How to Fix Crypto Art NFTs’ Carbon Pollution Problem


The “crypto-” carbon crisis is evolving. And after years of low-key use, art and collectibles tied to what are known as non-fungible tokens (NFTs) have exploded into the global discourse as the Next Big Thing. Embedded with it, though, is an existential tension.

Crypto-art buying is built on the same blockchain technology currently frying the climate. As the potential bubble of crypto art inflates ever higher, so too do the risks it poses to the planet. Each transaction is another glug of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. Without major overhauls to how tokens are created and sold, critics warn, it could ultimately help foist untold horrors on the biosphere and, by extension, humanity. Though steps are planned to mitigate the effects, if nothing is done soon enough, it could leave crypto art perpetuating the same broken system of extraction and commodity trading that it’s promising to upend.

If you’ve been even mildly online over the past month, chances are you have read about crypto art. The medium has exploded thanks to a few recent eye-popping sales. A gif of Nyan Cat sold for $587,000 in mid-February. A piece by Mike Winkelmann, an artist who goes by Beeple, sold for $6.6 million on Feb. 24, and he has another crypto art piece currently for sale at Christie’s auction house that’s expected to fetch millions as well.

Headlines have steadily devolved into mad libs as the situation gets more extreme. Kings of Leon is selling a NFT album. A clip of a Ja Morant dunk sold for $100,000 (it’s already up for resale for $240,000). Grimes made $5.8 million selling digital artworks of babies in space set to her music. Logan Paul hawked $5 million-worth of Pokemon cards. Taco Bell has an NFT drop. Talk of the spectacle is now feeding on itself and filling up notoriously insufferable Clubhouse rooms.

“[Art is being sold] for several million dollars, I get it,” said Amy Whitaker, a New York University Steinhardt faculty member and longtime blockchain researcher. “It’s very easy to focus on the big shiny objects.”

What adds to the spectacle is what collectors are buying. The Ja Morant dunk, for example, is available for free on YouTube. The Memphis Grizzlies’ video of it has been viewed 28,460 times as of this writing (and it even comes with nearly two minutes of other highlights). I can watch the $100,000 clip right there on NBA Top Shot myself just as I can look at Grimes’ piece or listen to the Kings of Leon NFT drop on Apple Music. What buyers are purchasing, then, is not the rights to a specific clip or art that can never be viewed elsewhere (for the most part). Instead, what they’re usually buying is an NFT tied to a specific media object. That can in turn be re-sold. Whitaker likened NFT-linked art to the original Mona Lisa while the clips and art posted elsewhere are like posters, coffee mugs, or other tchotchkes emblazoned with her iconic smile.

An NFT is part of a blockchain, which you can imagine as a huge digital ledger of transactions, each transaction with a unique code. After one block of information, you add another. The chain cannot be changed without adding an additional block, and the blocks are all publicly visible. In the case of cryptocurrencies like bitcoin, the block is the asset. But most crypto art runs on Ethereum, a blockchain that uses ether as a cryptocurrency. Unlike bitcoin, Ethereum is, in its own words, powering “thousands of decentralized applications” such as NFTs and smart contracts. When you buy one, the token isn’t the art. Rather, it’s the transaction on the big ol’ ledger that essentially certifies the transfer of ownership. It is “non-fungible” because it cannot be swapped with an identical or a similar token. Think of it as proof of ownership of the real thing, even if said real thing is an image sitting on a server somewhere.

But we are not debating the collectible value of non-physical, digital…

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