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Can You Be an NFT Artist and an Environmentalist?

Artists have frequently depicted the environmental impact of technology. The Impressionists of the 19th century were known for their paintings of trains and the shifting landscapes of industrialization. Photographers in the early 20th century captured with awe the trams and high-rises of the rapidly escalating urban environment. Amid the social movements of the 1960s and ’70s, environmental art became a major new form as artists tried to express the precarity of local ecologies, increasingly aware of the long-term consequences of economic activities. Artists explore emerging technologies to address their potentials and problems, with recent attention turning to the carbon footprint of our electronic expansion, as well as what might be done about it.

For artists who want to experiment with NFTs and blockchain, the desire to create environmental art seems to conflict with the actual goal of saving the environment. The Bitcoin and Ethereum platforms operate on a principle called “proof of work” (PoW), in which computers solve complex puzzles to verify a transaction, for which that computer (or “miner”) is then rewarded with some amount of the cryptocurrency. Initially, people could mine on a simple gaming computer. However, the system is designed to increase the difficulty of the puzzles as more people, or rather computers, join the peer-to-peer network. This energy increase is an intentional part of the security in the PoW system.

As a result, according to research conducted by artist and computer scientist Memo Akten, by the end of 2020, mining an NFT took at least 35 kWh of electricity—that is, the process, from mouse click to claiming the right to produce the block, demanded that much energy, emitting 20 kg of CO2. For comparison, sending an email produces a few grams of CO2, and watching an hour of Netflix produces only 36 grams, Akten says. Others examining NFTs and studies of Bitcoin have found even higher emissions. Though people debate the calculations, the undeniable point is that carbon emissions must be recognized and addressed, since emissions are responsible for the climate crisis’ temperature increase and ocean acidification, both of which kill existing life.

Amid the speculative enthusiasms of Silicon Valley and other global tech breeding grounds, financiers seek profit, not sustainability, in blockchains. Given the energy required to ensure a cryptographically secure blockchain, it seems as though there is no way to be an environmentalist and use the technology. But some artists are now reimagining the system, using blockchain to propose sustainable practices.

As early as 2017, artist and engineer Julian Oliver recognized that the number of computers competing to solve a puzzle and produce the hash for a transaction must demand enormous energy from oil, coal, or natural gas to power those machines. He proceeded to create Harvest (2017), which is both a media work and a working prototype for an alternative crypto-mining operation. Adapting a small wind turbine with environmental sensors, a weatherproof computer, and a 4G uplink, the machine uses wind energy as a source of electricity to mine cryptocurrency. All proceeds were funneled to climate change research.

As more artists became aware of the environmental consequences of blockchain practices, they pressed for platforms to move away from PoW. An alternative now exists called “proof of stake” (PoS), which some alt-coins have been using for a while. PoS uses a pseudo-random process to assign a miner—now called a “forger” in this PoS landscape—the right to validate a block. The forger has to commit a stake in the chain, typically a deposit of a certain amount, to become a validator that can store data, process transactions, and add new blocks to the chain; a greater stake leads to more validation opportunities, and thus more income. There aren’t many computers competing to solve the puzzle, since only one is assigned to forge the block, which greatly reduces the energy expenditure and carbon emissions of the process. Though there are security risks and economic implications that lead some to reject its improved environmental impact, many artists have committed to using PoS chains.

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Nancy Baker Cahill is one of them. Her NFTs are largely on PoS chains, but since ether (ETH) is the most popular NFT cryptocurrency, she has received some of that, which is PoW. Baker Cahill has staked that ether to a new iteration of the chain known as ETH2 as a vote for the currency to shift to PoS, because these seemingly ethereal realms have very real material impact—which is a topic of her work as well. Baker Cahill adopts augmented reality’s abilities to overlay content on a geo-specific location and help audiences grasp the interconnectedness of the virtual and the tangible. She says, “We are hybrids of technology and microbes, inhabiting a largely undifferentiated natural-artificial world … The artist’s role in this situation is to discover and harness adaptable parts of old systems and mutate them into something new.” Recognizing that “profound truths often lurk in constructed simulations,” Baker Cahill launched Mushroom Cloud, an AR projection and complex of NFTs, in December 2021, during Art Basel Miami, and iterated for Frieze LA. (Showing this project at fairs aims to keep the art industry aware of the carbon footprint associated with global travel.)

The animation opens with an incandescent mushroom cloud exploding over the water, a visual that links the impact of continued carbon consumption in the 21st century with the nuclear devastation of the 20th century. And yet, the mushroom is also a symbol of hope; fungi have the power to break down most hydrocarbon materials, including oil spills, and can be used to produce sustainable alternatives to plastic. Their underground mycelia transport carbon through a mycorrhizal lattice connecting and communicating with plants, in what the biologist Merlin Sheldrake called the wood wide web. The fungal system is similar to our internet—the basis for blockchain and therefore the NFT that enables sale of this work, but also 4th Wall App, which allows anyone to access this public AR work. The app also curates geolocated projects around the world. In this way, art can transport ideas across the internet, like mushrooms communicate life across the planet.

There is no context in which we can speak of the environment separate from economics. The two are bound together. In 1972, a team of international researchers published Limits to Growth, urging the need to take global warming seriously, not only for environmental and humanitarian reasons, but for national security and economic reasons as well. Blockchain is a technology with protocols and features still in development. Its ecological impact can be mitigated when designed to do so. The Crypto Climate Accord, launched by the Rocky Mountain Institute, the Energy Web Foundation, and the Alliance for Innovative Regulation, encourages all blockchain activity to transition to renewable energy by 2030 and to reach net zero emissions by 2040. This requires that any greenhouse gases going into the atmosphere be balanced by a removal mechanism, which is the basis of carbon markets.

One vision for how this may work comes through M Carbon Dioxide, by artist Sven Eberwein. Produced in November 2020, before the hue and cry over blockchain’s environmental impact hit the mainstream, the artwork uses the NFT format to present how carbon markets could be brought on-chain. M Carbon Dioxide shows a blue sphere and cloud formation—reminiscent of NASA’s famous “Blue Marble.” The image is strewn with black specks that slowly dissipate, representing the 1,000 tons of CO2 purchased and retired as verified credit units on the Verra registry.

Businesses and individuals purchase carbon credits to compensate for their emissions, such as occur from air travel. A credit becomes available for a company to purchase when an organization proves it avoided emitting—or actually removed from the atmosphere—1 metric ton of carbon, through practices like reforestation, wind farm development, or carbon sequestration. Retiring credits means they are no longer available for use. It limits the offsets that people or businesses can buy.

Distrust of carbon markets stems partly from earlier questionable practices (like using the same carbon credit for multiple parties), but registry standards and oversight organizations like Verra Registry or CarbonPlan have instituted greater transparency. The UN climate conference in Glasgow formalized how countries would buy and sell UN-certified carbon credits from one another, as a means of measuring their pledges under the Paris climate agreement. Despite concerns about loopholes, a major achievement was managing the possible double spending problem, which is one of blockchain’s initial use purposes.

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The offsets in M Carbon Dioxide were purchased directly from two projects: Cerro de Hula Wind Project in Honduras and Bull Run Forest Carbon Project in Belize. In the corner of the work are two QR codes that link to Verra Registry to show the proof of ownership of the carbon retired from both organizations in the name of M Carbon Dioxide. This produces a bridge from the real world to the blockchain. It was a proof of concept but not yet scalable. Eberwein was advised on the accounting and legal side of this project by Toucan Bridge and Offsetra, and it became the model used by Toucan. In this way, artists’ projects can help stimulate new possibilities.

Eberwein was able to show how blockchain as a technology, and NFTs in particular, could be “productive instruments in fighting the climate crisis by bridging CO2 offsets on-chain and utilizing them in new value-additive ways.” In this process, he connected with KlimaDAO, an organization that tokenizes third-party-verified carbon offsets, making use of blockchain’s transparency and immutability to ensure that those credits are permanently traced and won’t lead to double use. Eberwein was intrigued by the potential in how KlimaDAO seeks to accelerate the cost of carbon, in order to pressure businesses into investing in low-carbon technologies and carbon-removal projects. KlimaDAO’s treasury represents semi-retired carbon credits. (Technically, the credits retain their economic value and act as financial backing for Klima, so they are not retired; but, since they can’t leave the KlimaDAO treasury and are removed from the marketplace, they operate as if retired.) The decrease in carbon offsets available to businesses drives up the price, incentivizing alternative fuel programs and practices.

Eberwein was among many artists concerned for the environment who was criticized for using Ethereum, given its PoW energy demands. M Carbon Dioxide was carbon-neutral, due to the offsets assigned for the project, but he shifted to Polygon for CO2_Compound (2021). In this iteration of his continued attempts to discover how blockchain might impinge on fossil fuel markets, he made the artwork into an economic actor. CO2 Compound appears like an eye, with the pupil representing the Klima token staked into the project, then valued at 4.14 tons of carbon offsets.

That token can’t be extracted, and so it is a commitment to KlimaDAO’s project to produce sustainable and verifiable carbon markets. Each Klima token is backed by a minimum of 1 ton of tokenized carbon offsets that are held in reserves by the treasury; the reserves in the treasury determine the maximum supply of Klima tokens at any given time. As the token increases in value, so does the amount of carbon tonnage that it represents, tracked by a website. After three months, the work has compounded to 26 tons of carbon offset, which is a remarkable 525 percent return. As an NFT, the work was sold for 7.5 ether on December 6, 2021, through OceanDrop, an auction organized by the Open Earth Foundation funding marine life conservation. What is fascinating about KlimaDAO is the way it aims to subvert current carbon practices so that the value of carbon comes not from its emission but from its removal and sequestration. Eberwein’s work experiments with the potential of this new economic model to protect our environment.

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These artists communicate and challenge the impact of this emergent technology on our fragile ecosystem. Digital artists have a chance to iterate in their explorations of climate and energy issues, to risk and fail and try again, as they attempt to both visualize and enact a better set of environmental politics. It took one carpet-tile company 30 years to develop a carbon-negative product; every advance revealed additional improvements to adopt. Mistakes are not a reason to quit, and fear of failure cannot stop efforts to find better ways of being in the world. Memo Atken is right when he warns, “Rejection of technology is a rejection of humanity. To break out of this false dichotomy, we must adapt a holistic approach—to embrace not only technology, but all of humanity, all of nature—including technology.” The flaws in current blockchain practices can’t be wished away, and only active exploration of the consequences can create alternatives. These artists are not just representing how blockchains work, but reimagining how they can work to defend our world.


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