Buzzworthy for a “traditional” art world application of a digital art tool, Damien Hirst’s NFT drop has been hailed as a breakthrough in solving the issue of sustainability in blockchain art. After the initial denial that NFTs are real art and that the sales of digital files impact the traditional art market, followed by the Beeple shockwaves that dominated every art outlet imaginable, dealers, artists, and collectors turned to the next hot talking point: NFTs have a significant carbon footprint. Some raised alarms out of genuine environmental concern and others were happy to have a legitimate cause with which to dismiss digital art and cryptocurrencies. Earlier this month, I highlighted crypto-artists with advanced knowledge of blockchain computing and NFT marketplaces that made some headway defending the issue and pointing to alternative ways to mint and sell NFTs. However, as with so many other facets of business, a famous, successful man has emerged as the loudest voice in the room. Hirst, whose formaldehyde-submerged, semi-preserved animals in vitrines scream anything but ecological, has become the face of sustainable NFTs with his drop of 10,000 paintings on paper verified on the new eco-friendly platform Palm.
In a significant show of the traditional and digital art worlds colliding, Hirst’s NFT drop pairs the non-fungible token with physical artworks. Made over five years ago, the oil paintings on paper, called “The Currency Project”, are now linked with blockchain-supported NFTs. Artists and dealers have been curious about this application of NFTs, as the digital leger acts in a similar manner to provenance and helps to verify authenticity. As a well-known artist and public figure, Hirst’s drop of 10,000 NFT-certified physical artworks is undeniably significant. He joins a larger group of artists who have taken advantage of blockchains to verify their physical works. Scottish artist Trevor Jones has been linking his physical paintings to NFTs since 2018. In 2020, Jones even partnered with Pak, the artist involved with Sotheby’s upcoming NFT project, to explore the boundaries between physical and digital art by translating Jones’ physical paintings into digital art, which in turn are translated back into physical prints or paintings depending on the NFT.
The new platform that will release Hirst’s NFT paintings, Palm, was created in part by Ethereum co-founder Joe Lubin. Ethereum, the main cryptocurrency used to mint and sell NFTs, has come under fire for its significant carbon footprint. Lubin, uniquely positioned to understand the full shortcomings of Ethereum, created Palm as a solution to the ecological issues inherent in the blockchain by proposing a computation method that significantly reduces the number of nodes required. The system, known as the Proof of Authority or PoA method, was first proposed by another Ethereum co-founder, Gavin Wood, in 2017. Unlike the Proof of Work (PoW) method that blockchains like Ethereum and Bitcoin use, which requires all of the nodes to compute and therefore uses massive amounts of energy, Proof of Authority uses a limited number of pre-approved nodes, called validators, to compute. This is not the same as the Proof of Stake (PoS) method that scales down the number of nodes used based on the proportion of Ethereum the owner has. Both PoS and PoA use fewer nodes and less energy, but PoS activates a portion of nodes at random while PoA activates specific, pre-approved nodes.
With the PoA method, Palm is undeniably a more energy-efficient way to mint and sell Ethereum-based NFTs. If Hirst had released 10,000 NFTs on a PoW platform like Nifty Gateway or OpenSea, the environmental impact would have undoubtedly been called into question. While some PoW platforms have made high-publicized, massive carbon offsets and hosted “Carbon Net-Negative” auctions, they don’t solve the issues inherent in their operations. Nifty Gateway, OpenSea, Zora, and Foundation have said they are working on more energy-efficient scaling solutions, with Nifty Gateway adding they plan to make monthly carbon offsets. The question is, if they have to offset their carbon emissions every month, why not just stop the problem instead.
If sustainability was the driving factor, Hirst would have had other options. Palm is one of many solutions to reduce the carbon emissions of NFT transactions. There are scaling systems, like Harmony and Polygon. Additionally, Ethereum is not the only currency used to mint and sell NFTs. While it is certainly the most popular and has come to dominate art world conversations, there are others like Wax, Tezos, Polkadot, and Cardano that operate with the PoS model and use far less energy. If the goal is to stick with Ethereum, some artists choose to mint on these PoS blockchains and move their NFT to Ethereum with a sidechain to reduce the energy needed for minting. For those open to blockchains apart from Ethereum, there are platforms like Kalamint, KodaDot, Hic et Nunc, and even an entire forum dedicated to sharing resources on eco-conscious NFTs.
Crypto-purists have long debated whether PoA computing is a legitimate or logical method of blockchain transacting. With specific validating nodes selected, PoA is centralised, which inherently goes against the definition of blockchains as decentralized networks. PoA also requires that the authorized nodes be identified, meaning it lacks privacy and anonymity, also considered essential to blockchains. Some argue that revealing the identity of a verifying node can lead to manipulation or corruption and therefore makes computing less secure.
Even the $69 million Beeple NFT raised eyebrows with Christie’s use of an off-chain bidding system, which crypto-purists argued defeated the purpose of the blockchain in that the final steps had to be manually verified as opposed to the instantaneous certification that would normally happen on the leger. However, Christie’s previously addressed this off-chain transacting method in an interview with Cultbytes, pointing to the reduced carbon footprint of the sale as a result of this decision.
Regardless of whether you think PoA computing defies the nature of what constitutes an NFT, the energy required to mint and sell Hirst’s 10,000 artworks is undoubtedly less using this method than it would be on a PoW system. However, disregarding PoA leaves one fewer eco-conscious NFT options. Ethereum itself has been working on a method to scale down the number of nodes activated to compute since before they even released the blockchain in 2015. The fact that Joe Lubin, co-founder of Ethereum, is one of the founders of Palm raises questions of why Ethereum isn’t working faster to roll out their more sustainable scaling system, called Eth2. In an interview with The Art Newspaper, another Palm co-founder, David Heyman, noted that Palm’s PoA system would provide the “best set of trade-offs for creators and curators in the NFT space in the short term, while Eth2 rolls out.” He added that Palm would convert to Eth2 when it’s implemented, which Ethereum reports will happen over the next year or two. Perhaps Damien Hirst choosing Palm to release his NFTs will draw people away from the PoW platforms and give credence to the untested Palm and the centralized PoA.
If this is the natural progression of NFTs entering into the art world–from major boom to public outcry to a blue-chip artist popularizing eco-friendly alternatives that already existed–maybe this is exactly what NFTs needed to shift towards sustainable production. Or, perhaps this is what art production and sales in general need: public outcry. The signs of the climate crisis are undeniable, and the art world’s role in pollution and waste has long gone ignored. The same people outraged at the carbon footprints of an NFT should also be outraged at the carbon footprint of physical artworks. As with NFTs and digital art, there are artists, dealers, and activists all around the world addressing the industry’s role in the climate crisis. Do we need Damien Hirst to make 10,000 artworks whose importance is not their skill or subject matter, but the fact that they take steps towards sustainability for people to actually listen? Another concerning fact is the apparent gender imbalance that surrounds the NFT sphere, it is counterproductive to continue to praise the technology as democratizing when the field is largely male-dominated, especially as it is adopted by the art world which already faces an uphill battle toward increased female representation.
The last year has seen an increase in climate conversations, but the public outcry that came to define NFTs is only touching the surface of common, wasteful art world practices. NFTs have relatively calculable carbon footprints compared to that of physical art, but that does not mean the latter gets a pass to continue unchecked. Moreover, for people hailing Hirst’s NFTs as eco-friendly, have they also considered the energy consumed and carbon emitted for the production, storage, framing, and eventual shipping and displaying of 10,000 paintings? If art people unfamiliar with cryptocurrency can take the time to understand NFTs and have an opinion about blockchain’s carbon footprint, why can’t they also take the time to understand climate change and their own role in it?
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Annabel Keenan is a New York-based writer focusing on contemporary art, market reporting, and sustainability. Her writing has been published in The Art Newspaper, Hyperallergic, and Artillery Magazine among others. She holds a B.A. in Art History and Italian from Emory University and an M.A. in Decorative Arts, Design History, and Material Culture from the Bard Graduate Center.