There was a maths riddle at school that I was once enthralled by. It involved prefacing the question with lots of long and convoluted detail, so that the listener became too distracted to spot the correct answer. And the more I look at the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF)’s claim that its new non-fungible tokens (NFTs) are ecologically sustainable, the more I’m convinced it has fallen into a similar trap.
WWF, the leading conservation NGO, announced on Wednesday (2 February) the launch of new “tokens for nature” to help fund its wildlife conservation work*. These unique digital tokens will give buyers ownership of limited-issue digital artwork as well as access to a range of “money-can’t-buy” experiences. The WWF website claimed it will be entirely transacted via an “eco-friendly” blockchain technology called Polygon.
Many on social media immediately pointed out that blockchain technology is at odds with conservation ideals since it requires vast amounts of energy to run, and contributes to worsening climate change.
In response, WWF highlighted a “sustainability page” that explains how it calculated its figures. The page is a smorgasbord of tech-bro nerdery. After opening with a simple, sound-bite premise – that a single transaction on Polygon uses as little energy as a pint of tap water – it falls into jargony references to “validator nodes” and “AWS EC2 instances”.
And ultimately, all this information about Polygon is the equivalent of the long, convoluted detail in my school maths riddle.
It is true that Polygon is environmentally friendly relative to older blockchain platforms such as Bitcoin or Ethereum. (It uses a “proof-of-stake” technology to validate and secure transactions by “staking” a certain amount of cryptocurrency on the transaction process; rather than the much more energy-intensive “proof-of-work” process, which does the same thing by using lots of computational energy to solve ever-more complex digital puzzles.) But focusing on that distracts from the bigger picture.
[see also: The blockchain bubble wants to sell you a very expensive watch]
As Dr Catherine Flick, a Reader in Computing and Social Responsibility at De Montfort University, explains, it is not yet possible to purchase a WWF NFT without also using the older Ethereum technology. This is because Polygon is a “sidechain” that must eventually log its transactions on Ethereum’s larger system, and also because Ethereum’s currency, Eth, is required to make the purchase. Ethereum may adopt a more efficient security test in the future, but the energy consumption of its networks is currently equivalent to the carbon footprint of Sweden.
“It’s a smoke and mirrors thing,” Flick says. “WWF is saying that Polygon transactions use negligible energy, but buying a WWF NFT won’t only use Polygon. It’s so insidious, it’s really frustrating.”
The million-Eth question is whether WWF knew what it was doing when it launched its NFTs in this way.
WWF’s past dealings certainly give plenty of ammunition to cynics who believe it puts fundraising above all else: from reports that show it turned a blind eye to human rights atrocities committed by people with links to its activities, to accusations that it “sold its soul” to corporations. But equally I can see that the NGO might have been taken in by the same NFT pitch it is now attempting to pass on.
“Our team carried out significant due diligence before embarking on this project – as WWF does with any external partner,” a WWF press officer reassured me.
Emissions contributions aside, however, WWF’s decision to peg its first set of UK NFT artworks to the population numbers of the endangered animals could also take it into a very dark place. As it is based on the principle of scarcity, the value of a particular animal-linked NFT could, in theory, rise if the species becomes extinct.
Therefore, whatever the extent of WWF’s own understanding of the workings of blockchains, the NGO’s poorly explained claims to sustainability have put money-making above transparency, trust and holistic thinking. In doing so the organisation has aligned itself with the principles of capitalism and hyper-commodification, not the joined-up conservation it professes to practice – and which the planet so urgently needs.
*WWF on Friday 4 February withdrew its NFT “trial” and posted a statement on its website saying it still had “lots to learn about this new market”.