices for quick returns. But there is also a very simple and obvious reason, and this is that it is wasteful. It requires value (the price of electricity) to be wasted in order to be made, and inherits all of that value in the making.
Proof of work places a direct lien against the future.
A cryptocurrency’s energy cost is tied to its current price. This is because cryptocurrencies are designed to incentivize miners- if they were not tied together, the potential value return of a making a bitcoin could fall below the price of electricity required to make it.
Because of this, Bitcoin’s continued financial return depends on coins being harder to make in the future. The people who invest in cryptocurrencies- like any kind of futures speculation- are betting that it will be better to be holding this resource tomorrow than making it.
While I don’t believe that we have to live under physical scarcity, through a combination of bad economic policies and incredible wealth inequality, we do. No one who has watched the price of food staples go up in a crisis has to imagine how scarcity can affect the market.
However, in a digital context scarcity must be constructed- there is nothing that demands the next block in the blockchain be harder to make than the last. If anything, the opposite should be true- computers grow ever more efficient and powerful. This means any scarcity is artificial, a process that demands ever more energy, ever more resources lost to continue to operate and return, for no other reason than to insure that tomorrow it will be even more expensive- which makes the wastefulness of today a good investment.
This is why cryptocurrency is valuable. There is nothing high-tech about it. There is no miracle. It is simply futures speculation without the speculation- no guessing required, because we know it will be more wasteful tomorrow; it is baked into the tech.
All that cryptocurrency does is abstract resources into a market by making those resources unavailable to the future.
Aren’t there alternatives to Proof of work?
Proof of work is not the only schema around. The biggest alternative is proof of stake (PoS), and it is never very long into any argument around the ecological cost of cryptocurrencies that proof of stake is brought up.
While proof of work coins demand solving increasingly energy-intensive puzzles to enter the lottery of who gets to mint the next coin, proof of stake coins take a different approach; entries into a PoS lottery are doled out by “held stake” in a system, generally by coins currently in an individual wallet.
On paper- well, there it is, ecological problem solved!
However, PoS currencies operate within the same conceptual framework as PoW currencies, and despite a number of PoS coins that do function, a pretty standard use case for PoS has been for PoW to point at and say “we’ll be there soon”.
Ethereum “has been moving” to proof of stake for almost as long as it has existed. It has been so long that “Eth 2.0 PoS Coming Soon!” is something of a running joke. In all that time, any time the ecological cost of PoW is brought up, PoS is touted as the redemption just over the hill- if we can just hang on another few months, the whole network will be green.
Meanwhile, the Ethereum networks’s annual energy consumption is hovering around 24.43 TWh — roughly equivalent to the entire country of Ecuador. Even if Ethereum does manage to make the switch someday;
Proof of stake is, and always has been, valuable as a bait and switch, but there are other, obvious problems with PoS (and various other proofs), which are that to more or less degrees they don’t address any of the problems with access to cryptocurrency relying on existing wealth.
- Proof of stake coins use a variety of mechanisms to determine “lottery ticket” allocation, but it essentially boils down to: 1 coin in your wallet, one lottery ticket.
- Proof of capacity gives you a lottery ticket per available hard drive segment.
- Proof of assignment gives you a lottery ticket per smart device / internet of things consumer electronics good you own.
- Proof of donation gives you a lottery ticket per donation to a charitable organization.
I’m sure you’re seeing the problem here- there is not a schema that doesn’t reward those who already are already wealthy, who are already bought in, who already have excess capital or access to outsized computational power. Almost universally they grant power to the already powerful.
This is also a climate issue.
Climate justice is social justice. This is true in that the worst impacts of climate collapse are felt by those with no means to avoid them, while those with resources easily fuck on off to somewhere where they don’t have to see it.
But climate justice must mean giving leadership and power to those who will bear the worst effects of climate catastrophe, including the very young, those living in the global south, those living rurally in coastal areas or farming regions, those living in poverty, those in marginalized communities, and particularly to indigenous communities who have actual experience in managing complex local ecosystems for generations without creating spiraling, resource-extractative devastation.
Building ~sustainable~ models to monetize and market unregulated capital gain just isn’t it. Cryptocurrency is never going to be ecologically just.
Part of the reason this is true is that cryptocurriencies are pyramid schemes. In a cryptocurrency marketplace, you make money on the people who have entered the market after you. This is not me on my socialist shit (which, don’t worry, I’ll get to later) but is rather just the fact of how they are constructed. Unlike a Ponzi scheme, there is no guarantee that it will all collapse someday- but the value continuing to rise absolutely depends on ever more users joining the network, using coins, and competing to mine them.
Because PoW coins ask the investors of tomorrow to buy in at ever increasing computational power, we have ended up in a horrific spiraling excess of energy usage and ecological devastation. But the exact same system with the outsized computational power removed is still one that rewards early adopters and those with existing wealth, all on the backs of people convinced that if they join today, maybe they too will get rich.
They may be less of an ecological disaster, but non- proof of work cryptocurrencies are still a pyramid scheme that push financial scarcity onto the vulnerable.
Okay, now cryptoart.
I spent the first half of this essay focused on cryptocurrency rather than cryptoart for two reasons: the first is because to understand the problems with cryptoart, it is essential to understand how value functions in a cryptocurrency marketplace.
The second reason is there is only one functional thing that separates a piece of cryptoart from a cryptocoin- fungibility.
A bitcoin is a fungible token. It can be traded for a different bitcoin and you still have “one bitcoin”. It can be cut in half and then you have 1/2 of a bitcoin.
A piece of cryptoart- a non-fungible token, or an NFT- cannot be swapped for another NFT without entering a marketplace. It is not the same thing as a different NFT, even if it has the same value. It cannot be cut in half. A NFT also has its contract and metadata also embedded into the blockchain- things like associated image, creator, date, owner, etc- which is the “art” part of cryptoart.
You can tokenize anything into an NFT; all this means is the metadata of that non fungible token includes information which points to an external asset like an album, a videogame character skin, an image, a url, a house, or a contract. You can also make NFTs without media attached.
To make an NFT, you have to “mint it”- register it on the blockchain. Minting an NFT takes energy, but only abstractly- it gets bundled up into lots of other transactions which take energy to solve as a block, an aggregation scheme which has allowed the NFT market to deny culpability.
To go back to Superrare’s train metaphor, the Ethereum train is running (a new block is minted) every 5 minutes, no matter how many seats are filled. However, what they don’t mention is that the train is really small and seats are valuable. The baseline Ethereum network supports roughly 14 transactions (seats) a second; beyond this, minters enter a bidding war for these seats. A bidding war incentivizes miners to compute blocks with a particular transaction in them, increasing the number of miners working on specific blocks and directly contributing to emissions.
Either way, the artists pay “gas fees” to offset this energy cost.
These fees fluctuate depending on network use, but vary between $40-$1000. These are up front buy-in costs generally borne by the artist that have no guarantee of being returned via sale- and many NFTs sit minted but unsold, with the artist having paid for the privilege.
Once an NFT is on the blockchain, it is “owned” by the person whose digital wallet it is in. Ownership in digital space is a tricky concept, but like all ownership (physical and otherwise) this boils down to a social contract; an NFT is basically a certificate that says “I am the owner of this token and its attached metadata and can do with it as I will, including resell it on a marketplace”.
It is worth noting that there is nothing in place within the technology of an NFT to guarantee that they respect existing copyright (artists have already seen their work minted and sold without their consent, sometimes still with their names attached!) and while the “smart contracts” of NFTs can control their behavior on the blockchain, there is nothing legally binding about them, as they have never entered court.
While minting an NFT doesn’t stop the associated file, image, album, or gif from duplicating or circulating, but it does mean that by this social contract a copy is not “the original” because it is not held by the owner.
There are mixed feelings about this idea- plenty of NFT artists are excited about monetizing images, plenty of people shrugging and saying it is fake ownership and doesn’t change anything about how files work online anyway (tbd- we’ll see how this settles out in legal spaces), and plenty of people horrified to see artificial scarcity imposed on digital objects.
You could probably guess I’m in the last camp.
I’ve been working in digital spaces making artwork since well before cryptocurrency was around, and lack of scarcity is the only thing we’ve got.
Digital files don’t have that much going for them. They store monumentally less information than say, a piece of paper- which contains the artwork on it as well as inscribed histories of hand, pen, ink, pulp, forest- a dense connected materiality that unfolds forever. A digital file is a pauper in comparison. A file breaks down to requisite ones and zeros well before one can reach the atomic composition of the materials in a physical drawing.
Digital files also require power to access and maintain, and are incredibly unstable over time as new operating systems, plugins and standards render things unviewable- often within a decade. They are also vulnerable to bitrot and physical degradation of storage media- the stable shelf life of a CD-ROM, for instance, is less than 20 years.
What digital files and digital artists do have is duplicatability. There is no original file. When I make a copy of a text document, 3d model, or game and give it to you we both have the original. We’re both having a first-hand experience. We both are engaging with the work wholly as itself, not second-hand documentation.
This is it! This is the one thing! Digital artists have media that can proliferate over a network and be held by many people at once without cheapening or breaking the aura of a first-hand experience. It is the one true benefit to working in digital space.
I’m horrified to see this willingly traded for an opportunity to reproduce the worst parts of the existing physical art market, where “the original” is useful foremost as a rare thing- a unique thing- that, in its scarcity, is an asset.
And yet, I see you live in society.
Every time the ecological cost of cryptoart comes up, inevitably someone comes in with “What about cars? What about shipping? What about flying to art fairs? Aren’t the carbon footprints of all of those things worse?”
Despite this being enormous “ah i see you critique capitalism and yet you live in society, how curious” energy, I do want to respond- both because yes, other things do have big carbon footprints and also before someone @’s me with it again.
There are a few things wrong with this approach:
First, it is not a gotcha that there are worse things in the world than the thing you are currently talking about. I am capable of hating cryptocurrency AND capitalism AND art fairs. I contain multitudes.
I’m dedicated to the long work of trying to disentangle society from capitalism and the art world from the speculative art market. But it is so rare that we have a chance to look at a harmful technology before it is deeply embedded in societal systems and simply say: no. We can still do with with NFTs. We can still just not.
Secondly, there is no guarantee that an NFT market replaces something like the art fair (and certainly won’t change things like “cars”).
If anything, a robust NFT market bolsters the idea of the art fair or the blue chip gallery, which have always been about investment, speculation, and resale- even when the work bought or sold is also talked about for its aesthetic, conceptual and emotional qualities.
Not every piece of artwork purchased in a blue chip gallery or at an art fair is intended for eventual profit at an auction house (many simply go on to live on the walls of homes), but every artwork from these kinds of spaces has the capacity to function at auction.
When bought, these artworks have a record of sale and statements of authenticity, and are often couched as “a good deal”- this artist showed at X or Y gallery, they’re undervalued, they’re a hot investment opportunity. And from that point on, it is always up to the purchaser of the work- not the artist- how that piece will function in the future; as an artwork, as a futures investment stored in a warehouse, as a tax shelter, or as somewhere in between.
Some have said that the contemporary art market’s sudden interest in NFTs is due in part to this year of quarantine, where art markets are having to look at other models than the traditional wine-and-dine at Basel to attract buyers, but my bet is just that the art market is just remarkably good at smelling money.
If I had to guess, I’d say the NFT market will replace absolutely nothing- will cause no wasteful, physical art fairs to close- but will instead be folded into existing art fair and gallery contracts. This is because cryptoart is a perfect match to how the art market already functions.
Much like the world of blue chip, some NFTs may be bought and sold simply as artworks, intended for personal collections and acquired for aesthetic, conceptual, or personal reasons. However, every single one is made from the outset to be liquidated- an asset first, artwork second. They are images attached to dollar figures, not the other way around.
Third- the green energy solution?
A generally accepted number is that about 39% of PoW mining runs on renewables, and that number could increase with attention, investment, and time (a 2019 report from, uh, a cryptocurrency investor puts the number at more like 74% for Bitcoin in particular). Would this make the cryptoart market ethically viable?
Green energy is incredibly important for the continued future of society, but it isn’t free energy. Cost of production for solar cells, wind turbines, hydroelectric dams and thermal capture are still sunk ecological costs in mining, fabrication, and construction. Per usual, they are better but not best. Best is simply to reduce consumption as much as possible.
Furthermore, the “green energy” of cryptocurrency mining generally does not operate on a separate power grid. Using green energy sources still means pulling power out of a system also used to power houses, which drives up cost and encourages and funds new energy capture projects, including in coal, oil and gas.
(As a personal note, I’m writing this essay from the Gulf Coast of Texas, where our power only recently returned after a week of outages because of grid mismanagement, scarcity and greed.)
Fourth- the lifestyle offset.
A very common line of justification is the “I’m using my income from NFTs to replace other wasteful aspects of my lifestyle.” I’ve seen artists take this line of approach over and over, a “I don’t have to fly to sell work anymore so it evens out.” or “I don’t drive a car or import expensive art materials!” or “shipping prints isn’t environmentally friendly either!”
There is an inherent numbers problem here- it is actually pretty hard to reduce your energy consumption enough to offset the cost of minting an NFT. They are so wasteful that it would take years of careful planning to generate enough “saved carbon” to justify burning it all in one fell swoop on a minted NFT.
Because of this, some artists have opted for carbon offset credits instead, promising to reinvest some portion of their sales into forest restoration, wildlife conservation, green energy infrastructure or any of the thousands of other greenwashing schemes that allow you to purchase peace of mind.
Carbon offsets are, and I cannot stress this enough, a fake idea. Unlike direct lifestyle changes which at least are under your immediate control, carbon offsets are calculated as a hypothetical benefit in a hypothetical future that we may or may not live to see. Planting a tree does not guarantee that it will survive, thrive, or recreate the forest. Carbon offsets as an industry also have little to no regulation; often times the tree is never planted. This is well documented.
Carbon offsets do not do what they promise, which is offset. But even if they did, you cannot use lifestyle or credits as an offset when you are actively building a system that does harm. Even if you, personally, come out more or less even on the books- to do so is to loan your power to a worldview that has doubled down on worth being tied to completed labor and spent physical resources.
To do so lends your validation to the entire concept of cryptocurrency, aspects both inside of and outside of your direct control. It invites others into the space. It builds power.
It is, as an artist and an individual, to say “I believe that burning energy makes value.” It says “this is worth it to me.”
Fifth- the more efficient NFT.
There has been a lot of talk about “finding more efficient NFTs”. There is even a bounty!
There are various ways to reduce wastefulness, including more considered block sizes in the blockchain, removing pay-for-priority gas, scaling optimizations, and moving to non-Ethereum blockchains.
I doubt it will be very long before there is a “more ethical” NFT marketplace, one that has taken these steps to ensure a slower, more considered NFT minting and selling model. (Foundation.app proudly made the switch to xDai in October, but quietly returned to the Ethereum blockchain sometime since.)
This desire for an eco-NFT, one that dramatically reduces energy waste, is not in and of itself the worst idea. The trouble is, we already know how to do these things. We know how to reduce energy waste, to reconsider block sizes, to use sidechains, to move to alternate proofs. The technology is there; the market has not followed.
This is because cryptocurrency and cryptoart are not bad for the environment accidentally- they are not simply bolted onto this blundering machine and cannot just be taken off (the technology of a proof of work-based system almost guarantees this). And even if we manage to reduce those costs to a palatable number, cryptocurrency AND cryptoart are still fundamentally valuable because they burn energy.
To repeat the common maxim, the purpose of a system is what it does. Cryptocurrencies turn sunk energy cost into futures.
If that is the value system we are building, we are doomed.
We do not want this.
The current ecological cost of cryptoart and cryptocurrency is very real and very large, and while steps can be taken to reign in some of that energy cost, the crypto- market is still based in a value system that fundamentally ties worth to spent physical resources.
There is no undoing that relationship, no matter how low the cost to mint tokens gets or what the percentage of green energy is in doing so.
A value system that understands itself only in terms of what, materially, has been burned so far to create investment and what, materially, will need to be burned tomorrow is one that is untenable to the future we have to build, one that has decoupled worth with waste, one where units of labor are not bought and sold for wage.
Furthermore, beyond the ecological the remaining qualities of cryptoart are deeply worrying.
Cryptoart remakes digital artworks as primarily tokens of monetary worth, content and concept secondary to an asset that has market value.
Cryptoart creates artificial scarcity for digital objects, creating an “original” which can be owned for the purpose of resale.
Cryptoart recreates some of the worst aspects of existing art markets, pitting the super-stardom of those who have gotten lucky or who already had money and connections to play with against the realities of countless others who will see no such return.
Cryptoart offers no intellectual property protection and there is no regulatory structure in place to keep copyrighted materials from being minted into and sold as NFTs, with or without the consent of the creator or copyright holder. Once an NFT is minted, there is no way to remove it from the blockchain or secondary market.
Cryptoart smart contracts offer no legal protection, and any talk of contracts baked into the NFT “requiring resales to cut in the artist” or “compensate gallery workers” depend entirely on the goodwill of the purchaser.
Cryptoart lets a few artist early adopters get rich from a system made to reward investors, not artists.
The value system a fully functioning NFT marketplace creates is reprehensible. We cannot let it get there.
The only option is to reject this whole-cloth. There is no “my rig is solar” or “we plant a tree for every coin” or “we’re moving to proof of stake” or “we have a bounty for a less devastating NFT” or “my smart contract is a viable alternative”.
This is liberalism at its finest- a reformist attitude that thinks if we can just fix the worst problems- remove the bad apples- get some better regulatory structures in place- then the system might just work rather than internalizing that a system based on fundamentally broken, greedy, hyper-capitalist models is one that will always produce harm.
The only viable option is total moral rejection. Anything less (selling, collecting, posting links to artists selling NFTs, yes even trying to find a less ecologically devastating model) holds up the power of the worst parts of this platform. It grants moral grayzone- an “oh, if my favorite artist is involved, maybe it isn’t so bad?” or a “but I know this person cares for the environment and they participate- maybe they know something I don’t?”
I understand first-hand the desperation of trying to live in a world that has systemically undervalued and undercut the arts, and how compelling a vision of escape can be. I truly do want to live to see the world that rewards artists for making the work they would like to make without asking them to jeopardize their health, stability, and creative integrity. This is not just my political belief- it is a desire that would directly benefit me and those I love. It is a future I have to believe in to keep going every day.
However, we must get there through collective empowerment and strong social programs like universal basic income, universal healthcare, divestment from warfare and policing, a regulated real estate market that does not capitalize on housing scarcity and rent, worker unions, food programs, environmental protections, and actual, functioning income taxes on the wealthy. An individualist fantasy of a pyramid scheme, made to reward investors over artists and directly thieving from our shared future just isn’t it.
Many would call me unrealistic and naïve for this, unwilling to make compromises in the world we are living now because of an idealistic vision of a tomorrow; and to them I would like to say that we literally invented an extra-sovereign monetary system that within 10 years has generated trillions of dollars of worth and is held up with the power consumption of a small country.
Let this whole horrible chapter of history convince you that money is fake, we can do anything with it we want, and that we do not want cryptoart.
I will not be taking any questions on this or any platform because I’ve never been more bored of and depressed by a topic that I’ve written 5000 words on in my entire life. Thank you.