Dr. Memo Akten recently published a scathing analysis of the carbon cost of cryptoart and non-fungible tokens (NFTs). By his math a single NFT sale requires about 340 kWh, which is equivalent to a European’s electricity usage for a month, or about a 2-hour roundtrip flight. Some people dispute the specifics of Dr. Atken’s numbers, but it is directionally correct. Today, Bitcoin and Ethereum are extremely energy-intensive and wasteful, by design. Because of this, Dr. Atken suggests artists should boycott those blockchains until they improve. Ethereum is the dominant platform for NFTs and so this essentially means a boycott of NFTs and cryptoart as a whole.
I believe these carbon costs are short-term and outweighed by the long-term benefits of blockchains and the burgeoning ownership economy. Additionally, the systems are open-source and benefit from community participation today, and not after the waste issues are fixed. I encourage Dr. Akten and anyone reading this to reconsider their boycotts for a few reasons:
- The high carbon costs of NFTs will decline dramatically. As Dr. Atken mentions, the carbon footprint of Ethereum will drop by multiple orders of magnitude as Proof-of-Stake and Eth2 roll out over the next year or two. This upgrade has been in-development for 5+ years. I wish I could share similar timelines for the electrification of our cars and shipping fleets, which represent 30% of US carbon emissions
- These projects are open-source and community-driven, and need smart people who want to make them better. This means folks just like Dr. Atken, who is both technically-adept and cares about building ethical systems. Many artists I’ve spoken with are citing Dr. Atken’s analysis as the reason they are not participating in cryptoart at all. If you see the potential of crypto but are trying to minimize your carbon footprint, you can help lobby for efficiency upgrades like lazy minting, or encourage your fellow artists and collectors to adopt Proof-of-Stake blockchains like Solana, Algorand, Flow and others. Opting-out only serves to reinforce the status quo and cement the priorities of incumbents.
- Helping artists earn a living, and creating new models for supporting the arts. Given the limited options for artists to make money, boycotting cryptoart feels shortsighted. Besides the short-term money-making opportunities, art is particularly well-suited to experimentation with new models around patronage, copyright and ownership. Crypto is also dominated by financial applications, and would benefit from the participation of artists and creatives; conversely, artists benefit from easy access to these alternative financial markets.
- Investing in systems that decentralize power. I believe crypto is inherently anti-corporate and represents one of the most signficant redistributions of control since the advent of the Internet. Bitcoin and Ethereum have proven to be robust financial systems that exist independently of any government or corporation. DeFi is a thriving alternative system for lending and borrowing money, divorced from banks and credit agencies. Replacing corporate monopolies–many of which are deeply complicit in creating the climate crisis–is worth the temporararily carbon costs.
I have many other blockchain shortcomings to mention: claiming a free NFT cost me $30 in gas fees; the transaction speeds are hilariously slow; explaining the benefits of crypto to a layperson is nearly impossible; the tools for both users and developers are lackluster; there are tons of scams and shiesters in the space; I can continue. If blockchains were perfect, everyone would be using them already. For those who can contribute to making them into better systems, I’d encourage you to do so.
 US EPA, sources of US greenhouse gas emissions https://www.epa.gov/ghgemissions/sources-greenhouse-gas-emissions