by Kieran Metcalfe
Posted at 14:20pm on 5th May 2021

We’ve been out shooting, and taken care to not damage the landscape. We’ve stepped carefully to avoid crushing plants that might not recover, and we’ve even brought home a bag-full of litter we found along the way. Our boots are by the door and we’re processing up images which we feel capture the stunning beauty of the landscape, perhaps with some wonderful light and conditions. Of course we’ll be careful to avoid sharing the exact location we shot from, so as to avoid too much copy-cat photography and the resulting erosion.

All nicely in line with the 7 principles of the Nature First Photography Alliance.

And then we decide that some of the images are worth selling - so much so that we decide a limited edition print run is in order. That's great for print customers, but what if we want to do something similar for our digital customers? If someone purchases a digital copy, it can’t be a limited edition in the same way. Digital files are eminently copyable by their very nature and any two copies are the same. 

This is where the new kid on the block comes in - the NFT. It’s a new term which you may not be familiar with, but stands for “Non-Fungible Token”. Fungible is an odd word which essentially means ‘interchangeable’.  Those JPG files above are essentially interchangeable, and therefore 'fungible'.

By extension then, for something to be Non-Fungible, two copies of the same thing need to not be interchangeable. With limited edition prints, this is pretty straight forward. I sell you a print and write that it’s number 27 of 50 on the border. That’s not really replaceable (as long as I’m being honest about the limited edition run) as others would have different numbers. It’s a physical item and cannot be easily replaced. When you start to involve the ‘value’ of the print (#1 of 50 being worth less than, say #1 of 1) the ’non-fungible’ side has wider implications.

NFTs are gaining in popularity as they provide a way to make digital files unique and non-interchangeable (whether a photo, visual art, music or document). Using the same technology as BitCoin and other Cryptocurrencies, the seller of the image generates a token (the actual NFT) and links this to the digital artwork they’re producing. This seal is the digital equivalent of saying ’this is #1 of 50’ and so conveys the uniqueness of this copy of the file. 

There’s a lot more under the hood with NFTs but the ability to make a digital file somehow ‘unique’ and therefore more valuable is driving the current craze for them. And surely that’s fine - if I want to make an extra buck or two for my image, and there are people willing to pay, it’s all digital and doesn’t hurt anyone.

Right?

Not quite.

It’s very easy to think that digital means eco-friendly. If there’s no printing, shipping, packaging, plastic or other pollutants involved it’s about as green as you can get, isn’t it? 

Based on an article from the BBC in March 2020, internet use then accounted for 3.7% of global emissions, and that was before many of the Coronavirus lockdowns took effect. The current figure is likely to be higher still with increased use of Netflix at home, ubiquitous Zoom meetings and social media in general.

Even before the pandemic-induced streaming bonanza, Music streaming alone was estimated to produce between 200 and 350 million kg of greenhouse gas equivalents - which is a lot compared to 8 million kg of plastics for physical CDs (figures for 2016, from University of Glasgow).

That’s just for our day-to-day usage, and there's certainly food for thought on how we operate online. But NFTs raise the stakes far more - and my thanks go to Tom Hadley for making me aware of this.

These tokens, or rather the Cryptocurrency they’re built on, use an exceedingly energy-hungry platform. The process of creating a Token / BitCoin / unit of Crypto is known as mining, and involves the use of high-powered computer processors. The aim is to locate a solution to a complex mathematical formula, which can take many Quintillion calculations. Professional “miners” have dedicated computer rigs using high-powered graphics cards to increase their output, and these use more power as a result.

As an example and attempt to quantify this - Architect Chris Precht was looking at the NFT route for a set of three artworks he created. He wished to release 100 NFTs for each artwork, meaning a total of 300 tokens. The maths is in the linked article, but simply producing the tokens would equal his normal energy use for twenty years. 

Sounds shocking, but that's the reality of the energy use that goes on out of sight, and out of mind.

It is clear that viewing digital artwork as inherently eco-friendly is a mistake. It is easy to overlook the vast server farms which power the internet and keep data flowing constantly around the world. But when you also add in the cost of producing these complex cryptographic tokens, NFTs suddenly appear to be a vain and wasteful misuse of our resources.

I know everything we do has an impact, and true carbon-neutraility is a steep mountain to climb. But to my mind, going out to take images of the beauty of the landscape, and then monetising the images in a way that is so damaging to the environment is deeply naive, if not hypocritical. 

We spend so long taking care of the landscapes we shoot, guarding our location information carefully, and encouraging others to act responsibly too. Let’s not forget that our impact on the environment continues long after we’ve taken our boots off.

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Just as a post-script - in the days since writing this article I've had a few interesting chats.

1) There is a switch to more eco-friendly methods of generating the tokens - but they're not here yet. Some estimates place that at five years from now.

2) I've had comments that I shouldn't be tweeting if I'm concerned about the environment. I do mention the difficulties of true carbon-neutrality above, but to be specific, currently, a single NFT takes about one-fifth of the energy (https://www.morningstar.ca/ca/news/211282/are-nfts-hurting-the-environment.aspx) of the whole of twitter for a day (https://montrealgazette.com/technology/environmental-impact-of-tweets-unveiled). Yes, it's all energy use, but such a high usage for a single item is what I would struggle to justify. 

When the 'blockchains' that drive NFT generation are overwhelmingly green, either through the sources of their energy, or the way they operate (Proof of Stake vs Proof of Work) then this issue may bear reconsidering. But we're not there yet.