Illustration by Alex Nash

NFTs receive unwarranted pushback owing to environmental damage

If you have been living on Earth for the past year, you have doubtlessly encountered others getting angry about things called NFTs. Searching “NFTs” on Google returns “NFTs are stupid” as the third suggestion. Gizmodo, a technology news site, recently published a video headlined “The Celebs We’ve Lost to NFTs,” treating the careers of stars like Brie Larson, Tony Hawk and Tom Brady as permanently ruined by their embrace of NFTs. Unless you inhabit a very specific corner of the internet, the people hating on NFTs probably outnumber the people who support them by great odds. Yet, amid all this furor, it seems as though few people know what NFT stands for, and even fewer know what they actually are.

NFT stands for “non-fungible token.” Fungibility, in economics, means that one unit of a commodity can be traded for any other. All currencies are fungible, as are most other things used for investment. If you have one dollar, one Bitcoin or one cow, for instance, you can exchange it for another dollar, Bitcoin or cow of the same value without any functional change in what you own. Art, however, is non-fungible. Owning the Mona Lisa is not the same as owning The Scream, even if their values are similar.

In practice, this means that an NFT is a digital file with monetary value, often equivalent to a large sum of cryptocurrency. While it is usually an image, songs, games and anything else digital can also be sold as an NFT. Just like buying cryptocurrency, or anything else people invest in, people buy NFTs with the  hope that they can later sell it for more than they bought it for. Among the most popular NFTs for investment are the hideous-looking range of “Bored Ape” files, which depict apes in various combinations of sunglasses and beanie hats and generally resemble concept art for a rejected “Adult Swim” show. 

However, this is not always the case. The “original” versions of memes including Bad Luck Brian and Nyan Cat have been sold as NFTs for eye-popping sums, largely so that someone somewhere could brag that they have the original file of the Bad Luck Brian image. Is that ridiculous? Absolutely, but it is no different from buying a painting when one could get a print of it for a fraction of the price.

Ethereum, the cryptocurrency most commonly tied to NFTs, uses a system known as “proof-of-work mining.” In a nutshell, proof-of-work mining requires cryptocurrency producers to solve complicated cryptographic problems using computers in order to generate cryptocurrency. This process is often done in vast server farms, which consume huge quantities of energy.

This is one of the reasons NFTs are controversial. In the more enlightened circles of anti-NFT discourse, the NFT craze is blamed for increased greenhouse gas emissions and computer chip shortages due to the massive computing volume required to generate them. The NFT artist Mike “Beeple” Winkelmann estimates it would cost $5,000 to offset the carbon emissions of his largest piece. Nevertheless, claims that NFTs are hastening climate disaster seem to be often exaggerated. Artist Memo Akten’s website was used to mistakenly attribute the energy consumption of an entire online NFT marketplace to a single item. 

Besides, there are ways to create NFTs without doing as much ecological harm.  Ethereum plans to switch from a proof-of-work system to a proof-of-stake system, which “mines”, i.e. generates, cryptocurrency by awarding “blocks,” or set amounts of cryptocurrency, randomly to owners based on how many blocks other owners hold. This will require less computational power and will lower the energy cost of miners. If Ethereum switches over, it will decrease the environmental impact of their NFTs, and other cryptocurrencies are likely to follow suit.

The NFT moral panic is just that: a moral panic. NFTs represent a perfect storm of things social media loves to hate: tech bros, environmental impacts and money. Of course they were going to cause backlash. It is easy and fun to say that idiotic Elon Musk stans are spending thousands of dollars on pictures of cartoon monkeys, especially if you do not understand why. The anti-NFT bandwagon is every bit as much a meaningless fad as NFTs are. 

Is this an endorsement of NFTs? Not really. While some sources report that NFTs are still growing in popularity, they are a speculative bubble bound to burst. NFTs have gotten so much flak that they probably have little future outside of a shrinking circle of crypto geeks, and that is probably for the better. However, at least now you understand why somebody paid $30,000 for the original Bad Luck Brian photo.

Tor Parsons '24 is a well-known figure on campus. I interviewed three random LC students to gauge the public opinion on Tor.

"Who?" - A student with a really cool backpack

"I have no idea who you're talking about." - Some dude on the Pio Express

"He's cool, I guess." - Tor's roommate

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