Bitcoin, Weed, and NFTs

The Case for Frivolity in a Future of Abundance

Climate advocates seem increasingly concerned about fun and frivolity. I am here to defend it.

But let me begin by (partially) agreeing with climate hawks’ fashionable antipathy towards one particular frivolity: Bitcoin.

My case against Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies is simple: we already have money and it works great. A successful future for Bitcoin will either see it displace fiat currency under a still heavily-regulated monetary system, in which case the alleged comparative advantages of crypto disappear, or it will achieve its final form as a truly untraceable, unregulatable digital currency, which will further unmoor the public trust in institutions and state capacity that observers across the political spectrum warn has eroded. No thanks.

Now contrast my argument here with those of climate hawks, whose case against Bitcoin tends to begin and end with its carbon footprint. We shouldn’t fret about Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies centrally because of their carbon intensity. We should fret because, by and large, they serve no useful social function.

It’s a crucial distinction with implications beyond Bitcoin: We should not oppose emerging technologies and activities merely because they consume a lot of energy. As I wrote a few years ago, “Bitcoin may be a bad idea, but desalination and wastewater treatment, large-scale materials recycling, direct-air carbon capture, vertical farming and aquaculture, and spaceflight have a lot to say for them — and all will come with significant energy demands.” A planet of seven going on nine or ten billion people later this century will require significantly more energy than is produced today, most of it, hopefully, from low-carbon technologies.

But it’s not just essential industries and services that deserve a place in a clean energy future. Even energy-intensive sources of frivolity and leisure are not always the climate vices they are made out to be. And framing them as such indicates a mindset and a politics that will be ill-equipped to address climate change and other challenges in the future.

Consider a cousin of cryptocurrency: NFTs, or non-fungible tokens. NFTs are, essentially, unique digital artworks. They are also the latest fad to face criticism from climate advocates.

“Crypto-art buying is built on the same blockchain technology currently frying the climate,” wrote Gizmodo’s Brian Kahn this week. NFTs rely on the same artificially scarce computer processing power for their production as Bitcoin does. That processing power uses a non-trivial amount of electricity, much of which still comes from fossil fuels.

If and when electricity supply comes without the emissions, grid operators will have eliminated the chief environmental externality associated with NFTs.

What my argument presupposes is: what if it didn’t? Electricity grids across the globe are transitioning from fossil fuels to solar, wind, nuclear, geothermal, and other low-carbon technologies. If and when electricity supply comes without the emissions, grid operators will have eliminated the chief environmental externality associated with NFTs, not to mention other products and services on the blockchain.

Will NFTs still be frivolous in a low-carbon future? Absolutely. But we have mostly not treated frivolity as a social ill, and I don’t think we should start now because of climate change. Pokemon cards and video games are frivolous. So, arguably, are films, fitness classes, and farmers markets. All of these have their own externalities, opportunity costs, and contested cultural valances. But we should not ban them or regulate them out of existence based on an allegedly objective environmental footprint evaluation.

Let’s consider another frivolity: weed.

At Slate this week, Evan Mills made the case against indoor cannabis cultivation. “Outdoor cultivation has sufficed for five millennia,” he writes. “In a warming world, indoor cultivation is an unessential and unaffordable luxury.”

Like Kahn with NFTs, Mills’ argument rests largely on indoor weed’s carbon emissions, emissions that I suppose might be lowered if the cannabis were grown outdoors under sunlight (that is unless outdoor cultivation requires clearing forests, a likelihood Mills does not consider).

This leads Mills to overemphasize the other problems associated with indoor cultivation, pointing to “water supply and water treatment infrastructure, worker safety, and mountains of solid waste,” as if outdoor cultivation sits weightless upon the land. Indeed, he shrugs off the challenges facing outdoor operations, chalking up problems of theft, odor, and monoculture fields to “the lesser of the evils.” He handwaves away the reasons growers prefer to produce weed indoors, including quality, lower water consumption, reduced pest risk, precision in breeding and cultivation, and the ability to produce more harvests in a year.

These are the same virtues promised by the indoor cultivation of arugula, tomatoes, strawberries, and other land-intensive greens and produce. It makes me wonder how far Mills’ case against the energy intensity of agriculture goes. Irrigation? Tractors? The synthetic fertilizers that produce half of global calories today? The mills that grind wheat into flour or the trucks that carry food to markets?

These attitudes traffic in the same scarcity mindset that leads climate advocates to oppose eating almonds or flying across the country to visit your grandparents.

This is par for the course for the ecological holier-than-thou crowd. They pick a product or behavior they don’t like and emphasize every possible downside while ignoring benefits, tradeoffs, and the implications of their own logic. Whether it’s opposition to digital artwork or a rejection of the pretty widespread consumer preference for indoor-grown cannabis, these attitudes traffic in the same scarcity mindset that leads climate advocates to oppose eating almonds or flying across the country to visit your grandparents.

This ascetic aesthetic is no way to garner concern for climate change, and is certainly no way to build a low-carbon, climate-resilient future. That’s why we at Breakthrough favor treating environmental problems as technological challenges, not primarily as the outcomes of personal or even institutional vice.

If we adequately address climate change, we will do so by building a future of abundance, not scarcity. That abundance will bestow plenty of luxuries that I look forward to enjoying, such as autonomous vehicles and cell-grown meat, as well as frivolities I personally have little interest in, like cannabis, NFTs, and maybe even cryptocurrencies.

A future of expanded abundance is not at all guaranteed and will not come without its own problems, tradeoffs, and inequities. But ultimately, the danger lies not in indulging frivolity or leisure in ways some find repugnant or wasteful. It lies in attempting to redress our environmental challenges by restricting human activity and ingenuity at every turn.