Can we talk about the fire that’s going on beneath our feet right now?
You know – the one that landscape photographers have been rattling on about for decades – the fact our planet is being damaged in the name of “progress” and “wealth creation” at the cost of irreversible climate change and destruction…
Only, as a collective group, we seem to have cast that concern aside the second it became possible to earn a quick buck peddling coal-powered pixels to hyped-up “collectors” online.
Yes, I’m referring to NFTs.
TL:DR_ NFTs aren’t inherently *bad* for the environment in themselves, but the fuel that funds almost all of their transactions right now (Ethereum) absolutely is. As photographers, we claim to care about the planet we capture – so we really need to find a cleaner way forward as the platforms currently in use just aren’t focused on this enough, meaning our actions can be hypocritical at best.
It’s by coincidence that I’m writing this in the same week that the IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) released its latest damning report into the state of our planet and the sad trajectory that it’s currently on.
That said, I can’t ignore the irony of recalling the social media posts that it prompted, by prominent (and not so prominent) photographers from all corners of the world – crying foul of those who have elected to cause damage to our planet – before turning right back to their NFT minting process and Ethereum purchasing on a second screen.
It’s not OK to be that person.
- You can’t lead a fight against drugs when you’re dealing them yourself.
- You can’t call out domestic violence and then go home to beat up your partner.
- You can’t make a stand against online bullying if you’re one of the people hurling abuse.
- And you definitely can’t claim you have the best interests of the planet at heart, and then burn the equivalent of an entire country’s power usage in order for YOU to make your little fortune.
We live in an incredible time – where we have access to the most amazing scientific breakthroughs and digital resources that have ever been known. Imagine that access, coupled with the wealth that’s held in certain pockets of the world’s population – and the good it could do for the planet and humanity itself…
But no – instead, we’re talking about get-rich-quick schemes at the expense of all that – “to hell with it – NFTs are the future”.
“But it’s just a bit of fun crypto-art”
That was the premise I was given a while back – and I have to admit, I found it very interesting at the time.
What started out as a platform selling 1980’s style pixel-art that would have been an embarrassment for a 10 year old to bring home from school, soon caught the eye of landscape photographers from far and wide as a potential new source of income.
Of course, as professional photographers, we want our images to be seen by as many people as possible, and (ultimately) make a living from producing them – so any additional revenue stream can look attractive, let alone one that requires relatively little effort to build.
I actually registered on some of the “supermarkets”, following a chat with a couple of friends who were already on those platforms. As the markets were opening up beyond their “exclusive” status of trading $69million “artworks”, the temptation was obvious and I was almost all set to go.
Until, that is, two things smacked me in the face as I dug deeper into the process itself:
- The environmental COST of creating, selling and reselling these “Non-Fungible Tokens” right now.
- The hypocrisy of landscape photographers offering “a percentage of proceeds to charity” as an incentive to buy their coal-powered artwork.
I refer to coal-powered, as that is exactly what vast amounts of “Ethereum” (the digital currency that underpins most NFTs at the moment, and a claimed rival to bitcoin) needs to be burned in order to exist as a platform.
The irony can’t have escaped people that it’s CHINA (of all places) who have shut down most blockchain mining enterprises – in part down to their reliance on dirty power.
And yet we carry on to the next location (seemingly South American countries are quite attractive right now) who are willing to offer up cheap fossil-fuelled data centres to mine more and more digital currency.
And the problem isn’t just the creation of these tokens – an NFT takes a huge amount of power in comparison to other consumption just to exist in the first place – it’s the ongoing impact of its existence too.
Unlike many other “products”, the creator of an NFT gets to keep a percentage (around 10%) of every single resale of that digital image/video/3D render for their lifetime, earning more cash – but more importantly, burning more energy (and coal, and gas) with each and every single transaction that relates to that token, forever.
What a truly splendid business model, so those who are engulfed in it continue to tell me…
The more popular an NFT gets, or a platform becomes, the more and more Ethereum is needed to fund these transactions.
As it gets more expensive to “mine” for Ethereum (and Bitcoin, and Dogecoin, and Siacoin, and Lumens, and….) – so the demands for CHEAP power increase in line with consumption.
And where do countries with huge demands for cheap power get it from?
That’s right – FOSSIL FUELS.
(You know, those bad things that Landscape Photographers keep telling people not to burn any more, to help save the planet.)
It’s 2021 not 1921 – We can’t blame ignorance
We’re celebrating the launch and “success” of a new trading platform that actively damages our planet even more than we have done already.
I’m just picturing the uproar if a “fully developed nation” decided to build hundreds of brand new fossil-fuel-burning power plants right now, in 2021 – there would be outrage from environmentalists (and landscape photographers) from all around the world. So why aren’t we as incensed by this activity instead?
Well, apparently, because it’s “democratising wealth”…
…amongst (statistically) already some of the wealthiest inhabitants of the earth, that is.
I mean, can you imagine the “view from outside” if someone/something was watching our behaviour from another planet at the moment?
“So, the very people who demand that others take action to protect their world, are fuelling its destruction themselves, in order to make money”.
And this is all being done while promoting, preaching about, and selling images of – a better, more pure world, that we’re apparently striving for everyone to be a part of.
Having picked apart this dirty cycle of burning and minting, I’ve come across quite a few opposing voices – with a truck-load of “reasons why it’s OK”. Personally, I always love a good debate – but in each and every case, to me, those reasons simply don’t add up:
The excuses to date…
- “But this is the world we now live in” – it doesn’t have to be. As the old adage goes, if you’re not part of the solution, you ARE part of the problem.
- “But I give a percentage to charity” – I love these – “a proportion of proceeds will be donated to X…” (yeah, until you realise how much that means giving away and then reduce the amount). 0.00001% is still a “proportion”, right?
- “But I carbon offset” – REALLY, do you? Easiest thing in the world to say – often more difficult to prove – and are you offsetting the tiny minting cost, or the full impact of its final price and ongoing impact? Besides, the best way to reduce carbon is to not create it in the first place.
- “But everyone else is doing it” – Didn’t your parents tell you this one? Just because little Johnny walks off a cliff doesn’t mean you have to follow – unless it’s more a case of FOMO$?
- “But I promote good practices” – You DID, until you negated them all by helping to burn down the planet in order to fund the Ethereum behind those NFT sales.
- “But my NFTs are made using renewable energy” – oh, seriously, you cannot be that stupid, or you wouldn’t be able to operate your camera in the first place. Maybe in the future, but right now – no, they’re not.
- “But you travel on planes which also makes carbon” – yes, I do, although we try to do it as efficiently as possible, and I can show you each and every one of our offsetting projects. That said, you’ve probably also flown to capture NFT content, plus you’ve now gone and burned some more fossil fuels to “mint” it in one of the least efficient uses of energy possible.
- “But what about Netflix? What about Amazon? What about YouTube? Look over there!” – because that’s always been a good argument for your own bad behaviour, and yes, they have their challenges too.
- “But you (and other photographers) run workshops around the world!” – yes, I do. While I can’t speak for other photographers, we never run “large group” workshops (only 1 or 2 participants at a time) and fully offset the entire environmental cost of each trip with tangible projects.
- “But what about that new geothermal mining facility in Iceland?” – while this is most definitely a step in the right direction, there are still two major issues:
- 1) that same renewably sourced energy could be used to remove OTHER fossil fuels elsewhere, instead of mining cryptocurrency.
- 2) that facility isn’t even a speck of dust in comparison to the operations in Eastern Europe, South America, India and (still) China – all pumping out wonderful fossil fuel-based 1s and 0s.
- “But it’s better to fight from the inside” – agreed! So fight from the inside through education, questioning, maybe (gasp!) giving more than 1% of sales back to some bullsh!t “climate aware organisation” instead? Oh, wait…
- “But it’ll get better with PoS!” – great! So let’s wait for Proof of Stake to land and then go all-in to make NFTs a great, clean, system for art creators and collectors alike! (IF it does – a lot seems to be riding on that…!)
- “But you make and sell prints worldwide yourself!” – yes, I do. And we’ve designed our process to not only have as little impact on the environment as possible, but also to ensure that once it’s made, it literally lasts a lifetime with no ongoing cost to the planet (or otherwise) – a concept that is the opposite to the premise of an NFT.
Let’s be honest, the moment a sentence begins with “but…”, we all know it’s a lame excuse. Give me a break…
When it comes to the environment, climate change and protecting our planet – every impact (positive or negative) starts from the ground up. It’s not a token gesture (excuse the pun) that can be wheeled out when we feel like it – we’re either concerned enough to ACT differently, or we’re not.
So are NFTs BAD?
To my mind, actually, NO.
I mean, are cars bad?
No – it’s just the way they’re fuelled that causes such an issue for the planet – and I believe we’re in that very same place with NFTs.
The concept of a token with “a value” that’s determined by others isn’t new, or groundbreaking in itself – despite what people are claiming (it’s how art has been sold and appraised since the dawn of currency!). Yes, there is something newly applied to the digital world now, where there can be a theoretical “original” in NFT terms, which can be traced and resold forever – but this is basically just another platform for selling, and reselling artworks.
What IS bad, however, is how the current platforms and tokens are fuelled – literally.
Unlike cars, where we’re unpicking historical bad decisions in order to improve them for the future, these are brand new platforms with no excuse of “climate ignorance” in terms of how they’ve been built in the first place.
If we could get to a place where all NFTs were minted and sold using 100% solar or 100% wind energy once all other energy needs of the world are transitioned too – I’d be jumping onto those platforms in a heartbeat as a viable outlet for sales.
Even short of that goal, but with at least a tangible, measurable intention and defined route to getting there in the long-term, I’d be tempted to “get onboard”. (Take air travel, for example, with their testing and ambitions to switch to greener fuels – it’s not there yet, but the trajectory is encouraging.)
Medium term, there are signs that things could get better specifically for the currency of today – with improvements to the way Ethereum is generated on the horizon, switching to a Proof of Stake (PoS) solution instead of the existing Proof of Work (PoW) model – which is designed to dramatically reduce their carbon footprint, albeit with no guaranteed timescale. There are also murmurings of groups who want to move NFTs to alternative crypto sources of income which are less damaging overall.
But right now – as it stands, until things become a whole lot cleaner – don’t offer me environmental credentials when you’re knowingly engaging in brand new activities which actively harm the very planet that you claim to care for more than others.
That’s not just hypocritical, it’s sick.
If only we could shift all that effort that’s being invested in current NFT “drops” into building a better platform to do it properly, conscientiously, in a way that’s designed for a cleaner future – perhaps, then, we’d be in a good place. For me – it’s a “not right now”, but a heck of a lot needs to change before my opinion does.
Anyway – here’s to the future of this “thing” becoming a whole lot cleaner, brighter and better – for all involved.
(And indeed, for those who aren’t, too!)