Dear Umbra,

Should I be worried about non-fungible tokens? Every day I’m told about how liberating this NFT market is for artists like myself, but I’m filled with dread.

– Not Immediately Felicitating Technological Yahoos


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Dear NIFTY,

If you’re anything like me, worry and dread are like Hilary Duff songs. I’m not entirely sure how they snuck their way into my brain, but there they are, far louder than I’d prefer. How much longer have we got on this blue marble? Am I doing enough? Is my cat eating the right amount of food? I worry.

But non-fungible tokens? Nah. And yes, I’ve heard about the threat these digital collector’s items allegedly pose to the Earth’s climate. We’ll get to that shortly.

First, for those of you who have been doing your best to get through life without ever learning what an NFT is, I regret to inform you that it’s time to do so. I’ll try to make this exercise as painless as possible. NFT stands for “non-fungible token,” and fungible is just a chewy way of saying interchangeable. Some things, like currencies, have to be fungible in order for society to work properly. The value and utility of one dollar (or yuan or bitcoin) is exactly the same as any other. It doesn’t matter which particular dollar you’re holding, because it is fungible with all other dollars.

But most other assets aren’t like that. For example, each of these paintings by Vincent van Gogh sold for around $50 million in the late 1980s, suggesting they’re of comparable value — but you probably prefer one to the other. (I like the irises. The portrait of Roulin looks like a werewolf.) If you were in a position to actually shell out $50 million for a van Gogh, you’d care about authenticity, and you’d care about which one you got. Likewise, prints or reproductions don’t carry the same value as the original — apologies to your dorm room art collection. All to say: The paintings are not fungible.

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But the NFTs you are referring to aren’t exactly hanging in the Louvre. They’re online, which makes their value as collectible items a little harder to understand, but fundamentally they are records of ownership. Ownership of what, you ask? Well, this is where things get sticky. Digital real estate. Actual real estate. Domain names. A T-shirt for your avatar. Virtual sports cards. And, to your point, art, including digital art. Even when it refers to a pixel-art GIF of a Pop-Tart cat, an NFT is a public certificate of authenticity that identifies an artwork’s owner and usually contains a link to the piece. And that is worth something — at least, to some people.

Perhaps you heard that an NFT of a JPG by the artist Beeple (“the first purely digital work of art ever offered by a major auction house,” according to a tweet by Christie’s) just fetched a cool $70 million. To be crystal clear here: That means some start-up founder who’s now out $70 million can go to sleep knowing that they are the only person in the world who truly owns that digital image. To each their own! (“I feel like I got a steal,” the buyer told the New York Times.)

NIFTY, I suspect the people in your life hyping NFTs argue that they’re a good thing for those hoping to break into the art world. With a few clicks and some cash for transaction fees, anyone can create an NFT and offer it up for auction. Who needs Christie’s when you have OpenSea or Rarible? There’s no stodgy institution dictating what is worth a fortune and what isn’t. For some artists, that might imply a lower barrier to entry and an easier time making a living on their practice.

But one big problem with NFTs — and the reason they fill many climate-concerned people with dread, at the very least — is that they’re parked on digital ledgers that tend to be pretty carbon-intensive. That’s because they require a huge amount of computing power.

In order for these certificates of online ownership to be trustworthy, they need to be publicly available and unfalsifiable. Enter blockchains: databases maintained on a whole bunch of different computers at once for the purpose of security. Most NFTs exist as tokens on the Ethereum blockchain, for example, a digital ledger for the cryptocurrency Ether. Just like you put cash (fungible) and concert tickets (non-fungible) in your real-world wallet, you put cryptocurrencies and NFTs in the same crypto wallet. 

Implementing anti-fraud measures on blockchains often requires a huge amount of electricity. As you’re likely aware, most of that electricity still comes from the burning of fossil fuels, especially in China, where the lion’s share of these blockchain security operations (also called “mines”) currently exist. Cryptocurrency mines basically look like data centers, and running and cooling them accounts for more than 99 percent of the Ethereum network’s emissions. If you use one of these blockchains and benefit from these mines, one could argue you’re at least a little complicit in laying the path toward planetary destruction. 

But life is complicated, isn’t it, NIFTY? And as our usual Umbra Eve Andrews argues on the regular, it’s just not possible or practical to live your life by some kind of climate purity test. Just because you’re an artist who’s interested in NFTs doesn’t make you a planetary villain. Maybe you’re trying to make rent, or maybe you’re just trying to see what this brave new blockchain world is all about. In that case, I say, have at it. Care about the planet? Great. Find a blockchain that doesn’t require so much electricity to maintain! Sure, there are a couple of NFT carbon-footprint calculators out there in the world, but I’m not convinced the footprinting approach is the right way to grapple with cryptocurrencies’ ecological impacts. (Recall that it was the oil industry that helped popularize the notion of a carbon footprint in the first place. “Why should we decarbonize the energy sector? You’re the one using all that electricity to heat your home.”)

Instead, skip the footprinting and consider an eco-friendly crypto art platform like Kalamint, hic et nunc, or Pixeos, the latter of which runs on an allegedly carbon-neutral blockchain. Heck, here’s a spreadsheet someone made of clean platforms. (You’re looking for the stuff in green.) Whole communities are cropping up around the environmental impact of NFTs. Join one! Use your dread to hold them accountable! If you want to try out the digital thing and skip the planetary dread, where there’s a will, there’s a way.

But I don’t even know if your dread is planetary in nature, and frankly, I’m not sure being an artist is going to be any easier on the blockchain than it is in real life. There are still gatekeepers here: The top crypto art marketplaces are curated by their employees. And I imagine there are plenty of NFT collectors who are in it primarily for the money laundering and tax evasion potential — hardly a crowd committed to wealth redistribution. Is that so different from the other art market?

The bright side, NIFTY, is that your question demonstrates emotional depth and self-awareness. Pathos! I think the important thing is to channel your energy into your craft. Continue to hone it. If you’re living on Earth in 2021, I think you have enough to worry about as it is. It’s easier than it ought to be to get swept up in dread these days.

I wonder, though, if I could be so bold as to question whether it’s only dread that you’re feeling right now. Something I’ve been feeling lately is a little bit of dizzy wistfulness: a heightened sense of the precarities and impermanence around me. It’s hard to get a grip with so much moving and passing. The world is moving so quickly these days. Viruses and vaccines and vipers all sorts; even something as seemingly benign as a new way to sell art can feel unsettling when familiarity seems increasingly hard to come by. 

But there can be a sad little beauty in this movement, and I wonder if you’re feeling some of that, too. Transience itself can sharpen our appreciation of the beauty in front of us. Maybe what it means to be an artist is changing, and maybe that feels bittersweet at best and quite tragic at worst. But what is grief, climate or artistic or otherwise, other than an acknowledgement that you love something enough to care that it’s changing?

I, for one, am not feeling particularly liberated by all these blockchains or the non-fungibility of all these tokens. I hear your worry and dread: A lot is changing. But art itself, its practice and creation — none of that has changed, and you don’t have to change, either. You can choose to notice what’s passing, but you don’t need to pass along with it. If you do decide you want to throw your art up on some digital marketplace, I’ll respect the hustle. (Though I’d strongly encourage you to choose a climate-friendly option.) But I think you should only do it if that kind of experimentation feels exciting and worth your curiosity.

Besides, the NFT market is currently crashing. Do you really need another roller coaster to ride? These things might be a faint memory by next year! I am forced, once again, to return to the immortal advice of Ms. Hilary Duff: “Laugh it off let it go and / When you wake up it will seem / So yesterday, so yesterday.”

Whatever you decide, please, for the love of all that is fleeting and permanent, just keep making your art.

Cryptically,

Umbra