The first thing I read about NFTs (non-fungible tokens) highlighted their heinous environmental impact. It focused on how a shuttered coal plant had been re-opened to meet the energy demand for crypto currencies used to create NFTs. I don’t remember much else about that article, but it was published in the early fall of 2021 when, as an emerging digital artist, I first got interested in the possibility of creating NFTs.
While the climate activist in me was outraged, my artist self was disappointed. I loved the idea of selling and shipping my art to collectors all over the world with a single click. The NFT world beckoned.
But if the process of ¨minting¨ an NFT was truly an energy suck, I wanted no part of it.
It was only a few weeks later, in a Twitter Space (an audio-only live chat session) that I got schooled on the subject of NFTs and their relationship to the environment. Both the NFT enthusiasts and climate activists in that session pointed out my limited understanding, essentially throwing me off my misguided activist high horse.
Allow me to save you from that humbling experience.
You see, I was making the mistake of painting all NFTs with the same planet-bruising brush. The reality is that there are non-art NFT projects that are contributing to everything from regenerative agriculture to ocean plastic removal, rainforest protection to forest carbon sequestration. The verification and transparency of blockchain tokens has been a boon to projects committed to reducing the impacts of climate change.
Not only that, but there are numerous regenerative art NFT projects dedicated to raising funds for a wide range of climate-related causes.
So, why all the bad press for NFTs? What only a few months ago was considered a “dirty” industry is now seen by those who are informed as a progressive field committed to choosing planet-forward options. Even the United Nations, the organization that established the widely-quoted Sustainable Development Goals, has stated that crypto currurrencies and the technology that powers them (blockchain) can play an important role in sustainable development, and actually improve our stewardship of the environment.
Some estimates claim that up to 60% of crypto mining globally now uses renewable energy. It turns out that crypto mining, because it incentivizes the use of the most cost-efficient energy sources (such as the low-use periods of wind and solar farms), actually supports and expands the renewables industry. In addition, crypto mining is mobile, meaning it can be located near the energy source rather than requiring expensive transmission lines and power grids.
Art NFTs, those often-cartoony jpegs that have been hyped, overpriced, stolen, and scammed, have been most frequently created using Ethereum on marketplaces such as OpenSea. And yes, the “minting” process, because of the energy-intensive Proof of Work protocol that Ethereum has been using, has indeed had a significant impact on the environment. Cities, states, and entire countries have banned or placed a moratorium on crypto mining using coal or natural gas as energy sources.
But things are changing quickly. Remember when computers used to take up an entire room? Now we can carry one in our pocket. Blockchain technology is going through a remarkably rapid energy transition, with newer crypto currencies now employing a far more energy-efficient Proof of Stake protocol using less than .05% of the energy required by Proof of Work.
The biggest news in the NFT world is this: Ethereum will be switching to an energy-efficient Proof of Stake process this fall. This is an extremely complex maneuver that has required years of tests and tentative steps forward. Once this “Merge” is complete, Ethereum will join Solana, Tezos, and other energy-efficient crypto currencies, making it easy for any artist to create an NFT using about the same amount of energy required to do a couple of Google searches.
Obviously, this does nothing to replace the energy that has been consumed by millions of Ethereum transactions to date. Still, it is reassuring that the biggest NFT kid on the blockchain has both the will and the formidable technological wizardry to make this high-stakes change. It bodes well for the industry as a whole, and inspires leaders in all fields to make bold moves for the sake of energy efficiency.
We can expect a surge in climate-related NFT projects (art and otherwise) in the months and years ahead. So, while we might still roll our eyes at the Bored Apes and their colorful peers, the new breed of energy-efficient non-fungible tokens offers possibilities that get both climate activists and artists excited.
How can a climate-aware artist use blockchain for good?
Step 1: First, do no harm.
Choose a Proof of Stake crypto currency and related marketplace.
Solana (used by marketplaces like Magic Eden, Solanart, Exchange.Art, formfunction.xyz and others) and Tezos (objkt, hic et nunc, Kalamint, fxhash, Versum, etc.) have been the crypto darlings of the climate-focused NFT crowd. They are currently the most popular choices for those who want a fast, secure, cheap, and eco-friendly foundation for their projects, but there are more options popping up monthly, with NFT platforms that are tied to one or even multiple currencies.
For the merely crypto-curious, there’s Voice.com, a carbon-neutral NFT marketplace allowing collectors to buy an NFT using a credit card. Though some crypto purists do not look upon Voice as the decentralized ideal, it is a vibrant marketplace with a commitment to diversity and inclusion, and making great strides in getting people interested in buying NFTs and supporting artists from around the world. Artists themselves are paid in crypto, which is a real advantage for many who live in places with unstable governments and currencies. And if you’re a crypto-virgin artist, Voice is one of the easiest ways to get started with NFTs on a platform that prioritizes people and planet.
Step 2: Actively support climate solutions.
Donate a percentage of the profits from your art sales to a non-profit organization.
I keep things simple by donating directly to organizations doing good work that meshes with my particular artwork or art series. In fact, I intentionally create art that is linked visually or thematically to the projects I wish to support.
But I’m just one artist. There are countless regenerative art NFT team projects created on energy-efficient blockchains and supporting climate solutions in a big way. Many feature art depicting trees, plants, and marine life to raise funds for non-profit organizations striving to protect them. Though most mimic the animated look made popular by early projects, there are also fine artists doing exemplary photography, painting, or Artificial Intelligence NFT art pieces that contribute to social and environmental causes.
You can easily donate crypto currency directly through TheGivingBlock.com. It partners with hundreds of non-profit organizations, giving them a simple way to dramatically increase their fundraising ability by accepting crypto currency donations.
Bottom line: If you are an artist who cares about the environment, rejoice! You now have a far more powerful way to use your work to make a difference. NFT artists are creating single artworks or collections of anywhere from 100 to 10,000 pieces and selling them for the purpose of raising funds to plant trees, remove plastic particles, sequester carbon, and protect biodiversity. Because NFT marketplaces make it easy to sell to collectors around the world, artists are finding new audiences who love their work AND want to buy from those committed to solving environmental problems.
A few months ago, I was the only one talking about climate at any virtual conference dedicated to Web3, blockchain, and the Metaverse. Now, there are entire conferences dedicated to the intersection of Web3 and climate, with speakers that include smart technologists, environmental scientists, climate tech entrepreneurs, farmers, artists, screenwriters, and creative directors from around the world.
Part of embracing new creative journeys is remembering that things can be unpredictable. Crypto and blockchain tools are not yet perfect, but as digital natives, like the rest of Gen A, they will take us places we have not yet imagined.
Not that the world of NFTs is only for the young. I am in my sixties. I have seen how technology that once seemed impossible is now a daily tool we cannot imagine living without. So, I embrace the greening world of regenerative NFTs for the sake of my grandchildren.
Whether you decide to create, collect, or avoid NFTs, know that blockchain technology is a valuable tool that is being used to address the biggest issues facing our world. And the more informed, united, and vocal we become, the more likely that this new technology will be used to solve the problems we care about most.