Why I’m Going to Stop Minting NFTs (For Now)

The problems with the current system and what we need to do about it.

As with all my writing, this is a living, breathing document and will be updated as I learn more to make the information as accurate as possible. I will always note any edits or changes.

Edits

My name is Ethan Proia. I’m an artist and creative technologist, and I was accepted by SuperRare about one month ago.

I’d known generally about crypto and NFTs for a few years before I had an opportunity to jump in, but I wasn’t very familiar with the mechanisms or politics. I’d heard whispers of crypto and NFTs being “bad” for the environment, but hadn’t seen or been exposed to any of the details or metrics. And so, gripped by hype and FOMO and with ETH in my eyes, I reduced these warnings to growing pains that would surely work themselves out; inevitable hiccups and challenges of a new and developing technology.

After a lot of research, learning, and listening over the last few weeks, I’ve decided to stop minting NFTs until we figure this out, and I encourage other artists who don’t rely on NFTs for survival to do the same (for now — I’ll explain).

This article assumes familiarity with how blockchain technology and cryptocurrencies work as well as what NFTs/cryptoart are and how they’re related to the blockchain. Given the many excellent and digestible explanations on the Internet, I felt it redundant for me to regurgitate that information here. If these concepts are new to you or you’d like to learn more, I strongly encourage you to carefully read through the articles linked at the end of this writing for more information and other perspectives.

Overview

As long as users’ systems consume non-renewable energy to validate transactions (by means of any consensus method), blockchains will be a destructive force against the environment. This means that even moving exclusively to “efficient” Proof of Stake (PoS) systems will not magically make the blockchain completely clean, as the majority of validators staking Ether will still be running computers powered by nonrenewable energies. That being said, the whole network will be consuming far less energy by several orders of magnitude, as mining is what necessitates the unreasonable energy requirements of PoW consensus algorithms. This is why PoS algorithms do not rely on mining.

What people have been proposing in the short term is by no means a crypto panacea. As a stop-gap solution until more sweeping environmental regulations are globally adopted, we must require that all activities conducted on the blockchain contribute as little pollution as possible. This means using the most efficient energy and computational technologies available. This is the bare minimum of what can be done today for the sake of the environment.

The Short Term

Simply put, many see the inefficiency of the current Ethereum Proof of Work (PoW) blockchain as the immediate problem with NFTs. Cryptoart marketplaces and NFTs use this network. Artists mint NFTs on this network. We are part of the problem.

“But artists aren’t the problem!”

No, we’re not the problem, but we are part of the problem. We benefit from this inefficient and destructive Proof of Work (PoW) blockchain and need to be aware of our contributions and involvement.

Crypto and NFTs are here to stay, but they need to change. The evidence is abundantly clear that cryptocurrencies & blockchain technologies are disproportionately harmful to the environment when compared to other digital or computational activities. This is actually by design — it’s how PoW cryptos derive their value, as explained by Everest Pipkin and Memo Akten.

As in my case, most new NFT artists are likely uneducated or oblivious to the extent of the damage being done by their actions (or that there’s even any problem at all). There has been little to no extensive conversation about this in the community until very recently, and there’s even less accessible peer-reviewed data.

While I don’t “blame” artists for what’s happening, I do think we have the power and influence to do something about it. While hype builds in the community, NFT marketplaces capitalize on this momentum by continuing to promote the potential of #CryptoArt and #NFTs to artists. Most NFT platforms have so far chosen to stay silent about the environmental issues. Those who have spoken out used the opportunity to propagate information that won’t jeopardize their bottom line or reputation. The most common claim is that artists aren’t actually causing any additional environmental harm due to a debate about how blockchain transactions actually work, suggesting that the problem is insignificant and will soon be solved… (more on this later).

In fact, many new artists moving into the NFT space have no tech background or familiarity with cryptocurrencies. They’re at the mercy of the community; following instructions and onboarding procedures provided by the NFT platforms or friends in the space who know their way around. As far as I know, none of the major NFT marketplaces are making the slightest suggestion that what artists are getting into could even peripherally be related to the environment — much less that it could be actively destructive. The technicalities and truths of the minting process are hidden behind sleek interfaces and overwhelming new processes, concepts, and jargon for newcomers.

NFT platforms need to take more responsibility for the actions of the communities that they’re enabling and cultivating. Access to this technology is now so democratized that anyone can follow some step-by-step instructions, make a wallet, and start collecting or selling digital art in a matter of minutes. A traditional painter with no prior knowledge of crypto can now tokenize their art and begin making a living without much more difficulty than opening a Twitter account. What we now have is an amazing, vast, and diverse group of artists and collectors, but conveniently, nobody is given crucial information and education about the full scope of what they’re getting involved in. Something tells me we wouldn’t be seeing the same volume of artists and collectors flowing into NFTs if the environmental concerns were disclosed upfront.

The hard truth for artists and collectors is that you don’t have to be conscious of your involvement in something for it to still cause damage. In this sense, no, the artist is not at fault, but by contributing to this community and system, we are complicit. While pointing fingers and playing the blame game is unhelpful, I do believe that some players carry more responsibility than others. So, while your average artists aren’t doing the mining that consumes energy directly, that argument exploits a technicality and is designed to give artists a false peace of mind and continue minting artworks.

Another Perspective

Sterling Crispin and Sillytuna argue that the transition to Ethereum’s PoS is going to happen regardless of external pressure because it’s already well underway.

It’s a comfortable position to let yourself in, read a few summary articles, and start barking orders and demanding things. Many new people don’t have a full understanding of the landscape and are berating artists for participating when most artists themselves don’t fully understand the landscape or what they’re doing. Again, I do not support tearing down artists for trying to make a living, but I do believe we as artists have a responsibility to continue to educate ourselves about what we’re participating in.

We must try to empathize with these long-time users and creators who have invested years into this space and know it intimately. These people are of course going to react defensively to this huge wave of new belligerent people telling them that they don’t understand their own industry; that they’re complacent and doing it “wrong” and they’re killing the Earth (of this I am also partly guilty and trying to actively remedy).

The difficulty is that this stuff is truly very dense and complicated stuff for the uninitiated. It’s not one of those things where you can join in the middle and understand everything perfectly because there are a lot of intricacies and concepts that rely on each other and compound to form the truth. I truly believe that many, many engineers are working very hard to figure this out as soon as possible. It’s no small task.

As a new member of the space, though, I think external attention and new voices are absolutely essential. New perspectives are a tool to combat complacency — to shake things up, to expedite transitions.

The Data

Many have citied computational artist Memo Akten’s cryptoart.wtf for quantitative data on how harmful minting a single NFT can be. The numbers are extremely alarming, but as YouTuber Noealz noted in their video on the environmental impact of NFTs, there doesn’t seem to be enough dedicated research being done to peer-review or corroborate Akten’s results. In response to these and other criticisms, Akten has been periodically updating their Medium article with responses to common rebuttals and “misconceptions” about the data on cryptoart.wtf and the cryptoart sustainability problem as a whole.

To summarize, it frankly doesn’t really matter exactly how much energy minting a single NFT consumes. We know definitively that it’s comparatively outrageous to any other of our digital activities (even other activities on the blockchain!) and that it’s already been established that we can do significantly better — that’s all we have to know to push for change.

One of the major arguments circulating in defense of cryptoart and NFTs is that minting artworks is not harmful to the environment because it creates no additional pollution or uses any additional energy; that regardless of NFT minting activity, the blockchain would still consume the same amount of energy.

This is masking the symptoms, not treating the cause. Even if this argument were true about NFTs (and I’m still trying to get a definitive answer on this from an Ethereum engineer), how can we still feel okay about this answer in the bigger picture?

This is like saying “you’re already hemorrhaging blood, so getting some more blood drawn won’t be a problem”. We’re missing the point here. I’m not worried about getting more blood drawn, I’m worried that I’m bleeding out in the first place.

“Oh yeah, Ethereum is unreasonably inefficient and unsustainable, and there are alternatives, but at least you probably won’t make it any worse!” (Except that this might make it worse.)

This argument has been analogized using a vehicle that consumes non-renewable energy. Regardless of how many passengers are in the vehicle while traveling, it still consumes the same amount of energy and creates the same amount of pollution, so it doesn’t matter if you were on it or not, it’s still going to consume energy and pollute. This is an extremely narrow and reductionist position. These relationships of supply and demand cannot be understood in a vacuum and must be approached holistically and contextually.

While it may be true that the block will be mined or the vehicle will make its trip and consume energy regardless of what’s inside of it, that doesn’t mean that the vehicle has to make the trip. The more demand for travel, the more trips there will be and the more energy will be consumed. The more demand created by higher and higher volumes of NFT artists minting artworks and collectors jumping to buy, the more miners will set up new nodes to meet demand.

We can see this in action by looking at how the aviation industry and its associated emissions were effected by COVID in 2020.

At the beginning of the pandemic, out of fear of the virus and with so many unknowns, fewer people were flying, but airlines had not yet begun to change their flight schedules because we were too early in the pandemic to understand what was happening and how to react. Planes were still in the air, but they were near-empty. The energy consumed by an empty plane is essentially equivalent to that of a full plane, just like the common blockchain argument.

This argument falls apart the second you take into account that other external factors influence future flight schedules. Further into the lockdown, airlines were losing money by flying empty or half capacity planes, so the decrease in demand from travelers resulted in fewer flights being scheduled and fewer planes burning fuel. To nobody’s surprise, fewer flights resulted in less energy consumed and less pollution.

The supply responded to a decrease in demand stemming from a social incentive. In other words, they flew fewer planes less often because there were fewer people trying to fly because something was happening in the world that reduced a demand for air travel. Nothing exists in a vacuum.

If artists and collectors decrease the demand for miners by ceasing to mint NFTs until we have a more sustainable blockchain, there would be less energy consumption and fewer transactions to be mined. Though the computations may consume energy regardless of their contents, we can reduce the actual number of transactions and computations, which would be a measurable reduction of pollution. If there were no demand — or at least reduced demand, there would be less energy consumption and fewer transactions to be mined.

We can create a pressure for NFT marketplaces to transition to extant efficient blockchains like Cardano or Polkadot. As I said earlier, there is no single solution to solve crypto pollution, but we have viable and workable temporary solutions now that can mitigate a massive amount of the damage being done.

NFT marketplaces may say they’re looking into alternative blockchains or funding the development of Ethereum 2.0, but they don’t really have a lot of incentive to make that happen, do they?

If artists keep flooding into these platforms from FOMO, the promise of making millions, leading a movement for the future of art, etc. why would platforms sabotage their own momentum? If collectors keep dropping hundreds of thousands of dollars on new artworks, where is the external pressure and urgency on marketplaces to adopt more sustainable solutions? Where is the motivation for these marketplaces to change?

The power is in the hands of the creators and the collectors. The industry will mirror us. It will move where we move.

If more artists take up this position clearly and delay their NFTs, we can expedite the transition toward and adoption of a more efficient and environmentally-conscious blockchain.

The hype doesn’t have to die, NFTs don’t have to go away (because let’s be real, crypto isn’t going anywhere), we just need to be smarter and more conscientious today while things are still ramping up, so that we can set ourselves up for unabated success tomorrow.

Artists: whether you’ve made hundreds of thousands of dollars or you just applied to SuperRare today — the time is now. We can choose how this goes. If Beeple said today that he would not mint another artwork or series until Nifty Gateway announces a plan of action to transition to Polkadot, what might that set into motion through the industry?

Collectors: consider how much influence you now have. What if the three most active collectors tweeted today that they wouldn’t be collecting any new NFTs until the crypto marketplaces transition to a more efficient blockchain?

Wishful thinking perhaps, but I don’t believe we’re too deep into this to make that kind of change. The whole industry benefits from artists doing well, but we’d also all benefit from taking a little time and effort to do well sustainably.

The Long Term

“What about your NFTs?”

Unfortunately, what’s done is done. I minted five NFTs on SuperRare before I came to these conclusions and I can’t undo what I did. Truthfully, I still hope to sell the artworks that I minted and I hope to mint more in the future once the situation is improved.

For now, though, with this information circulating and the evidence so abundant, I cannot continue to mint artworks under the current system, especially when the biggest players seem to have no concerted efforts toward a solution. It’s of course tempting to brush it off and say, “ehh, well, it’ll probably work itself out. I’m fine to keep doing this because it will be sustainable eventually” and continue to mint and hope the situation improves sooner rather than later so I can keep trying to make money.

Even if minting NFTs doesn’t contribute any additional pollution, we’re still supporting Ethereum in its current inefficient form by minting and collecting while efficient alternatives already exist. Not to mention, we still have no definitive date for Ethereum 2.0.

I’ll be watching eagerly to see if the claim of 99% efficiency holds up when Ethereum 2.0 merges the PoS chain with the main chain. I’d also love to see new competitive platforms and marketplaces emerge that run on alternative blockchains, and it would be excellent to see existing platforms transition to existing efficient solutions that are already using Proof of Stake systems like Cardano or Polkadot.

With the continued promise of Ethereum 2.0 “just around the corner”, I worry that many artists will try to rationalize the remaining months or years of unnecessary pollution and damage with the hope that in due time the blockchain will get the efficiency tune-up that’s been promised. Then everyone can breathe a sigh of relief and continue minting guilt-free, chalking up those years of damage as necessary “growing pains”.

We simply don’t have this luxury.

I understand firsthand that the allure and promise of NFTs can become all-consuming (I was completely obsessed for five weeks straight), but we have to make a decision before we let this go any further.

Please understand — I hold crypto. I want crypto to succeed. I want NFTs to succeed. I believe in this future. We just need to do it right the first time because we won’t have a second chance.

We cannot build the future on a crumbling foundation.

Comments & constructive debate are encouraged here on Medium or anywhere else. Thank you for reading and I’d love to talk further.

Ethan Proia | Artist & Creative Technologist

Artist & creative technologist making and writing about the future of technology and society.

Artist & creative technologist making and writing about the future of technology and society.