Blockchain, Environmentalism, and a More Equitable Future
The progressive argument in favor of cryptoart and blockchain technology (and why I became a lifetime Kings of Leon VIP).
I am so mad I have to write this, the blockchain space’s most obvious take. But here is the article you send hammer-and-sickle Twitter when they tell you that cryptocurrency is “literally the greatest threat to our future and achieving equity”.
The above is obviously tongue-in-cheek, and comes as a reaction to that one critique and more generally reflects my disappointment against “progressives” so out of touch with a disruptive technology that has already proven to massively improve the lives of millions worldwide (particularly in developing countries) by connecting them to a booming, global, digital economy. And beyond that, the key technology to evolve the modern economy as we know it into a more equitable post-capitalist future.
Below, I will analyze the source article that these various hit-pieces and talking points spawned from and deconstruct some of those common misconceptions (and how it relates to the article linked above). Then, I will more broadly react to said article and explain my interest with the Kings of Leon golden tickets as a precursor to a revolutionary shift in the art industry.
Afterwards, I’d like to introduce myself, my background in cryptocurrency, and the qualities that led me to become enamored with the technology. Then I will speak at great deal on the “progressive” benefits of blockchain – driving components of the space that, for some reason or another, don’t seem to be given any credit in “leftist” spheres that are adamant opponents to blockchain today.
Cryptoart and the Environment
Summary: The most inefficient NFT platforms are to blame for huge Ethereum transaction costs (and environmental burden), not the idea of NFTs or cryptoart itself. The author of the analysis follows up with a compilation of dozens of more “eco-friendly” solutions in production, but their article and various opinion pieces that spun out of it (including the garbage linked above) continue to use energy costs of these worse offenders as benchmarks for the cryptoart space as a whole.
Note: Data below recordedat 3/5 2am Pacific time
The Unreasonable Ecological Cost of #Cryptoart (Part 1) and its associated cryptoart.wtf environmental-cost-tracker website represent the statistics and source material that one critique referenced above and countless others like it.
This article looks into two NFT curation platforms/directories, Superrare and Niftygateway. The article references the gas consumption of each of these platforms (which translates to ecological costs/burden). The article is absolutely right in asserting that the costs to perform activities on these platforms is fucking bonkers.
The misconception lies in the notion that these cost estimates can reliably be used to forecasts similar costs throughout the rest of the NFT-verse. They can’t.
Niftygateway and Superrare both have some onboarding requirements in terms of signups for collectors and requirements for artists. Because of this, both of these platforms just represent a fraction of NFT mintage and transactional activity.
As the referenced article explains, Superrare is largely inefficient because every activity requires an on-chain transaction (such as bidding and cancelling bids). Permissionless alternatives like Rarible and Opensea (where anyone can mint their own NFT collections) take advantage of wallet signatures to place and update bids without any transaction required. Of course, that’s going to eliminate a lot of bloat outright.
But even with Rarible and Opensea requiring less transactions overall (on-chain only when NFTs change hands), they represent far more transaction volume overall. Superrare has done 15,000 transactions in the past months. Opensea is responsible for over 75,000 transactions and Rarible clocks in at just under 100,000.
Niftygateway is a bit harder to track due to how their contracts are set up (this is explained in the other article) but total sales across top pieces on their stats page (about 30,000 sales total across top 100 works) suggests that they are nowhere near Opensea and Rarible (the current iteration of Niftygateway has been live for about a year).
Your friend who has an art Twitter (and isn’t Beeple or Grimes) is minting their NFTs to Opensea or Rarible, not Niftygateway and Superrare, and is not responsible for creating waste at this magnitude.
To summarize, Niftygateway and Superrare do not account for a majority of NFT transactions. However, they are disproportionately huge gas guzzlers. Current gas usage shows that over the past hours from writing, two individual NFT collections on Niftygateway were the #4 and #6 biggest gas users across the entire Ethereum blockchain. Opensea’s entire marketplace and minting contracts sit at #12 and #16, and Rarible is much further down the list in the mid 30s range.
Again, two sets of NFTs on Niftygateway were responsible for >4% of total Ethereum block usage. The entire Opensea marketplace is sitting at ~1.5% and Rarible, the most transactionally-active NFT platform is <0.5%. Of course, this is just polling the last 3 hours, and you can see different figures in the 24 hour range, but the notion that the “hot” or “active” Niftygateway NFTs are disproportionately costly (or “environmentally dangerous”) reigns true.
Where Superrare is poorly-optimized by enforcing every activity with an on-chain transaction, Niftygateway is the primary offender because their contract factory is comically inefficient. Each collection costs a gargantuan 2 million+ gas and then another 200k for each sale and transfer.
Realistically, this “environmental disaster” is more akin to the CryptoKitties fiasco, which highlighted the danger that poorly optimized contracts can have on network usability (CryptoKitties was extremely gas intensive and for a week or so in December 2017 the network grinded to a halt because too many people were breeding gas-fat digital cats).
The correct feedback, in my opinion, is to face the individual offenders and push for more efficient contract rollouts or transition to alternatives. Opensea and Rarible are both more gas-effective because they endorse the ERC-1155 token standard, which meshes the non-fungible qualities of ERC-721 (the token standard that Superrare and Niftygateway artwork exists as) with more gas-effective qualities of the fungible ERC20 token standard. For example, users can mint multiple editions of an ERC1155 NFT with no extra gas costs (whereas each edition of an ERC721 carries its own gas costs). Opensea also supports “lazy minting” which asserts that a published NFT isn’t actually broadcast as a transaction until someone purchases it.
However, neither of these are the end-all-be-all, and further scaling improvements are absolutely necessary. There are dozens of more cost-effective (and therefore eco-friendly) NFT platforms in production today. The author of this original article actually followed up with a “guide to ecofriendly NFTs” which includes around 10 existing solutions.
These solutions incorporate the use of alternative blockchains beyond Ethereum that scale better and require magnitudes less energy to operate, as well as sidechains and layer 2 solutions that can operate in supplement to Ethereum. Ultimately, the environmental burden throughout the cryptospace only persists as part of Bitcoin and Ethereum’s mainnet Proof-of-Work consensus model.
Deconstructing that NFT criticism (you know the one)
This critique on NFTs and crypto in general has become the banner for hammer-and-sickle Twitter to copy/paste and regurgitate ad nauseum. With most of the cryptoart data analysis out of the way, the below will react more broadly to general assertions made by the critique.
Crypto is inherently bad. It’s used for drugs and there are scammers too. Some people get rich off of it and others don’t. It’s just a reflection of the mining costs, anyways, so that makes it a pyramid scheme too.
USD is the currency of choice for doing illegal things. Yes, it’s genuinely concerning that there are scammers in the space. It’s a byproduct of permissionless-ness, but “written-in-code” agreements a-la smart contracts can also help by enforcing scam-proof token projects (or at the very least, prohibit scammers from using the most common methods). I will explain more on this later.
As to the value of crypto, there is, today, a lot of real world use happening at large scale. Decentralized Finance, which is a collection of platforms and tools that automate financial interactions and eliminate the middleman altogether, is currently routing $40 billion in assets between lenders and borrowers for various purposes. It is easy enough to earn a (very) conservative 12% APY at any size deposit. That’s not fake money or coming out of thin air, that’s just what the bank is making off of your money in a standard savings account (yes, interest rates are low, but with a 10% reserve requirement they loan out every dollar you give them 10x, which adds up).
The notion that crypto value is a reflection of mining costs really doesn’t extend beyond Bitcoin. I’m not here to change your opinion on that and largely agree that Bitcoin mining is very wasteful (though I would consider it necessary waste). If you read some of my other content and gage the opinions of practically anyone building in the crypto space, you’ll recognize very quickly that Bitcoin doesn’t hold as much relevance as you may think it does (I personally hold 0 BTC).
The entire crypto space is strapped to Proof-of-Work. They keep saying they will change it but they really won’t. There’s no efficient alternatives and there never will be. Proof-of-Stake isn’t even really a thing.
Canonically false and I don’t think this needs much explanation. As referenced above, the research article explaining energy consumption of NFTs later lists 10~ in-production NFT platforms that are magnitudes more efficient. Even if Ethereum’s transition to PoS takes quite some time, sidechains and L2 assert that scalability and efficiency is already here. Bitcoin is really the only one with these woes, as Lightning Network has really faltered alongside developments elsewhere in the space.
“Cryptocurrencies are a pyramid scheme that push financial scarcity onto the vulnerable”.
Honestly, this is the takeaway that really frustrates me. I have seen countless times how much good cryptocurrency has done for folks in need. I will hit on this later on in great detail.
Cryptoart is bad because all artists must starve.
Artists retaining ownership of their IP and earning commission on their work for life (at rates they set themselves and cannot be changed by a third party) is potentially the biggest win for bringing equity back to the artists ever. Artists having new communities to sell to and a far easier mechanism for selling (digitally, online, from their computer) is another massive dub. Cryptoart being bad because some artists make more than others is asinine (and beyond that, conflates earning inequality on Superrare with that of the space as a whole. Superrare has plenty of issues and a split in its community is the reason why Rarible is #1 today.)
I wager you’d be hard pressed to find a real artist who doesn’t think this is a net-positive beyond someone who values the ability to fetishize their own sadness above all else.
It doesn’t matter that creating and selling art from your computer is less consumption than physical work and flying to shows.
Crypto energy use bad. Jet fuel consumption good. Got it!
Green Mining Energy is a Myth
39% of all mining energy is renewable, which is far less than it should be, but that same study references that a large majority (>75%) of all miners use some amount of renewable energy.
I do not necessarily advocate that Proof-of-Work is green — because I don’t think it is, but there is an argument for crypto mining as green energy subsidy. As I understand (and I am not an expert), it is expensive, inefficient, and difficult to transport energy. That’s why we don’t have massive solar grids *too* far out from actual civilization. Because you are going to lose some of that energy every mile you transport it. There is some limitations in terms of cost-effectiveness in how much energy can be used in xx miles radius from where the energy is harvested. And since these methods are variable, there is some tradeoff between producing too much during some times or not enough during others.
With crypto mining, you can ensure that no excess energy is wasted and is able to be redeemed back for significant value. Instead of setting up transportation lines, you can set up mining racks powered by excess. As I understand, this does make up a significant portion of the energy used to power miners.
There is no better, more efficient NFT because NFTs get value from wasting resources.
We do not want this (rapid fire mode)
Cryptoart remakes digital artworks as primarily tokens of monetary worth, content and concept secondary to an asset that has market value.
Definitely not, the biggest “niche” in NFTs is programmatic/generative art which is very interesting and unique. Beyond that, artists going above and beyond to bake additional functionality into their cryptoart are the ones doing the best.
Cryptoart creates artificial scarcity for digital objects, creating an “original” which can be owned
Cryptoart recreates the some of the worst aspects of existing art markets, pitting the super-stardom of those who have gotten lucky or who already had money and connections to play with against the realities of countless others who will see no such return.
Kind of like when Bella Thorne made a million off of a bogus Only Fans account. Yep, this part sucks. I think most of us are adamantly against the garbage put out by the likes of Lindsay Lohan, Soulja Boy, and Lil Yachty. But I don’t think this is something that is particularly exacerbated by crypto.
Cryptoart offers no intellectual property protection and there is no regulatory structure in place to keep copyrighted materials from being minted into and sold as NFTs, with or without the consent of the copyright holder. Once an NFT is minted, there is no way to remove it from the blockchain or secondary market.
This is probably the most legitimate argument against the NFT trend. That last sentence isn’t correct. NFTs can be destroyed (by the owner) and removed from listing directories, but there’s *little* in the way of IP protection. This is something that will grow out overtime as the intersection of open source development and artwork have very different understandings of respecting IP.
Cryptoart smart contracts offer no legal protection, and any talk of contracts baked into the NFT “requiring resales to cut in the artist” or “compensate gallery workers” depend entirely on the goodwill of the purchaser.
I don’t really know what to say here. It’s not like getting the receipt from the restaurant and you indicate a tip. The commission is baked into the contract of the NFT itself. The artist sets it when they mint. It’s not legally binding but it’s algorithmically binding. The wasteful useless miners verify that the transaction follows all the rules of the code (meaning artists get the commission they indicate).
Cryptoart lets a few artist early adopters get rich from a system made to reward investors, not artists.
I don’t think there’s anything wrong with early adopters making money. It’s the difference between someone digging deeper and learning about the potential versus taking a buzzfeed hit piece at face value and damning it for life.
I truly do want [a more equitable future for artists]. We must get there through collective empowerment…
Do you really hate blockchain as much as you think? The section below may shock you!
Kings of Leon “Lifetime VIP”
Before digging deeper into the blockchain space as a whole, I’d like to spend a bit of time explaining the value proposition I see for my recently acquired Golden Ticket NFT, which permits me to be a lifetime VIP of Kings of Leon.
Per the terms of the sale, I am permitted four front row tickets whenever Kings of Leon is on tour. Travel and accommodations are taken care of, complete with a concierge and personal driver. I have backstage access and receive all the swag. I’m a KoL fan so this is all very exciting, but it’s decidedly not why I purchased it.
As has been established, NFTs are exciting for artists because they retain ownership of their work. They can negotiate their own commission on resales, control the supply of their art, and so on. This is a powerful tool for artists looking to decouple themselves from the predatory production industry.
But this commission is just the first step of what can be done. KoL has demonstrated a revolutionary idea: investing into the future of artists you love. For this particular sale, KoL is already well established and all proceeds go to charity. It’s not a lifechanging sale for them, but it could be for new and upcoming artists.
The above critique reflects the shortcoming of the cryptoart market as it is today of inequality. I do think that is exaggerated, but there is some quality in recognizing that small and upcoming artists aren’t going to make any money without having their own source for exposure.
This is how it’s always been, and why musicians, for example, are forced to sell their soul to record labels in order to get enough financial support to “get their start”.
This NFT VIP model enables new and upcoming artists to crowdfund this financial support by guaranteeing future perks. Their core fans can now become early adopters in the artist’s future, and if others see the same talent and the artist grows in popularity, that early VIP status becomes an impressive investment.
The real reason why I was so interested in KoL as the first group to introduce such a model is because I want to see the various indie musicians I love and artists I follow on Instagram and Twitter to promote similar sales. I want to be a lifetime VIP for Snail Mail, for example, a very talented singer who I anticipate will have an amazing career.
This Kings of Leon sale is the introduction to an entirely new model that will revolutionize art for the better. And is one small component of all the benefits the world of blockchain has to offer in creating a more equitable future for all.
The “Left” Argument for Blockchain
I was first exposed to Bitcoin in 2013 and was immediately enamored with the idea that there was a “global internet money” that can connect anyone to anywhere throughout the world. Back then, there was a robust “microwork” economy that existed on the Bitcointalk forums. Miscellaneous work that paid a few bucks here and there.
I was 15 at the time and all-in on testing websites, wearing signature advertisements, providing product feedback, etc. for a bit of coin. It was easy enough to earn $20/hr a few hours a week, an absolute goldmine for a 15 year old. At the same time, I read countless stories of folks from countries like Venezuela and Indonesia who were able to double or triple their income just from a few hours of time each week spent on the forums. In extreme cases, some went from $20/month during the day to $20/hr online.
For my entire tenure, I have always advocated to those around me for working in the space. By the age of 16 I began writing freelance articles for small crypto blogs (hired on after providing my English class essays as a portfolio). I didn’t make a whole lot, but it was something else I could do an hour or two a day and earned BTC for my work. After a couple of months of freelance writing from the family computer, I had saved up enough Bitcoin to buy my own PC! I bought it on Newegg and it took about a week to ship (today, this is my version of Laszlo’s billion dollar pizza – that BTC would now be worth >$100,000).
Nobody asked for my age or my social security number. We just interacted on the forums and exchanged Bitcoin addresses. Fun fact: one of my bosses at the time was a 14-year old wiz-kid developer (I found this out years later when Coindesk ran an interview on him).
There seems to be this notion that you only make money in crypto by taking it from someone else. This seems to come from willful ignorance. For starters, cryptocurrency is not a zero sum game. There is real value, new businesses, actual revenue that is shared with speculators. But beyond that, ANYONE. CAN. WORK. FOR. CRYPTO.
Of course, $20/hr was the going rate in 2013–2016 when everyone was passing around the same $50 of Bitcoin. Let’s talk about a modern day equivalent: The Graph Curator Campaign.
Last year, in anticipation for mainnet launch, The Graph unveiled what they called a “Curator Campaign”. Anyone could sign up to be a curator, no exceptions, and in doing so, you agreed to do miscellaneous microtasks for The Graph. 300 million GRT was allocated for this campaign, which lasted a couple of months and, again, was free for anyone to sign up. I participated in it and I told everyone I knew to do so as well.
The campaign consisted of very light work: testing different parts of the site, filling out surveys and providing creative feedback, making memes and spreading the word on social media. Every single person who signed up, even if they didn’t do anything, got 33,333 GRT. For reference, GRT trades for about $2 today. Everyone who did more than sign up, and created content, did the required tasks, and so on earned even more. $600 million distributed across several thousand users who signed up to do a bit of work. Legitimately not more than 2–4 hours a week for 2 months.
Of course, this isn’t the norm, but it’s very much in the spirit of the crypto space as I see it. The Graph was a hugely anticipated project with years in development. You needed to be an accredited investor to participate in their token sale, so this Curator program let *anyone* trade a bit of their time in for a stake in the project. This is not zero sum. This is $600 million to folks who can really benefit from it.
And this is just one example. Uniswap airdropped 150 million tokens to everyone who used their platform (worth about $3 billion). A competitor, 1inch Exchange, held a similar airdrop to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars, and then a second airdrop to Uniswap users to try and get them to jump ship and join 1inch.
The standard in DeFi is to distribute project equity in the form of tokens to the users, workers, and participants in their project. Nobody is hurt or taken advantage of. Developers and investors are taking slices from their own pie and distributing to all their supporters and advocates.
And of course, the idea of NFTs fits in here perfectly as well. This is, bar none, the best medium to empower and award artists exactly how they deserve to be. By setting their own rates and forever maintaining provenance of them as creators and earning their lifetime commission as a result.
How this ever got warped into fascism or whatever is beyond me. I’ve been working in this space for my entire adult life and then some, and its all because I was able to hop in and connect with others at 15 and save up enough Bitcoin to buy my own PC. My life has irrevocably improved because of my time spent in cryptocurrency, and it didn’t require me to ever deposit a cent of my own money.
There are countless other stories like mine and among millions in need that turned to crypto and were able to plug themselves into this more equitable standard of industry.
Shame on hammer-and-sickle twitter for denouncing this as a bad thing.
Enabling a Post-Capitalist Evolution with Blockchain (Decentralized Autonomous Organizations)
What I’ve described above reflects what I believe to be the core ethos of the blockchain space emboldened by the ability of the technology to reflect some of that ethos in tangible value.
However, what I’ve described above is simply the precursor to what I wholly expect to see as the world of tomorrow. A better, more equitable, more empowering world enabled by blockchain. Before getting into blockchain, I’d like to establish my beliefs that drive this notion of a “post-capitalist tomorrow”.
Marxism views the world by way of dialectical relationships. The capitalist mode of production, at its very core, is the nature of the relationship between the manager/CEO capitalist and the laborer. The entire critique of the capitalist model, from the Marxist point of view, is the injustice of workers, who are responsible for production, not receiving the fruits of their labors. Their capitalist boss, who owns said means of production, eats the entire cake himself. Of course, the Marxist alternative is to eliminate the capitalist role altogether, and transition production to a single-role system where the workers own the means of production.
In contrast, a neoclassical economist instead surveys the world in terms of market forces, supply and demand. Production to the neoclassical is a competition of firms making the same goods and services with as little marginal cost as possible. The neoclassical doesn’t care how the laborers may feel disenfranchised, he cares about how firms maximize profits, and critique the Marxist “worker-owner” role as inefficient. The machine runs a lot smoother when each component has its own defined role.
In my opinion, both camps have some merit. Capitalism (as it exists today) has a lot of shortcomings in terms of justice and equity. Amplify it by the notion that the ruling “capitalist” class controls the government by way of lobby dollars and they’ve actually managed to tip the scales even further in their favor! Is it fair that not one banker faced jailtime for the 2008 recession? Is it fair that “too-big-to-fail” corporations received bailouts while employees lost their jobs and families lost their homes? Is it fair that Donald Trump and Amazon paid less in federal taxes than the average Uber driver? Personally, I don’t think so.
But it doesn’t matter what’s fair or foul. The best competitor wins, and that’s where the neoclassical has the upperhand. The worker-owner model is inferior to the capitalist model. That’s why of the countless thousands of businesses in the United States, you can count all the successful worker owned/worker coops on your hands. Marx argued that capitalism is doomed to fail (and will be replaced by socialism).
Capitalism isn’t perfect, but socialism doesn’t perform better. Post-capitalism is inevitable, but it will look entirely different from what the Marxist or the neoclassical might predict. Blockchain is that missing link. Here’s why:
- Automation of management
- Democratization of capital
- Alignment of incentives with work
- No cost enforcement
With blockchain, governance and administrative protocols for a project can be written into code via smart contracts. They assert the day-to-day rules and responsibilities and formalize the ability and parameters for maintenance and upgrades. When done properly, these rules and directions can be written into code in a way that is bulletproof and indefinitely scaling.
The collection and deployment of capital is also democratized completely under the blockchain framework. It turns out that a $1 million check over a backroom dinner is just as good as $1,000 from 1,000 supporters, and the 100x when that investment proves successful tastes just as sweet regardless of the principal. The role of the “accredited investor” is a superfluous barrier to entry put in place by the capitalists seeking to cement their own positions.
So, from above, we have the means to crowdfund and formalize the management of business. We also have complete and unhindered control to incentivize those who seek to participate in said business. By tokenizing a business, participants can earn tokens for their involvement. Those tokens can own the business treasury, so good work done by the participant creates a positive feedback loop where their good work is increasingly valuable and increasingly rewarded.
These first three qualities establish a more just, equitable, and fair business model. But this last component is the most important for why it matters: it’s superior to the way we do business today. The above qualities eliminate the entire “capitalist” role altogether. The algorithm governs the business, and the participants operate it (and maintain the algorithm). This is where the neoclassical lightbulb goes off. How can you assess a business as minimizing marginal costs when you’ve eliminated the costs altogether? You can’t actually get to 0 in their models. How can you compete with a firm that’s achieved perfect efficiency? You can’t. The entire framework for production in the global economy as we know it breaks down at this point. This is how “post-capitalism” can be achieved. It’s decidedly not socialism, but it’s not capitalism, either.
You may be reading up until this point in disbelief of what I’ve put above – that these beliefs I’m sharing are very much in hypotheticals. Wrong. This model already exists in production, in the world today: the Decentralized Autonomous Organization (DAO). After capitalism comes DAOism.
This is the future I’m personally building towards. It’s a future I feel very passionately about and one I am wholly convinced to be attainable.
5,000 words later, my purpose here is to hopefully convey the legitimate role blockchain has in building a better tomorrow. I think that anyone who considers themselves to be “progressive” would feel similarly if they took the time to dig in and learn about the space. I understand that’s a lot to ask out of anyone, but it frustrates me to no avail to see those bash and denounce out of ignorance and misplaced distrust.