If a full year of pandemic doesn’t yet have you and/or your partner feeling absolutely miserable, might we suggest you take up a painful new hobby: writing about how bad bitcoin and NFTs are for the climate, and well, just about everything else.
It starts, as many cursed trends do, with something as simple and innocent as a tweet about a cat you’re adopting. Then someone makes you an offer you can’t refuse: 50 online dollars for the rights to the tweet. And just like that, like Tom McKay at Gizmodo, you’ve been sucked into the dirty world of cryptocurrencies. What? How? Why? What?
McKay does a great job of summarizing why bitcoin and the upstart economy of “non-fungible tokens” like a gif or tweet or anything that you attach a specific set of data to is, well, bad. Bitcoin is basically “networks of computers that compete to solve complex math problems in a way that generates accurate records that can’t be changed retroactively.” When a computer randomly generates the right numbers, it gets rewarded with bitcoin.
The first and biggest problem is that it takes a lot of energy to mine bitcoins, so the computation required to verify the sale of McKay’s cat tweet meant he “essentially added an extra 50% of my electrical use on Monday.” Or as one tweeter once succinctly put it, “imagine if keeping your car idling 24/7 produced solved Sudokus you could trade for heroin.”
But can this problem be addressed? Brian Kahn sort of thinks so, in a piece at Earther that explores in much more depth how cryptocurrency and NFT’s carbon problem could be fixed. And it’s a big problem — one of the biggest cryptocurrencies being used for million-dollar digital art sales is Ethereum, and its “annual energy use is roughly on par with all of Ireland’s” and is only growing.
Khan’ is somewhat optimistic, but others are decidedly less so. For example, Everest Pipkin’s post, headlined: “Here is the article you can send to people when they say ‘but the environmental issues with cryptoart will be solved soon, right?’”
It starts with Pipkin’s admission that “I am so mad I had to write this, the world’s most self-evident take” and ends with a disclaimer that “I’ve never been more bored of a topic that I’ve written 5000 words on in my entire life” so fair warning, there are a lot of reasons to be deeply skeptical, and suspicious, of all this.
For starters, Pipkin notes that “a recent study out of the University of New Mexico estimated that in 2018 every $1 of Bitcoin value was responsible for $0.49 in health and climate damages in the US, costs that are borne by those who will, for the most part, never see any return from cryptocurrency mining whatsoever.”
Pipkin’s larger point, though, is that digital currency is an exercise in artificial scarcity — the entire premise is that a coin now is worth something because there will be more people who want it in the future, “which makes the wastefulness of today a good investment.”
For another pained take, see Australian energy expert Ketan Joshi’s post, “Bitcoin is a mouth hungry for fossil fuels” opened by acknowledging that it was “an awful idea, but I’m writing about bloody Bitcoin again.” Bitcoin sucks up massive amounts of energy, according to a Cambridge analysis Joshi cites, bitcoin mining uses 128 terawatt hours, while the entire Australian grid used 192 terawatt hours in a year.
And the fossil fuel industry is already thinking of ways to cash in, like partnerships using vented methane to generate electricity to mine bitcoin. “The fossil fuel industry loves it,” Joshi tweeted, “they get to turn waste into cash.”
From being promoted in “a literal magazine named OIL MAN” to online advocates who also just so happen to hate government regulations,“the Venn circles of Silicon Valley tech folks, libertarians, finance bros and oil and gas bros all seem to meet centrally at whatever the hell Bitcoin is.”
“There is absolutely no other industry,” Joshi writes after being barraged by BitcoinBros online, “that consumes this much power while only giving back to society sea-lioning men on Twitter.”