Amid NFT boom, climate concerns sparked tension among digital artists

Digital art isn’t new to vonMash, who describes his blend of paint, video and sound as “afro-delic” – a psychedelic twist on Afrofuturism. But when the South African started thinking about selling his work as crypto-art on a blockchain, he balked. “I don’t entirely agree because of the power consumption it requires,” he explained. Selling art in the form of non-fungible tokens, or NFTs, uses the same technology as cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin. The buyer receives a verified digital token, which proves that the work is an original. The advantage for artists is that if their work increases in value and is resold, they receive a portion of each future sale.

“If another person buys my NFT, I automatically get a share,” vonMash said. With traditional art, if a buyer pays $100 and then “sells it for 100,000, I wouldn’t get a cent.”

computer warehouse

What worries vonMash and other artists is how these digital tokens are verified.

Ownership of the artwork is authenticated through complex mathematical puzzles – so complex that the calculations require warehouses of computers.

Companies that solve the puzzles are rewarded with new tokens, and their solutions add a “block” to the authentication chain.

Managing numbers requires large amounts of energy, often produced by coal-fired power plants.

Most NFTs are currently traded on a platform called Ethereum. Tech watchdog Digiconomist estimates that Ethereum uses as much electricity as all of the Netherlands, with a carbon footprint comparable to that of Singapore.

“The energy it takes for proof of authentication of the artwork is so much,” vonMash said.

He is right to worry.

Climate concerns have sparked a backlash against NFTs.

Last year, K-pop fans in South Korea staged a brutal campaign against plans by popular groups such as BTS and ACE to sell crypto art.

“Essentially, NFTs are a giant pyramid scheme that destroys the environment,” read a widely retweeted comment from @ChoicewithACE typical of comments that prompted the group to rescind its offer.

BTS’s music label, Hybe, has decided to postpone its launch, in search of greener alternatives.

In South Africa, environmentalism is an undisputed article of faith among many artists.

A collective called The Tree has created a platform for artists to sell NFTs and then collaborate with a Cape Town charity called Greenpop to plant trees to offset the carbon emitted from crypto art sales.

Changing world

Fhatuwani Mukheli said that this system made him confident about the two NFT sales he had already made.

“The world is constantly changing,” he said. “If I cling to what I know, then I’m going to miss the bus.”

For vonMash, the solution was not to sell on Ethereum, but to place his art on a platform called Cardano, which uses a different authentication system.

Rather than asking companies to solve increasingly difficult puzzles, Cardano uses a mechanism called “proof of stake”.

Instead of earning new tokens by solving puzzles – and gobbling up electricity – users can simply pony up the tokens they already have.

Essentially, they use their money in the form of cryptocurrency to guarantee the authenticity of a piece of digital art.

If anyone tries to trick the system, or simply makes a mistake, they could lose their financial stake in the network.

The technology behind it can be confusing, but social impact consultant Candida Haynes said “the little story is that there are less environmentally hazardous options for NFTs.”

“Ultimately, blockchain developers must also commit to sustainability and help keep less technical people, including artists, informed about the state of environmental sustainability in blockchains,” he said. she stated.

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Marilyn M. Davis