On March 11, 2021, artist Beeple sold his digital collage “Everydays — The First Five Thousand Days” for over $69 million at Christie's auction house. It was the third most expensive work ever sold at auction by a living artist, and the most expensive piece of digital-only work ever sold.
Keep in mind that Beeple’s collage is purely digital — the buyer did not purchase a tangible piece of artwork to hang on their living room wall. The buyer doesn’t even own a trademark or copyright to the work. When the buyer looks at their new acquisition, they will see the exact same pixels as you would if you Googled the name of the piece right now.
“Everydays” is a non-fungible token, or NFT; an increasingly popular form of blockchain cryptocurrency. Unlike Bitcoin, which can be bought and traded like regular money, NFTs are unique and not interchangeable with something of equal value. By purchasing “Everydays,” the buyer paid almost $70 million for lines of code that serve as a certificate of authenticity — essentially, bragging rights.
Increasingly, other forms of digital media, from Nyan Cat memes to Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey’s first tweet, are also being bought and sold as NFTs. Millions of dollars have been invested into NFTs, and many millions more will follow.
At the surface, the NFT business seems benign. What’s wrong with millionaires supporting digital artists and memelords? If they want to waste their money on purchasing internet clout, then so be it.
However, the reality of NFTs, and blockchain systems in general, is much darker. To verify decentralized blockchain transactions, teams of “miners'' must use energy-guzzling computers to solve complex math problems.
Explaining the logic behind this system is beyond the scope of this article, but just know this — NFTs are not eco-friendly. By one estimate, every NFT transaction generates an energy output equivalent to one European citizen's electricity usage for two months.
Proponents of NFTs have argued that NFTs are currently just a small sector of total blockchain transactions. Plus, Beeple and other digital artists have promised to offset the environmental cost of NFTs by investing in conservation and renewable resources.
Even if fulfilled, these promises ignore the far simpler and more effective solution of... not polluting the Earth for memes in the first place.
What’s more, while NFT transactions are currently fairly rare, Beeple’s record-breaking sale has catapulted NFTs to the mainstream. This rising interest in selling digital art as NFTs is sure to drive further blockchain activity and skyrocket energy usage.
We are accelerating our planet’s demise just so some tech losers can tell people they technically own the authentic copy of a Bad Luck Brian meme. Instead of heralding NFTs as the artistic patronage of the future, we need to reevaluate whether their merits will ever outweigh their disastrous environmental impact.
Cécile Girard is a 21-year-old psychology junior from Lake Charles.