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The problem of CryptoArt

I spent the past 15 years flying to festivals, galleries, events, art fairs to exhibit and distribute my work while building my art practice. Most of these projects are unsustainable, so when I decided to lower my impact and cut plane travel, I started looking at alternatives.

The CryptoArt market is a new way for artists to distribute digital works to collectors: often digital images and video files. The blockchain technology provides secure ownership, traceability, artist commission on second market sales and a thriving market place, with platforms emerging quickly: Nifty Gateway, SuperRare, MakersPlace.. It’s a vibrant and welcoming community, a place to discuss the works with collectors, and it brings a lot of benefits that the Art market fails to provide.

With no travel involved, and a mostly digital distribution, this new model looks like it has the potential to become a sustainable practice for artists. That’s until you understand the magnitude of the environmental impacts of the current blockchain: It is a DISASTER.

Today was supposed to be my second CryptoArt release on NiftyGateway.

Considering the insane and unnecessary waste of electricity involved, I’ve decided to cancel the drop until the issue is addressed.


THE IMPACT OF ENERGY CONSUMPTION

So you may wonder: Why is energy consumption so important?

Understanding and reducing our consumption(s) is the defining challenge of our time, and the tomorrow’s “habitability” of the planet depends on our actions today.

Today, the Crypto infrastructure relies mostly on fossil fuels (64% of the world’s electricity: coal 38%, oil and gas 26%). The CO2 emissions, combined with a steady growth of consumption is pushing us towards a climate apocalypse.

The energy production infrastructure is out of our sight, and we often have the feeling that electricity is abundant, limitless and we disregard its impact. This concept is best described by Rob Nixon as “Slow Violence“.
Most of us pay the bills and don’t worry about it, but to grasp the magnitude of the impact, you have to see it. The largest coal mine of Europe being just 1h30 from my studio, I’m now going there on a regular basis to document and understand the scope of our growing energy consumption.


In a nutshell: In order to produce electricity, we extract coal, forests are razed, people expropriated, villages and churches destroyed, the air polluted, and the entire region is being turned into a wasteland. 270 000 Tons of CO2 are emitted at Hambach, each day.

We, as technologists, softwares developpers, and energy consummers, are at the core of extractivism (ie: this mine runs on Autodesk softwares).

After witnessing so much destruction and despair, I decided to support activist groups opposing coal mining, and also to act on a personal level, auditing my own consumption, in order to reduce it. Here’s the data:


Blog post: The Energy Consumption of the Studio


With consistent efforts, alongside a hard decision to also cut plane travel, I am now reducing my consumption by at least 10% every year.
From 4.618 kWh (2018) to below 3.800 kWh (my 2020 target), I was on a good track to reach my objective of responsible degrowth.

This was before I released CryptoArt.


THE LACK OF TRANSPARENCY ON CRYPTOART PLATFORMS

I knew that CryptoArt requires significant energy consumption, so I decided to limit my first proper release to 6 pieces: a series around the platonic solids. (See Twitter thread). The work was available as a editions (53 in total).

After a lot of work, discussions and preparation, it was released on Nifty Gateway. It sold out in about 10 seconds. I’m really thankful to the team for their support and advice, and especially to Duncan who helped me craft this release and was one of the first to collect my work.

In order to assess the impact of the sale, I then asked the platform some details about the CO2 emissions and energy consumption.

Despite several requests, they did not provide any information.



THE ACTUAL IMPACT OF MY DROP ON NIFTY GATEWAY


Understanding that the information was not available, I reached out to Offsetra, a carbon offset company familiar with the impact of blockchain technologies. We went through the details of transactions. It turns out that the 53 edition emitted about 80kg of CO2 each, and worst, every resale by collectors continues today to increase that impact. [Note: Offsetra calculates carbon footprint for ETH wallets, not smart-contracts or individual tokens]
Their tool is available on https://carbon.fyi/

Then my friend Memo Akten (artist, engineer and PhD) started a remarkable investigation, over weeks of research he created a set of tools to assess your crypto wallet (available on http://cryptoart.wtf ). He also wrote an in-depth article about The Unreasonable Ecological Cost of #CryptoArt.

To this date, there is no information available on any of the platforms to inform the users about the insane waste linked to those transactions.

It turns out my release of 6 CryptoArt works consumed in 10 seconds more electricity than the entire studio over the past 2 years.

This lack of transparency basically ruined two years of efforts.

After Memo’s article, Nifty Gateway finally responded to confirm the magnitude of the damage. The individual bids have no impact, as the transactions are already off-chain (which is better than most platforms !), but no mention of the terrible impact of large open editions, which create the most damage. They are working on a solution that could reduce impact by 99%, using NFT Scaling, now delayed until April 2021. But there is still no information, no warning to inform the artists. Transparency wasn’t, and still isn’t, a priority.

We should not have to investigate, or rely on external parties to get critical information about the impact of releasing CryptoArt and NFTs.



And it keeps increasing, now at 9,139 kWh, see breakdown on CryptoArt.wtf

HOW TO REDUCE EMISSIONS, NOW:

In a distant future, ETH2 and PoS (Proof-of-stake) will reduce drastically the energy consumption of the network, but here’s what the platforms can do, now:

1 – Transparency and ‘Best practices’:
Provide clear information on the impact, and how to minimize it. ie: limit the amount of transactions, avoid large editions.

2- “Ethereum Scaling
We can reduce the impact, today, by 99% (according to Nifty Gateway) by implementing NFT scaling. A system like Harmony can be deployed on any of the existing platforms, is compatible with ETH wallets and requires minimal backend work while allowing a reduction of the energy consumption required per transaction. Matic/Polygon seems to offer a similar alternative for existing platforms.
Harmony, Avalanche, Cardano are all PoS (impact reduction of 99%), and have Art platforms in the making, and should be ready within the coming 2-3 months.

“NFT scaling” can be deployed in weeks and reduce 99%* of energy waste.

This should be the absolute priority, before any further release of CryptoArt.

*(figure provided by NiftyGateway)


3 – Minimize on-chain transaction:
Keep all unnecessary transactions off-chain. Ie: Bids should become transactions only when a sale is confirmed, to avoid Tons of CO2 emissions per NFT.

In my opinion, platforms that are serious about their impact should put on hold their upcoming releases, and urgently implement NFT scaling before any further release.
It’s also important to provide the artists detailed information about their impact and how to minimize it.

I personally invited and introduced artists and friends to the CryptoArt space, without understanding the insane energy waste, and I share part of the responsibility of their impact. I am now urging them to put their sales on hold until these problems are addressed and implemented by the platforms.

The first platforms to solve this issue will lead the community, and drive artists, collectors away from the irresponsible, non-ethical ones.

I am in contact with the teams at Nifty Gateway, Super Rare and MakersPlace, and I will liaise with them to follow up, and share on this page any significant progress they make.


A SYSTEMIC PROBLEM

Of course this particular issue of consumption, revealed here by the magnitude of the damage, isn’t tied to CryptoArt. It is embedded in our society: I participated in one night projection mapping events, music festivals and Art fairs that thousands of visitors fly to, exhibitions running with tens of projectors and servers, from GPU render farms to gadgets we order on amazon, all these have terrible impact too.
And in many cases, a responsible and informed use of NFT may even have a lower impact than our current lifestyles. Personally, I will invest all my previous CryptoArt profits into a drastic reduction of my heating (currently fossil gas) by insulating the building, investing into a heat pump, switching to renewables. This should help me cut my overall consumption(s) by 60%.

In that regard, I don’t think the issue is CryptoArt itself, the real problem is when downplay, avoid or delay the urgent reductions that are required now.


THE CONFUSION ABOUT CARBON “OFFSET”.

Offset is often suggested as a potential way to cancel or reduce our CO2 impact. It is a dangerous misconception:

While these projects and investments are great, it will have no impact on your own CO2 emissions. None.

In fact these are often used as an excuse, to avoid reducing your emissions in the first place and to delay further the hard decisions we have to make.

What about carbon capture ?
The technology just does not exist at scale, we can not make plans or rely on a technology that may just never be deployed.

What about planting trees ?
We worked on a project with Juliette Bibasse to study that idea: << How many trees to make a Forest >>


Here are the many reasons why this will never cancel your CO2 emissions:

IRREVERSIBILITY:
Fossil fuel CO2 emissions (63 % of crypto) are irreversible: while coal, oil and gas formed over 6 to 10 Millions years, it was stored permanently underground, trees can only hold CO2 temporarily, over their lifetime.

TIMESCALE:
A tree planted can only capture about 60 kg of CO2 over the first 10 years. Those trees are likely to be sold and cut before they capture any significant amount of CO2. To get an idea of the problem, 55 600 trees are cut every minute, a profitable business with more influence and power than NGOs.


It will take a tree 12 years
to offset the minting
of a single NFT

A tree captures ~5.9kg OF CO2/year during its first 10 years

Tools like “green certificates“, “carbon credits“, (alongside offsets, carbon capture and tree planting) are actually used by the fossil fuel industry to justify the expansion of their business, and their main excuse to avoid any reductions.

While many offset companies are scam, I like the approach of Offsetra on this: first reduce all your impacts, only then offset will start making sense.

So there is no way around this topic, let’s not find excuses or try to buy off our guilt, but let’s focus on reducing our impacts, now.

It was a difficult decision to cancel my release after all the work done, and I had to investigate and have numerous zooms and calls to write this heavy post instead, but it feels like the only reasonable option. I am available to help the platforms who are willing to accelerate the transition, and I will be vocal about any efforts in that direction.


CLIMATE ACTION

As tree planting and individual actions won’t be sufficient, I suggest supporting activists opposing the fossil fuel industry on the ground. Groups like Extinction Rebellion, Ende Gelaende, Fridays for Future, are using civil disobedience and do non-violent, direct actions to block the coal, oil and gas infrastructure. Follow my “climate action” newsletter to find out more creative ideas to accelerate the system change we need.



POINT LIGHT

Let me finish this long post with a glimpse of the works I was supposed to release today. I won’t go into details yet, but the Point light series are projections of light in space, and it will be deployed as a set of instructions, to setup the installation.

I am putting this series, and all new NFT releases on hold for the moment, until a responsible and ethical platform emerges.


Thanks to Memo Akten for raising the alarm, to Offsetra for the insights, and to all the artists, collectors, friends and people on Discord channel: Eco-NFTs for the support, discussions, advice and proofreading.


Comments

  • Dankrad Feist

    février 19, 2021 at 1:15

    Thanks for raising this problem, it should definitely on anyone’s mind and continuing to run on proof of work when much better consensus algorithms are now available is simply not defensible.

    I would like to comment on you writing “In a distant future, ETH2 and PoS (Proof-of-stake)” would be implemented. Proof of stake is already running in parallel now (the beacon chain was launched in December), and we are rapidly developing the merge where the ETH1 chain will use this consensus algorithm (and thus get rid of proof of work). This point is probably about 1 year away now, give or take. I wouldn’t call that distant future (but some might).

  • Joanie Lemercier

    février 19, 2021 at 1:47

    I was told 2 years yesterday. The thing is that these vague and uncertain objectives are often used to delay action.

    NFT scaling is available today, and can solve the problem, so let’s not wait one more day.

  • The problem of CryptoArt – Studio Joanie Lemercier – Blockchain & Society

    février 19, 2021 at 11:49

    […] Source: The problem of CryptoArt – Studio Joanie Lemercier […]

  • Dankrad Feist

    février 19, 2021 at 12:47

    Please do use scaling. I just want to put the distant future into perspective, that’s all. I don’t think it’s fair to put it in a basket with “we will have nuclear fusion in 30 years” or “we will go zero carbon in 2050”, this is running now: https://beaconcha.in/
    I’m optimistic and think we can do it in one year, someone much more pessimistic might think it takes two years, I agree.

  • Joanie Lemercier

    février 20, 2021 at 4:20

    It is mentionned, you can find this exact link is in the very first paragraph of the article. 😉

  • Otis West

    février 19, 2021 at 5:34

    There are already superior alternatives to ETH.
    Which are getting used already. Maybe the are even going to overtake ETH (due to it’s problems) in usage this year.
    Like BSC (Binance Smart Chain) and Zilliqa (zilliqa.mintable.app) .. just to name two

  • Gene Kogan

    février 20, 2021 at 12:17

    Hi Joanie!

    Respectfully, I disagree with you and Memo on some (not all) of your points. Full disclosure, I am just beginning to enter the NFT space myself (and art market in general), and moreso I’m very interested in and optimistic about the core technologies, and wish to see them succeed.

    I applaud you for pushing for environmentally sound scaling, and I support these projects and follow some of the research closely. There are already some decentralized exchanges on Ethereum layer 2, which account for a small amount of the transaction volume, but are more efficient and a blueprint for the future. Although I’m not really interested in trading platforms/exchanges, I suspect they will mature over time and help influence the NFT platforms and also enable interesting non-financial applications. It’s possible that your raising the issue more publicly will accelerate adoption and development of efficient scaling, and if it does, you and Memo should be commended for your role.

    The principle you stand for (we need to reduce energy waste as fast as possible) is valid and just, and I fully concur. I disagree however that it is necessary or productive for you to suspend or even delay your NFTs, or to try to persuade other artists to follow. I don’t think this accomplishes much, and may even detract from your cause. I think being active in the space, and bringing value and attention to it, while constructively pushing for improvements (which is what you have been doing all of this time) is much more effective. It brings attention and wealth into the space, which drives the innovation. Even people who don’t care about the environment want to move towards layer 2 for the sake of scale/throughput/low fees. The reason we’re not there yet isn’t for lack of care, but because the scaling technologies are still fragile and experimental. It’s not clear how simply not participating changes this.

    First, a technical point… The statistic of “energy per transaction” you and Memo often cite is misleading and I think based on a misunderstanding of how blockchains work, and what the energy is used for. The energy expenditure of a blockchain is a function of the total amount needed to secure it in a decentralized way, not (in principle) the amount of transactions it processes. In PoW systems, the difficulty of the PoW for a block is set artificially to consume just enough power to prevent a 51% attack, and a new block of transactions is mined on Ethereum roughly every 15 seconds, no matter how many transactions there are. For the last few weeks/months, the demand on Ethereum has been peaking, which is making for high gas fees (there’s not enough space for everyone). If you don’t mint your NFTs, there’s a downward pressure on the fees, and another transaction swoops in to take your place at the lower cost (or there’s just one less transaction, it doesn’t really matter). The point is that the amount of power consumed by the network is largely unaffected by your decision either way. The only way to actually use less power is to adopt L2 platforms — which I cautiously support — or to organize larger-scale boycotts which have macro effects on the value of Eth — which I oppose on the grounds that it’s destructive, mostly distracts from L2 adoption, and is arguably a futile endeavor when there is so much demand for limited space on the blockchain. And I think it’s a loss to this ecosystem not to have your work in it.

    I would also argue against the idea that the total energy expenditure as it is today is “wasted”. My view is that blockchains have the potential to create open, permissionless, borderless financial systems, and that this could be of tremendous utility to the world, most especially people who do not have free access to financial services. I find that much of the opposition to crypto (especially of the more polemic variety) is from people who don’t appreciate or care for this, nor have the patience to let ambitious technologies mature. I think we’ll look back on it in similar light as the internet, which also provoked plenty of skepticism back when its adoption numbers were similar to what blockchains have now (say late 90s). This whole field is still just 12 years old… It is normal for promising new technologies to have high up-front cost before it gets cheaper/faster/less energy-intensive/more available, from cars to TVs to internet to smartphones, etc. In my opinion, the high R&D cost of early-stage crypto is worth it.

    Note that I’m as new to this as most of us, and not 100% confident in my case, and I’m very open to rebuttals.

  • Gene Kogan

    février 20, 2021 at 12:30

    Hi Joanie!

    Respectfully, I disagree with you and Memo on some (not all) of your points. Full disclosure, I am just beginning to enter the NFT space myself (and art market in general), and moreso I’m very interested in and optimistic about the core technologies, and wish to see them succeed.

    I applaud you for pushing for environmentally sound scaling, and I support these projects and follow some of the research closely. There are already some decentralized exchanges on Ethereum layer 2, which account for a small amount of the transaction volume, but are more efficient and a blueprint for the future. Although I’m not really interested in trading platforms/exchanges, I suspect they will mature over time and help influence the NFT platforms and also enable interesting non-financial applications. It’s possible that your raising the issue more publicly will accelerate adoption and development of efficient scaling, and if it does, you and Memo should be commended for your role.

    The principle you stand for (we need to reduce energy waste as fast as possible) is valid and just, and I fully concur. I disagree however that it is necessary or productive for you to suspend or even delay your NFTs, or to try to persuade other artists to follow. I don’t think this accomplishes much, and may even detract from your cause. I think being active in the space, and bringing value and attention to it, while constructively pushing for improvements (which is what you have been doing all of this time) is much more effective. It brings attention and wealth into the space, which drives the innovation. Even people who don’t care about the environment want to move towards layer 2 for the sake of scale/throughput/low fees. The reason we’re not there yet isn’t for lack of care, but because the scaling technologies are still fragile and experimental. It’s not clear how simply not participating changes this.

    First, a technical point… The statistic of “energy per transaction” you and Memo often cite is misleading and I think based on a misunderstanding of how blockchains work, and what the energy is used for. The energy expenditure of a blockchain is a function of the total amount needed to secure it in a decentralized way, not (in principle) the amount of transactions it processes. In PoW systems, the difficulty of the PoW for a block is set artificially to consume just enough power to prevent a 51% attack, and a new block of transactions is mined on Ethereum roughly every 15 seconds, no matter how many transactions there are. For the last few weeks/months, the demand on Ethereum has been peaking, which is making for high gas fees (there’s not enough space for everyone). If you don’t mint your NFTs, there’s a downward pressure on the fees, and another transaction swoops in to take your place at the lower cost (or there’s just one less transaction, it doesn’t really matter). The point is that the amount of power consumed by the network is largely unaffected by your decision either way. The only way to actually use less power is to adopt L2 platforms — which I cautiously support — or to organize larger-scale boycotts which have macro effects on the value of Eth — which I oppose on the grounds that it’s destructive, mostly distracts from L2 adoption, and is arguably a futile endeavour when there is so much demand for limited space on the blockchain. And I think it’s a loss to this ecosystem not to have your work in it.

    I would also argue against the idea that the total energy expenditure as it is today is “wasted”. My view is that blockchains have the potential to create open, permissionless, borderless financial systems, and that this could be of tremendous utility to the world, most especially people who do not have free access to financial services. I find that much of the opposition to crypto (especially of the more polemic variety) is from people who don’t appreciate or care for this, nor have the patience to let ambitious technologies mature. I think we’ll look back on it in similar light as the internet, which also provoked plenty of skepticism back when its adoption numbers were similar to what blockchains have now (say late 90s). This whole field is still just 12 years old… It is normal for promising new technologies to have high up-front cost before it gets cheaper/faster/less energy-intensive/more available, from cars to TVs to internet to smartphones, etc. In my opinion, the high R&D cost of early-stage crypto is worth it.

  • Kyle McDonald

    février 20, 2021 at 1:30

    Gene, we agree Ethereum uses electricity. How do we divide up responsibility for those emissions? Memo and others use gas (not transactions) to estimate a proportion of our responsibility. This is not a technical issue, just a question of ethics and accountability. Arguing “it doesn’t matter whether you personally use the blockchain or not” is like arguing “it doesn’t matter whether you fly or not, the airplane is still going take off”.

  • Otis West

    février 20, 2021 at 1:52

    Wow my comment got deleted. Censorship is strong even in progressive artists discussions.
    Sustainability only where it fits into my own narrative, congratulations. Hypocrisy prevails, from the far right side all the way to the far left side.
    Ethereum is a bankers chain as almost any other crypto. It is used to enslave mankind to the digital ID. Even TOR was created by the CIA.
    However people need to withstand the division temptations by the elites. Those who don’t understand that, are just naively serving their agenda.

  • Joanie Lemercier

    février 20, 2021 at 4:22

    Your comment wasn’t deleted, it was just waiting approval, to avoid spam and viagra pills ads to take over.

  • Jeremy dePrisco

    février 20, 2021 at 4:23

    Thank you for posting this. I have been considering getting involved with Cent.co, which is another platform that you don’t mention in your article. But I think now I will hold off until I better understand their platform and the environmental impact.

  • Scott Draves

    février 20, 2021 at 9:15

    Thank you Gene for engaging. I agree with you blockchain is interesting and has potential worth exploring.

    However I have to disagree that implies or justifies using it as is to sell art — one can explore by writing code (https://www.hyperledger.org/) and developing applications where the blockchain really adds value (human rights, journalism), or maybe somehow optimizing the current system. But bitcoin is so expensive to the environment by so many orders of magnitude it is hard to imagine an incremental solution. Compared to regular transactions, coin is a disaster. Developing countries are using regular bank-backed systems https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mobile_payments_in_India. Crypto is not going to help the poor, it’s going to enable money laundering on a yet larger scale (instead of more scrutiny and safeguards to reduce it which is what we should do).

    Secondly this deflects responsibility because the carbon burn is not directly tied to individual transactions or artworks. Sounds like the old dodge of saying “well we don’t know that your kids cancer was bad luck or the chemical plant in their neighborhood”. Users of the blockchain are responsible for the blockchain’s carbon. Benzene causes cancer.

    So I hate to criticize any artist who has found a way to pay the rent, but I gotta draw the line at crypto-utopia. The way forward i would bet on is more like twitch or the app store. I actually have an idea for this — will contact you offline!

  • Otis West

    février 21, 2021 at 1:27

    Oh i`m very sorry and have to apologize. I haven`t been aware of that mechanism.
    I take back my criticism of course. Thank you for clarifying.
    Thank you also for your great artistic activism.

  • Joanie Lemercier

    février 22, 2021 at 12:52

    No problem, I appreciate your feedback !
    These are unconfortable issues to write about, and tbh I wish I didn’t have had to look into this at all in the first place 🙂
    Thanks !

  • Joanie Lemercier Calls for Crypto Art Boycott – HOLO

    février 22, 2021 at 4:11

    […] – Joanie Lemercier, on the staggering environmental cost of crypto art. In an impassioned op-ed published on his website, the French artist slams leading market platforms for inaction and a lack of transparency and calls for a crypto art boycott until the issue is addressed. “The first platforms to solve this issue will lead the community,” he writes, “and drive artists, collectors away from the irresponsible, non-ethical ones.” joanielemercier.com […]

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