NFTs have become a very controversial topic in the world of photography. Whether you believe in their model or think they are the ultimate waste of resources, there's a lot to digest here, and I encourage you to join in on the discussion.
If you don’t know what NFTs are, this isn't going to be the article for you. To simplify it into one sentence, NFTs allow digital work such as photos, videos, and artwork to be authenticated or “minted” and exchanged typically for some denomination of cryptocurrency. If you’re wondering how you can own something digital, I encourage you to check out a few resources linked here to get a crash course in NFTs and blockchain technology:
- What Are NFTs? (The New York Times)
- NFT 101 for Photographers Part 1: The Essentials (Adorama)
- What Is Blockchain Technology? How Does It Work? (Builtin)
My goal for this article is to open the discussion and expand deeper into the topic because it feels like many people see NFTs as black and white when it’s not that simple. Before we start, I think ethically, I should disclose that I have minted a few pieces of my own work, which would indicate I likely have a bias towards being "pro-NFT", but I’m going to try and approach things as unbiasedly as I possibly can, I just think it’s important to be transparent.
The Energy Crisis of Blockchain
I personally am still struggling to decide if participating in NFTs goes against my ethics as a landscape photographer, which is kind of why I wanted to write about this topic. The major controversy regarding NFTs is their use of blockchain and cryptocurrency that handles essentially their entire existence. If you’re still fuzzy on what either of those two things are, I’ll simplify them for the sake of this article, but feel free to check out a few of the resources I've included within the article. At a basic level, cryptocurrencies use absurd amounts of energy inefficiently to effectively convert that energy into currency or wealth. On top of that, NFTs also use the same inefficient methods to be created, bid on, and exchanged. Thus, even if you were able to buy NFTs using something like the American dollar or the Euro, so you could avoid using crypto altogether, you’d still be using blockchain technology to handle the entire transaction of the NFT, which uses the same inefficient energy methods used to create a cryptocurrency.
This means that when an NFT transaction happens, not only are you participating in using a currency that is considered environmentally harmful, the method by which you are exchanging art for money is also wasting energy. So, how does a landscape photographer that pushes for environmentally conscious efforts, ideals, and progress like myself ever think participating in something like this is ethical? By all accounts of what I’ve just presented, these two things are at odds with each other and cannot coexist. This is exactly how I felt and, to this very moment, still struggle with. It seems pretty black and white until I really started thinking about my footprint for everything that I do.
The Bigger Picture
I started thinking closely about how much energy I’ve used simply to drive or fly to a location to create content and take photos. How much energy does it take for a platform like YouTube to even exist? How much harm am I personally doing by filming myself, uploading large video files, and having thousands of people watch my videos? The issue with NFTs is they are new, confusing, and seemingly somewhat wasteful. You could argue that taking photos or watching YouTube provides you with something tangible, whether it’s joy, knowledge, insight, whatever it may be. Thus, the energy or carbon cost to make or consume such a medium brings value to you. Many of us don't think twice about flying for a vacation or driving eight hours for an epic landscape because they provide us with something enjoyable.
I’ve been working through this topic for weeks, and a very good friend of mine asked why NFTs need to exist at all for photography. Maybe you think they are stupid and make no sense — that’s a perfectly reasonable opinion. However, for digital artists, it's the first time someone like my friend, Shavonne, can take her amazing 3D renders of people and get compensated for her time and effort. Photography isn’t animated or digitally created. Some of it is digitally created, but it can be consumed in print, exchanged in a physical medium, or displayed in a gallery. I specifically strive for my own work to be consumed in print. So, why do NFTs need to exist for photography at all?
The truth is they don’t need to exist, but they do exist — just like Instagram doesn’t need to exist, but it does. It’s estimated 100 million photos get shared per day on Instagram. How much energy does it take to host all of that data, or how much energy is consumed by you and me simply viewing it on a daily basis? None of us need Instagram, but there are certainly people out there earning wealth or an income by using it.
This is an important topic to absorb. Photographers pursuing a career need to earn income to put food on the table. For me to continue making content, existing in this space, and pursuing my dream of becoming a full-time photographer, I need to monetize myself. Let's hypothetically say I sold 50 physical prints, which required ink, paper, shipping materials, and transaction costs, and that was enough to sustain me for a few months financially. Or, what if I sold one NFT for the same profit? Which transaction is more carbon neutral? The truth is I don’t know; it’s totally hypothetical. But, the point is that if you take a step back and start looking at your carbon footprint for everything you do, you’ll start realizing just how much energy we waste every day.
At this point, I’m assuming many of you are thinking that those are all problems we need to solve and crypto or NFTs are just additive waste. I completely agree. Coming from a position of privilege living in a first-world country, I could even go as far as that crypto provides nothing for the world, but that would really reveal my privilege. I live in a country with a stable currency, security from the government, and mostly very little worry about anyone but myself controlling my wealth. That is not the case in many places around the world, and it’s very important when considering the value that cryptocurrency can provide to those who aren’t in such secure positions.
I’m not here to prove the worth or value of cryptocurrency. That’s an entire discussion in itself. The honest truth is that I think many people see NFTs as a fallacy or a fad that will come and go while providing very little positive impact in our world. While this may or may not happen, you have to ask yourself what the harm is in having artists you respect and admire getting compensated for their work. I would love to sell prints, conduct workshops, or get sponsored in my work, but it’s quite an awakening thought to realize every method I can find will have some environmental impact. In a perfect world, NFTs wouldn’t impact the environment at all, and this discussion wouldn’t even be necessary. We don’t live in a perfect world, though, and realizing that everything we do whether small or big likely has some footprint on the environment is important.
I totally respect those of you who simply choose not to involve themselves in the world of blockchain out of protest for its current energy consumption or simply because you don’t believe in its model as a whole. For now, crypto and NFTs exist whether you plan on using them or not; thus, just like everything else, we have to push for them to become more environmentally conscious. Many blockchains are moving towards using more renewable energy. Etherium, the currency used for NFTs almost exclusively, is moving towards a proof of stake model, which should drastically lower its energy consumption. The fight, in my opinion, isn’t about whether this should or should not exist; it’s about pushing for it to exist in as healthy a manner as possible.
I still wake up questioning myself on this topic, trying to find balance in my morality as an environmentally conscious person. On the NFTs I have listed, I state that if any of them sell, a portion of the proceeds will be donated to either a carbon-neutralization service or environmental foundation. Is that enough? Probably not, but I find solace in the fact that if I can continue writing articles, making videos, and promoting positive environmental thought to those reading or watching that maybe I can do more good than harm at the end of it all.
I’d love to hear your thoughts and opinions down below. This will forever be an ongoing internal debate for nearly every decision I make in my life. Do I really need another Amazon box at my doorstep for my own convenience? That’s an entirely different discussion... or is it? Thanks for reading.
It once occurred to me that the biggest waste in analog photography was not necessarily flushing silver sludge down the drain, but the waste of water used to flush it!
For what? Racks of reels with each containing less than a square foot of film? Over the years, how many rivers or rainstorms had a single darkroom flushed? NFT’s are operating at a similar ethical level. A 16x20 print washing tank used to run continually in a university darkroom, even though no one was working. It was the tech’s job to set up the darkroom every morning, and that included turning on the three washing stations to a perfect temperature. Even with no one working. All day long, water running endlessly. No one.
NFT’S that no one will ever bid on, employing all the electricity needed to send it around the world, so nobody will bid on it, is like all those running tanks in empty darkrooms.
I've never worked in a dark room but it is interesting to think about what you've said. I think all of these things play a roll and theres likely things we don't even think about. I'm not sure what the "right" answer is, but it's important to look at the whole picture.
wow this is a really interesting analogy
But not correct. Water circulation happens naturally since the beginning of earth (minus 10^9 years). There is no such thing as waste if we talk about water. "Waste" of water happens only where there is not enough water. If there is enough, there is nothing to waste. (It is a waste of money though).
This all is not valid for electricity as long as we produce it from oil, gas, charcoal or nuclear material. "Enough" would mean here: more CO2 is being produced. But it is true if there is enough green energy: You cannot really waste green energy as you cannot really waste the energy coming from the sun.
Dude/dudette, I was a chem major, I know the science.
By "wasting water" no one literally means that water is destroyed or something.
Running water non-stop doesn't just affect your water bill. It has other effects, some of them carbon emission related. Especially since it certainly had a water pump (electric) and the machine (electric) plus whatever was used to heat the water (either gas or electric) since the water had to be a certain temp (usually 68F or so for b&w, somewhere around 102F for c-41 film).
Then there's the fact that once the water leaves that place, some of it probably returns to a water treatment plant - though some of it was probably disposed of elsewhere depending on the chemicals used.
So, no, it is not incorrect.
Very inaccurate, especially when comparing CO2 produced by running water and NFTs. The comparison is severely flawed. Btw, long ago, I studied chemical engineering.
It's not "CO2 produced by running water" - it's carbon emissions produced by all of the power (which comes from electricity or gas or coal most of the time) required to run that water.
And you completely ignored everything I said about heating the water - which would be a constant all-day process since the water is constantly running and has to be a certain temperature. Also ignored everything about powering the machine and the power used when the waste water gets to where it goes.
Now that I wrote all that, you literally just ignored everything I said and responded with a random statement.
My advice is to take a closer look at the energy balance of both objects of comparison. How many labs of this type do you think it would take to meet the energy needs of a single NFT?
Edit (add). That said, such a comparison makes either the waste of the labs big or the waste of the NFTs small. That is why the comparison is flawed. If it is about the attitude, well that is another story.
It is an analogy of how we chase illusions. I made fibre prints in darkrooms for many years, spending hours perfecting an image, and it was common to use 4 to 6 sheets to get one good print. At the time the differences seemed large when burning and dodging corners, or drawing out full shadow /highlight detail using two developers and a water bath. It was dedication. Also illusion. If I look at a sample of prints now, after lying flat in darkness for years, the differences are really small.
Meanwhile, the water was running, and instead of being in the dark printing illusions, I could have been gardening, growing flowers with that same water.
Regarding the chasing of illusions via NFT, it is a lottery of viral-ability or a big payoff, and new viral-chasing scheme. A game for future-influencers. Each NFT is like a bet on a roulette table. Sometimes they payoff. and those people who have hundreds of thousands of followers, have the greater chance of a payoff, by selling a potentially, bad piece of art.
I can see auction houses and museums attaching real value to an NFT by auctioning pieces of history, via photo collections becoming available. A new way to fund the arts. But let’s not do that until we detach the NFT from its present energy-consuming incarnation, as is projected to happen with Ethereum. Plant gardens.
Thanks for such a nuanced and balanced viewpoint. While I doubt I will ever sell or buy an NFT, I do think you are right that we are not, as a society, realizing the environmental impact we are having across the board with all of our actions, and that zeroing in on blockchain as the Big Bad of environmental harm is disingenuous.
Alex Armitage said,
"What Are NFTs? (The New York Times)"
Alex, I cannot view or read this article, because when I click on the link, the NY Times blocks the content and tries to force me to pay to subscribe in order to unblock the content.
I am sure you are not trying to help, or support, the NY Times, so could you please find another article that explains what NTFs are, that can be seen by anyone for free?
I really do want to learn all about this, but need some legitimate, free information to get me started.
A good clear explanation
I don't get why anyone would waste their money on an NFT, since it doesn't prevent the author from selling 1000 copies of it. It's not like you're getting a unique fine print that no one else can have. You just get a virtual "ownership" of an artwork that could actually be stolen or copied by the seller, or be sold as prints to 1M people.
Even worse... you cannot admire it by looking at it hanging on your wall.
Thank you for the link.
Sorry Tom, I was able to see the article without any issues and didn't get a sub requirement. The verge article linked above is good as well.
Thank you, Alex
This topic is a bit of a pendulum swing for me and many others still, appreciate the thoughtfulness as opposed to reaction one way or the other. The truth is there are multiple ways forward, and there is complexity in figuring out what makes sense depending on our values.
Many have put this into words in different ways, but the glaring irony that I see in the NFTs and crypto philosophy is that in the effort to create and utilize a 'non-fungible' digital token, you are required to embrace the illusion of treating actual physical resources as fungible or unlimited. It is not only the energy transaction, it is the entire industry of extraction to produce the components for computers and electronic devices that make NFTs viable in the first place. If the cost of all of this (global impact on environment and ecosystems) was integrated into our daily lives and practices, then I imagine this would be a very different conversation, not just for NFTs or crypto.
If you’ve used a credit card or cash in the traditional finance system you’ve contributed to a system that uses hundreds times more resources and energy. Maybe find someone that knows what they’re talking about to read your article before you post it.
I'm a digital artist and take many many photos. I am also a student of art history. White lead paint is brilliant, but it can kill you: we now use titanium white. Lapis lazuli costs more than NFTs and is present as fading blue in most great renaissance paintings. Acrylic paint is cheaper than oil paint and maybe safer. Giant data centers are always looking to use more power but buying chips that use less power. Next year NFTs could cost half as much to produce, who knows? By the time we figure out where we are, we aren't. I think if we waste time and add up the amount of money and energy than has gone into our individual lives we might compute that buying 10 NFTs is not adding that much to our personal energy deficit. We are all wasters if we live in the first world. NFTs probably did not make it 117degrees in Canada on June 28.
Low energy proof of stake networks makes this article mostly irrelevant. Ethereum will eventually be there. Binance smart chain is mostly centralised and low energy.
Crypto drives renewable energy production and efficient usage of otherwise wasted energy in the future.