A new digital art form, called “cryptoart” or an NFT, has been all over my social media recently. Cryptoart is a digital art piece that is attached to a cryptocurrency blockchain and then sold or traded on that cryptocurrency platform (such as Bitcoin, Ethereum, Tether, etc.). The difference between buying a digital art piece online from an artist’s shop versus buying an NFT is that the process of attaching the cryptoart to a blockchain makes it an “original.” This makes the piece more valuable, and collectors are willing to spend more cryptocurrency on the pieces, which can be the equivalent of several thousand dollars—or even millions of dollars. (The highest cryptoart sale to date was $6.6 million in February 2021 for a work by an artist named Mike Winkelmann.) As such, many digital artists are excited about the new prospects this creates for them. However, the cryptocurrency industry has often been criticized due to the environmental impacts it causes, so what about cryptoart?
Wait, how does the crypto industry even work?
Let’s be honest, if you’re not buying and trading crypto on the daily, the whole concept can be a bit confusing. Before cryptoart began training, I knew nothing about it. So without getting bogged down in the minor details, let me share the knowledge I’ve mustered up after countless hours of reading articles and watching videos on the subject.
The majority of cryptocurrency platforms out there “mine” the currency in the same way, which is the “proof of work” method. For a ‘coin’ or ‘token’ of the currency to exist, a computer has to work on a complex mathematical problem. Once solved, there’s a new token in that particular currency. These math problems are not calculus problems that you and I would have headaches over after trying to figure out for twenty minutes. These math problems require the computer to work on them for hours, if not days.
However, a finite amount of tokens can be mined (this was done so the value would appreciate over time). This means that to slow down how fast new tokens enter the market, the problems that have to be solved get progressively more difficult as more tokens are mined. More complex problems mean that the computers have to work longer. So better and faster (which often means bigger) computers are required.
So why is it bad for the environment?
These bigger, stronger computers that are processing these extremely difficult math problems get very hot and use a lot of electricity. This means there are warehouses full of computers working 24/7 on cooling them down with massive AC units. That’s a lot of energy. However, that’s not all. Because these miners have to use this much electricity to solve a single problem for one crypto-token, they often set up these warehouses in countries with the cheapest electricity. These, unfortunately, are usually countries that rely on coal to generate electricity. It has been estimated that Bitcoin alone (only one of the cryptocurrency platforms) has an annual carbon footprint comparable to New Zealand’s footprint. To make matters worse, there is little regulation on the crypto industry at the moment, so a lot of miners and mining facilities are unaccounted for. The areas where electricity happens to be the cheapest are also some of the most underprivileged areas, and when miners use that much electricity, the demand for it rises and often makes it inaccessible to the locals who need electricity the most.
What about Cryptoart?
As I mentioned earlier, the appeal behind cryptoart (and why collectors are paying thousands for these pieces) is because of the NFT aspect. NFT stands for non-fungible token; this is what makes the piece unique and one-of-a-kind. When the artist uploads the work to the cryptocurrency platform, the art is added to a blockchain, which is essentially the foundation of the currency’s actual existence. This creates permanent data of the piece, making it the ‘original’ piece. Therefore, when someone buys the art on the market or platform, they now own the original digital work. This is the digital version of going to an art market and purchasing an original painting from an artist that you can collect or display in your home. Suppose the buyer decides to resell the cryptoart. In that case, new data is added to the blockchain and whoever buys it then becomes the owner of the original piece.
Although creating an NFT, or adding it to the blockchain, doesn’t require as much energy as creating the blockchain in the first place, it does get added to other transactions, which require energy to all get processed. It is estimated that a single NFT has the same carbon footprint as one gas-fueled car traveling a little over 600 miles.
There are several arguments in play surrounding this. The first is the idea of continuing to make it harder for digital artists to sell their work when it’s already hard in the first place. Another is that there are other methods of mining tokens that require much less energy to begin circulating in the market. Although this is true in theory, that is where it ends. The platform where cryptoart has taken off is Ethereum. They have been speaking about switching to one of these methods for years but haven’t made any clear progress in that direction.
Until the cryptocurrency industry becomes more regulated, the NFT market will most likely continue to create an even larger carbon footprint. Although some artists argue that their cryptoart has enabled them to use less paper, avoid carbon emissions from transporting their art, and other (more visible) carbon-emitting activities, the process of bringing an NFT into existence emits so much carbon in one go that it is difficult to compare these much smaller activities. If you’d like to see how much carbon different NFTs generate, check out this calculator.
Hopefully, the crypto industry becomes more regulated soon, or the platforms actually switch over to these theoretically less damaging mining processes. However, until then, I believe there needs to be a collective effort to create more supportive market platforms for digital artists to be able to sell their work without having to rely on NFTs and the crypto industry. After all, if we keep causing more damage to our planet, we will no longer be able to create or enjoy art. Keep in mind that this is not a problem caused by any individual artist but rather by the system that they are forced into. What do you think about the crypto industry and these new NFTs?
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Photo: Fran Hogan via Unsplash; Lorenzo Herrera via Unsplash