Carbon Offset Blockchain
In December 2021, the Los Angeles-based media artist Kyle McDonald released “Ethereum Emissions: A Bottom-up Estimate.” McDonald is known for code-based projects that playfully and critically explore new technologies, such as a one-month social media performance during which anyone could post as him on Twitter and a web-based app that lets people check if someone is an ICE employee using only their photo. His Emissions report further inflamed the debate over the energy consumption of Ethereum, the most popular blockchain for NFTs. At the time, Ethereum was a “Proof of Work” blockchain, meaning that its maintenance required so much computational power that it annually consumed as much energy as a small country. Thanks in part to public pressure, on September 15th, 2022, Ethereum completed its long-awaited transition to a “Proof of Stake” blockchain, which has reduced its energy consumption by an estimated 99.95%.
On the same day, Gray Area—the San Francisco-based non-profit devoted to art and technology—listed three NFTs by McDonald for auction on three of the most popular platforms for buying and selling NFTs: OpenSea, Rarible, and Foundation. Their starting prices are equivalent to $24 million, the approximate amount it would cost, according to three environmental organizations McDonald partnered with for the project, to mitigate the impact of each of these platform’s operations before they, too, moved away from “Proof of Work” blockchain.
Called Amends, McDonald’s project aims to draw attention not only to the environmental impact of blockchain technologies, but also to questions of who should be held accountable and whether and how amends can be made. Each NFT is tied to a physical sculpture, by the artist Kazuki Takazawa, that’s comprised of blown glass encasing materials used to mitigate carbon’s impacts by McDonald’s environmental partners on the project: Project Vesta, Nori, and Tradewater (whose carbon mitigation methods utilize olivine, a naturally occurring green sand; carbon-rich soil; and shredded refrigerant cylinders, respectively). McDonald also worked with the artist Robert Hodgin to produce digital renders of these sculptures that can be rotated, which are displayed on the NFT platforms as short looping videos. As of this publication, no bids have been placed on any of the listings.
–Tina Rivers Ryan
I was initially drawn to your project because of its conceptual elegance in applying the principles of so-called “Web3” to critique Web3, just as you have weaponized technologies like facial recognition against themselves. One of the main ideas of Web3 is that, instead of allowing Web2 corporations to track, measure, and financialize our personal data and creative content, we should control and “own” this information, and generate profit from it for ourselves. The counter-argument is that the solution is not to accelerate the worst tendencies of Web2 in the name of personal “sovereignty,” but to challenge the very principles on which this exploitative system rests—and specifically the idea that every interaction should be viewed as a measurable and commodifiable transaction. Amends tackles this fascination with data and quantification, using your data from “Ethereum Emissions” as a starting point. To begin, can you tell us how you came to make the report?
In early 2021, when artists like Memo Akten were leading initial discussions about the dangers of NFTs, we kept coming back to the ecological cost. But the conversation always settled on “we don’t really know about energy use or emissions,” and sometimes even “we can’t know.” I wanted to push back on that idea, to show that it was worth at least trying to understand. In that process I learned a lot about how Ethereum mining happens, and how it is tied to a larger economy. I learned about GPU scarcity from miner hoarding, the response from GPU manufacturer NVIDIA to create mining-only GPUs, the e-waste from outdated hardware, and the venture capitalists that subsidized all of it by injecting cash to crypto startups.
There has been a huge debate about the methods that various people, including you, have used to calculate the environmental impact of Proof of Work blockchains. I often get asked about whether NFTs are really “that bad” for the environment, to which I’ve responded that I don’t feel qualified to assess the data, and also that I’m more interested in the broader picture: What are our priorities, as a society? What would it look like if paying artists more fairly for their work (which remains the major selling point of NFTs) and combating climate change were aligned goals, rather than opposed ones? While your project relies on a quantitative analysis of the environmental impact of Proof of Work, it’s also ultimately about qualitative questions of value—and even the possibility (or really, impossibility) of technological solutions to what are fundamentally social problems.
Very few people realize that all Proof of Work crypto mining uses a similar amount of energy as the entire internet. The scale of these numbers is not the controversial part. The controversy comes when we ask who is responsible. And to what extent are artists making NFTs responsible? I’m trying to hold a mirror to the crypto space, to show how society is currently approaching challenges such as climate change through metrics, quantification, and financialization. I am concerned that the quantification of harm can itself be a distraction. When every environmental harm is reduced to some number of tons of CO2, we never learn to appreciate the true nature and nuance of the harm.
The linkage of quantification and accountability reminds me of a fundamental tension in the history of modern and contemporary art. On the one hand, artists like Marcel Duchamp pointed out the arbitrariness of systems of measurement, which are cultural constructs and a reflection of societal values, in the sense that what we decide to measure or not to measure is a reflection of what we value or don’t value. For example, Duchamp made 3 Standard Stoppages (1913-14) by dropping three meter-long pieces of string and using the random results to cut three canvases into new units of measurement that are technically equivalent, but look both irrational and totally dissimilar. On the other hand, artists have also used data as a transparent medium of otherwise hidden truths. One example is the way the Guerrilla Girls have used statistics about museum collections to offer a feminist critique of the art world, as in their iconic poster Do Women Have To Be Naked To Get Into The Met. Museum? (1989), which cited the facts that “less than 5% of the artists in the Modern Art sections are women, but 85% of the nudes are female.” It seems like you’re squaring these approaches.
A few different things are happening here. There are measures, like tons of CO2 or terawatt hours of energy, and then there are metrics, like the hashrate of the Ethereum blockchain. And all of this together we could call “quantification.” I wanted to speak the language of quantification for this piece because it’s the language of decentralized finance, of the carbon offset industry, of markets and crypto broadly. Critiquing it through its own language felt right to me, yet at the same time, I worry that it is ultimately absorbed by the system and rendered ineffective. I’ve been surprised that many Ethereum advocates have pointed to my work on Ethereum’s emissions as a good reference for understanding the issue, because they see it as more objective, less biased, and better researched than some other work on this topic. Others have pointed to Amends as an example of “NFTs for good,” implying that the problem with NFTs is the artwork and not the infrastructure.
The digital and physical work were created simultaneously, with Robert Hodgin crafting the renders and Kazuki Takazawa crafting the glass. The aesthetic of renders informed the glass, and the limitations of the glass informed the renders. This process reminded me that this project would not be possible without the real-world organizations we partnered with: Tradewater, Nori, and Project Vesta. They are each tackling climate change in their own ways, from refrigerant management to regenerative agriculture, to more experimental coastal weathering.
Back to the issue of critiquing “from the inside,” I’ve also heard grumblings about Amends, and specifically its cynicism—in the sense that you spent a year critiquing the ecological cost of NFTs, only to turn around and mint some of your own, under the guise of a kind of critique. In her essay “Harm Reduction” on Amends for the NFT magazine Outland, critic Charlotte Kent defends your choice to make NFTs: “By participating in NFT marketplaces to enact his critique, McDonald recognizes his own culpability, rather than taking a moral high ground to blame and shame.” Could you elaborate on your “culpability” and unpack why you decided to make NFTs, rather than simply a project about NFTs?
The only way to make a multimillion dollar sale without NFTs is through an auction house, and that felt less poetic. I decided to go all in rather than try to maintain some distance or purity. When I work with machine learning or computer vision I take the same approach. I’ll build out the problematic datasets, train the biased models, and generally participate in what I’m critiquing in a fully immersive way that gives me access to everything that is left unsaid and undocumented. For me there is a big difference between what you build and how it is deployed. Another reason for minting this work is very practical—the scale of the emissions problem is massive, and the NFT market is one of the only places with matching liquidity. It’s a reminder of where wealth directs its attention. Finally, there is an aesthetic reason for minting Amends. I wanted it to follow the logic of NFTs in every capacity. That’s why the digital renders are incredibly shiny; that’s why they spin almost too fast. NFT collectors are also looking for “utility”—they want it to do or mean something more than a mere image or video. Sometimes the NFTs are tied to guest list spots for parties, or to redeemable physical objects. I wanted to engage with that impulse, but in a way where the collector is confronted with a choice: the physical sculptures in Amends can only be redeemed if the collector destroys (burns) their NFT.
The tokenized GIFs do have that notorious sleek, 3D “Blender tutorial” aesthetic of many NFTs; as you said, they’re shiny and fast, and the models themselves also float in a space without gravity, which is to say, the computational space of the rendering software. Can you tell us more about the specific materials and forms of these glass cubes, in both their physical and virtual iterations?
The aesthetic of Amends also models how Ethereum itself works. Ethereum packages transactions into blocks, and the NFT market abstracts artwork into financial assets. I wanted to make my own kind of block that could both be an abstract container for an abstraction of emissions, and also a physical container for physical artifacts. The glass and transparency are a nod to the fact that blockchains are designed to be transparent but immutable—the contents are visible but inaccessible. I think this block-building dynamic is subconsciously understood in a lot of NFT art and collectibles. Cryptopunks are squares of art, built from squares of color. The visual aesthetics of these digital renders are also drawn directly from the 2021 NFT art scene exemplified by Beeple or CloneX. Amends is full of saturated Octane-rendered reflective and refractive surfaces. It is a monument built from the aesthetics of its moment. The physical sculptures take on these digital aesthetics, but are ultimately flawed and imperfect compared to the hyperreal quality of the renders.
Given that Amends is an artwork that is also fundraising for concrete solutions to an urgent problem, how do you define its success? There’s a real possibility that some or all of the NFTs may never sell. How would that impact the meaning of this project for you? On the one hand, you clearly want to raise money for these companies mitigating greenhouse gasses; on the other, it’s a conceptual project that in a sense is even more poetic (and critical) if the tokens never sell.
Amends would be a massive success if it could raise awareness and money for the important work of these greenhouse gas mitigation companies. I’m also interested in changing the discourse around what counts as “progress” and how we think about historical harms. In the book The Color of Law (2017), Richard Rothstein describes how the U.S. government reinforced racial segregation through racist housing policies. Rothstein explains that no policy reform, for example the Fair Housing Act of 1968, was enough to undo the lasting harms of the original policy. This gave me a framework for thinking about the ecological damage of Ethereum, and the damage of tech more broadly. Even when harmful infrastructure is reformed, that doesn’t mean the damage is remedied. In the Ethereum community the position on Proof of Work has been “we will fix it going forward.” And now that the transition has been made to Proof of Stake, and the future is here, I want to ask if we can make amends for the past. ♦
Subscribe to Broadcast