‘What The Hell’s An NFT’ – & Other Things I Never Thought I’d Say

Disclaimer: I don’t know what I’m doing. If there are any inaccuracies, you didn’t see them. Opinions are mine, and mine only, but they sure should be shared.

NFTs, explained: what they are, and why they're suddenly worth millions -  The Verge

This cat is worth… $170K. Let’s talk about that.

Earlier this year, a classmate of mine texted me out of nowhere and asked me if I knew about cryptocurrency. Namely, NFTs. This was a perplexing question, as A) I am, as a matter of fact, not fluent in crypto, and B) What?

So I did some light Googling, and found out what NFT stood for—it was not National Football Teague, as I’d very much wrongly assumed—and asked him why he’d posed this question. Long story short, he’d wanted to partner up in a business endeavor, with my artwork as the gold.

A few weeks later, while sweeping the graves of my ancestors (whee) an aunt who I barely talk to approached me, and I braced myself for the onslaught of typical Asian-relative questions. Stuff like, “You’ve gotten taller!” or “You’ve gotten fatter!” or “Wow, you look like your mother” or “How do you create a Gmail?”

“Have you ever heard of an NFT?” my aunt asked me, and I immediately got astral backlash from expectation vs. reality.

(Admittedly, before she asked the question, she commented that I had gotten remarkably skinnier, which is nice, but still.)

Turns out, my grandma often shares my artwork amongst the extended family group chats. I’d like to take this time to state my appreciation for my grandmother, and that I love her very much, and her cooking will remain unparalleled by any other Asian grandmother. Anyway, back to non-fungible tokens.

My aunt had seen my art, and she’d taken some class regarding economics and thus had a vague understanding of NFTs. “You should go do that,” she urged me. “It’s a lot of good money.”

Now at this point, dear reader, if you’re confused as to what an NFT is, let me fill you in. Probably should have done this earlier, but…

An NFT is a non-fungible token. Did that clear things up for you? Me neither. I’m waiting for the day ‘non-fungible token’ becomes an immediate lightbulb to anyone inexperienced in the crypto field.

Essentially, an NFT is a unique digital key. Let’s say I take this funky Unus Annus tattoo design of mine…

Fun fact: At least three people have this design permanently on their body. How rad is that?

… and put it up for sale in the NFT market. An art enthusiast could buy the art for a couple hundred thousand dollars—which is the dream, isn’t it?—and in turn, they’d get a unique link to the art piece that only they own. Woah! Cool! It’s almost like an art auction where there’s one piece of cool art and someone buys it for a lot of money and no one else can—

What’s that? That’s… that’s not it at all?

An NFT that’s been purchased does not belong solely to the buyer. Naturally, the artist retains all copyright and ownership; but not only that, the artist can proceed to keep that exact same piece of art on the market, up for NFT purchasing. (Is that the terminology? I do not care.)

So what does the buyer get out of all this? A sense of accomplishment, bragging rights, and a unique Internet web-link. In the meantime, my Unus Annus design whirls on through the market, cashing in hundreds of thousands at a time.

Rich people are wild.

Normally, I’d be all for earning mountains of cash through selling my art whilst simultaneously wringing several rich art collectors of their money. But here’s the thing.

NFTs ain’t great for the environment.

Does that sound too simple for you? Let’s break it down a bit.

I won’t go into details—there are plenty of articles online that explain this perfectly, such as this one by The Verge and this one by Wired—because I’m not qualified at all to do so. I’m not experienced in this field, nor am I an expert in cryptocurrency, NFTs, environmental science, etc.

But if there’s one thing I can do, it’s read and digest. And I’m more than happy to do so so you don’t have to.

So here goes nothing.

A lot of the markets that sell NFTs run on a cryptocurrency called Ethereum, which is the second-most popular blockchain (chain of digital transactions) after Bitcoin. The thing about Ethereum is that it’s got insane energy consumption—something about ether mining, which is a subject that I’m not quite committed enough to research—and it generates a stupid amount of carbon emissions every time a transaction happens.

According to this article from… IEEE (is that an acronym or a scream?) Spectrum, Ethereum used roughly as much electricity as Iceland in 2018, which broke down to about a U.S. household’s daily usage of energy for a single transaction. However, the article claims that Ethereum was about to embark on some sort of mystical quest to cut their energy consumption down due to environmentalist backlash. So everything’s fine! Go home, y’all. We’re good.

Eeeexcept I clicked on one of the links in the article, and it took me to a very handy website.

Let’s take a look at this graph.

The title of the graph is Ethereum Energy Consumption Index Chart, and it shows a spike in Ethereum consumption around 2019, and then a decline, with steady lower levels all the way to mid 2020, and then a sudden exponential growth starting then.

Christ. Look at me, bringing actual data and graphs and stuff into the mix. I don’t think I’ve ever spent this much time on an actual academic paper. Then again, none of my academic papers dealt with the climate crisis.

Yeah. That’s what we in the business call… not great.

Ethereum levels are reaching an all-time high, and it’s idiotically clear why: NFTs are driving the usage of Ethereum transactions through the roof, and they started gaining popularity around the start of 2021. In fact, the updated statistics of annual Ethereum electricity consumption has increased from Iceland (pop. about 360K), to Oman (pop. about 5 million).

Now, follow me closely here, for the logic is kind of complicated: That’s bad.

(Then again, I also did a bit of research on Bitcoin, and it’s not much better. Actually, it might be worse. This makes it very hard for me to reach a good, solid conclusion. Kind of inconsiderate of them.)

So what am I saying? That we should just abandon NFTs entirely? That it was a stupid idea in the first place, made all the more worse by the insane levels of detriment it’s bringing to the environment?

… Well. Yeah? But also…

Look, I get it. As an artist, I understand—it’s a huge potential reward for very little personal risk, and thus it’s an incredibly attractive prospect. Hell, I’d sell my soul for 6.6 million dollars, which is how much a buyer paid for a single video. I myself was knee-deep in researching how I’d get into selling NFTs, not even two months ago, before I started paying attention to what the problematic side effects would be.

NFTs are what the artist industry should be like. There’s a lot of fantastic art on the market that’s finally getting the attention it deserves, and a lot of artists finally getting their well-deserved giant payday. Artists are becoming millionaires overnight—how can anyone resist that prospect?

But instead of pursuing a decentralized system of fake currency where no one can be held accountable for the actions they may choose to take on the market, all the while contributing to the exponential worsening of the climate crisis, maybe we should just be… paying artists more?

Just some food for thought.

At the end of the day, we can’t control the direction of the market, and we can’t control what stupid rich people decide to invest in and make a big deal out of next. But just remember one thing: It is always okay to make fun of crypto people. And it is always, always, stupid to put your money where the blockchain is.

Have a nice day, dear reader. Punch your local crypto bro in the diaphragm for me the next time you see him.

— Quinn