NSFT Art: Sustainable, Equitable and Fun!

NSFT Art: Sustainable, Equitable, and Fun!

This year we’re introducing the fun category NSFT (Not So F***ing Tiny) Art to help folks think about the climate catastrophe that is NFT (non-fungible token) art. Lots of artists, understandably eager to earn income and protect their rights, have taken to making NFT artworks. Digital artworks are, by definition, not unique. NFTs render digital video artworks unique, but at an intolerable cost to the planet because their uniqueness relies on the energy-intensive Ethereum blockchain. 

According to a calculator produced by digital artist Memo Akten, the sale of 303 editions of Grimes’s Earth used the same electrical power as the average EU resident would in 33 years, and produced 70 tonnes of CO2 emissions. For a more modest, average single-edition NFT, Akten calculates that the carbon footprint is equivalent to driving a gas-powered car for 1,000 kilometres. For higher editions, the figures are equivalent to dozens of transatlantic flights. We’ll check on the accuracy of these calculations in a moment.

Like most cryptocurrency, Ethereum uses the proof-of-work process, which is carried out across a network of computers. When a new block of information is added (such as a link to an NFT artwork), the computers compete to solve complex cryptographic puzzles. The winner receives fees and some cryptocurrency. This process is called mining. As the distributed blockchain gets longer, it takes more calculations, thus more energy, to add a new block. 

As you can imagine, the computations involved in the proof-of-work process consume insane amounts of energy. Plus, crypto mining is done in places where energy is cheap. Cheap often means coal-based, and coal as you know is the worst polluter! The country where most crypto mining takes place is the U.S., where the cheapest states for Bitcoin mining rely on a substantial proportion of coal for electricity production, as well as natural gas.[1] In March 2021 China banned crypto mining because,  fueled by Inner Mongolia’s coal, it was consuming too much energy. Iran has also banned crypto mining. Many crypto companies moved their servers from China to Kazakhstan, Russia, and the United States. Kazakh energy, like Mongolia’s, derives from coal. In November 2021 crypto mining in Kazakhstan consumed 1.8 gigawatts of power, 8% of the country’s total power. That’s enough to power 54 million (energy-hungry) North American homes.

Some artists are making somewhat interesting experiments in this medium. But NFT art is really only popular because people who own crypto don’t have much to invest in except for NFTs. In any case, treating NFT art as a medium is like burning forests in the Amazon as a medium. 

Some researchers hasten to point out that some of this energy-intensive computing is powered by renewable energy. However, the absolute increase in greenhouse gas emissions overrules any such mitigation. 

So how much energy does blockchain, and NFT art in particular, use? That’s a sticky wicket! ICT engineers are vigorously debating the carbon footprint of cryptocurrency, as they did with the carbon impact of streaming. As with that debate, initial high estimates get smacked down by well-publicized low estimates, with the likely correct figure for crypto’s carbon footprint somewhere in between. But even the moderate estimates are staggering. Here’s a chart of 19 studies of global Bitcoin energy consumption, put together by ICT engineers Lei, Masanet, and Koomey.[2]

If we take the lowest figure on that chart for 2021, we get Bitcoin consuming 4 gigawatts of power. Bitcoin is about 2/3 of all cryptocurrency, so make that 6 gigawatts. That’s enough energy to power 4,500,000 (energy-hungry) American homes! NFTs constitute a small proportion of the value of the crypto market. In 2021, about $41 billion worth of crypto was spent on the NFT marketplaces. The total crypto market rose to $3 trillion that year (and fell again), suggesting about 4% of crypto is invested in NFTs. Following up on the calculation above, 4% of 4,500,000 is 180,000. That gives us a ballpark figure that in 2021 NFTs used an amount of energy equivalent to 180,000 (energy-hungry) American homes! This suggests Akten’s calculations are not off the chart.

Blockchain-boosterish ICT engineer Koomey says don’t worry, Bitcoin is “a tiny, tiny part of all data center electricity use.” Conservative engineers said that about streaming video too, as our 2020 research determined. But all those tiny and not-so-tiny electricity uses—standard streaming, HD streaming, 8K streaming, online gaming, audio streaming, video conferences, video chats, big file downloads, storing everything in the “cloud,” Peloton, augmented reality, VPNs, the Internet of Things, artificial intelligence, NFTs, cryptocurrency, other blockchain applications, and all the quickly-obsolescent devices that mediate these practices—are the reason ICT’s carbon footprint is expanding and overheating our planet.

And guess what! The great majority of NFT artists are not making money, nor are their intellectual-property rights being protected. Like Spotify, NFT art has a long tail: a few stars earn most of the cash on the platform, and the vast majority divide up the dwindling remainder. On top of that, NFT art’s uniqueness doesn’t protect artists from having their work plagiarized: others just steal their art to make NFTs.

All this is why we love NSFT art. Purchasers of NSFT art receive a handcrafted certificate with a bespoke rubber stamp denoting ownership. The artists get paid directly and remain free to distribute copies as they wish. Welcome to a system of digital-art patronage that dignifies both artist and patron and honors the work of art, with no cost to the environment!

—Laura U. Marks

[1] They are Louisiana (which gets electricity from natural gas, coal, and nuclear), Idaho (hydro, other renewables, natural gas), Washington (hydro, other renewables, natural gas, coal, and nuclear), Tennessee (nuclear, natural gas, hydro, and coal), and Arkansas (natural gas, nuclear, coal, and hydro). State energy figures from U.S. Energy Administration.

[2] Nuoa Lei, Eric Masanet, and Jonathan Koomey, “Best practices for analyzing the direct energy use of blockchain technology systems: Review and policy recommendations,” Energy Policy 156 (2021) 112422.

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