Can you be an NFT artist and an environmentalist?

Artists often have describes the environmental impact of the technology. The 19th century Impressionists were known for their paintings of trains and the changing landscapes of industrialization. Early 20th century photographers admiringly captured the trams and skyscrapers of the escalating urban environment. Amid the social movements of the 1960s and 1970s, environmental art became a major new form as artists attempted to express the precariousness of local ecologies, increasingly aware of the long-term consequences of economic activities. Artists explore emerging technologies to address their potentials and challenges, with recent attention turned to the carbon footprint of our electronic expansion, and what could be done about it.

For artists who want to experiment with NFTs and blockchain, the desire to create environmental art seems to conflict with the real goal of saving the environment. Bitcoin and Ethereum platforms operate on a principle called “proof of work” (PoW), in which computers solve complex puzzles to verify a transaction, for which that computer (or “miner”) is then rewarded with a certain amount of cryptocurrency. Initially, people could mine on a simple gaming computer. However, the system is designed to increase the difficulty of the puzzles as more and more people, or rather computers, join the peer-to-peer network. to-peer. This increase in energy is an intentional part of the security of the PoW system.

As a result, according to research by artist and computer scientist Memo Akten, at the end of 2020 mining an NFT consumed at least 35 kWh of electricity, i.e. the process, of the click mouse to claim the right to produce the block. , required as much energy, emitting 20 kg of CO2. For comparison, sending an email produces a few grams of CO2, and watching an hour of Netflix produces just 36 grams, says Akten. Others examining NFTs and Bitcoin studies have found even higher emissions. Although people debate the math, the undeniable point is that carbon emissions must be recognized and addressed, as emissions are responsible for the rising temperatures of the climate crisis and ocean acidification, which are killing all existing lives.

Amid the speculative enthusiasms of Silicon Valley and other global tech incubators, financiers are looking for profit, not sustainability, in blockchains. Considering the energy needed to ensure a cryptographically secure blockchain, it seems like there is no way to be green and use the technology. But some artists are now reinventing the system, using blockchain to deliver sustainable practices.

As soon as In 2017, artist and engineer Julian Oliver recognized that the number of computers competing to solve a puzzle and produce the hash of a transaction must require enormous energy from oil, coal or natural gas to power those machines. . He proceeded to create Harvest (2017), which is both a media work and a working prototype for an alternative crypto-mining operation. Adapting a small wind turbine with environmental sensors, a weatherproof computer and a 4G uplink, the machine uses wind power as a source of electricity to mine cryptocurrency. All proceeds were donated to climate change research.

As more artists became aware of the environmental consequences of blockchain practices, they lobbied for platforms to move away from PoW. There is now an alternative called “proof of stake” (PoS), which some alt-coins have been using for some time. PoS uses a pseudo-random process to assign a miner – now called a “forger” in this PoS landscape – the right to validate a block. The forger must commit a stake in the chain, usually a deposit of a certain amount, to become a validator capable of storing data, processing transactions and adding new blocks to the chain; greater participation leads to more opportunities for validation, and therefore more revenue. There are not many computers competing to solve the puzzle, since only one is in charge of forging the block, which greatly reduces the energy expenditure and carbon emissions of the process. Although there are safety risks and economic implications that lead some to dismiss its improved environmental impact, many artists have committed to using POS chains.