Cryptocurrency has undoubtedly changed the way our world operates, extending beyond finance and retail into the art market with the introduction of non-fungible tokens (NFTs),an artwork stamped with a unique string of code stored on a virtual ledger. Last year, the artist Beeple sold his NFT for $69 million at Christies, positioning him as one of the most valuable living artists, centering NFTs at the forefront of the art world. 

The most common misunderstanding with NFTs surrounds what you areactuallybuying considering there is no physical artwork, and there are limitations on how the work can be shown. To put it into more physical, traditionally artistic terms: anyone can own a print of a work of art by any of the greats such as Pablo Picasso. However, there is prestige and bragging rights in owning the physical, original work. This leaves NFT’s to be understood as largely an asset to be resold. In this, we see the complete and utter capitalist intent of the art market rearing its head. Like it or not, this is undoubtedly the future of art and marks a significant moment in art history at large. 

While NFTs are continuingly mystifying, the wholly technological aspect of the art comes at an environmental cost: the cost of mining data which is growing to be one of the largest energy consumers of our modern day. As the climate crisis grows of greater concern, stoking great nihilism in Gen Z, we must consider the impact of creating new forms of art which are incredibly distressing to the natural environment. Recognizing their harmful impact, many artists boycotted the use of NFTs as a whole. 

NFT’s platform of choice is Ethereum, a form of cryptocurrency which utilizes a process called proof-of-work. Proof-of-work is an authentication process that ensures transparency for cryptocurrency where a third party such a bank normally would. Proof-of-work isintentionally energy exhaustive, protecting the ledger through a series of complex puzzles. By making the process of decoding alarmingly complex, time-consuming, and energy guzzling, the process secures itself in making it exceedingly difficult for someone to decode and work through the string of complex computations. The effect of this is a carbon footprint ofover 200 kilograms for the creation of the average NFT, the equivalent of driving 500 miles in a standard gas car. Most proponents for NFTs argue that this energy will be used anyway through another transaction of cryptocurrency. 

However, the environmental concern lies in the cult following NFTs have amassed, making them increasingly popular. This increased popularity creates hundreds of thousands of unnecessary carbon waste at the hands of a trend largely rooted in the bragging rights and clout associated with owning an NFT. This controversy has led many artists to either wholly boycott NFTs, solely use clean cryptocurrency that has little to no carbon footprint, or promise to offset emissions through investments in clean energy (aka Beeple’s response to the controversy). Realistically, NFTs can be environmentally friendly or simply just less devastating through the use ofproof-of-stakethta maintains accuracy and transparency in requiring users to lock up a portion of their cryptocurrency, thereby pledging accuracy and honesty in “proving” their “stake.” The proof-of-stake process requires less mining and therefore utilities less energy, making it a cleaner process. Ethereum has been pledging to switch to proof-of-stake for years now, but is lacking the urgency in truly doing so, considering the devastating impact of data mining on carbon emissions and the increasingly desperate climate crisis.

Many proponents for NFTs also argue that blaming artists and consumers of NFTs is simply another way to frame the climate crisis as an issue of personal responsibility while ignoring the institutional abuses which most largely contribute to the climate crisis. For example, within the art world, many major museums and institutions are still using fossil-fuel funding, leaving many NFT supporters baffled at the hypocrisy. This has many people comparing asking people to stop utilizing NFTs to the campaigns of the aughts which framed carpooling and recycling as realistic ways to “save the planet,” asking nothing of the corporations that destroyed it in the first place. 

While this is slightly an issue of placing personal responsibility at the forefront of the climate crisis yet again, it is frankly irresponsible to be creating new forms of art that are so energy guzzling. If we have the creativity and brain power to create NFTs in the first place, why don’t we make them carbon neutral? To be creating new forms of currency alone that are actively harming our planet is frankly irresponsible and goes to show the responsibility that capitalism alone has in the worsening climate crisis.