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Anti-Proof of Work for Normies
Many associate blockchain with extreme electricity consumption, but it does not have to be this way. Understand what causes it.
The average person’s understanding of technologies like blockchain is still deeply limited. What simplifications currently exist in the public consciousness often deter deeper learning. The massive power consumption of what are known as “Proof of Work” validation systems are the source of much of this strife. If you think blockchain is necessarily wasteful, Proof of Work is why. Let us oppose it together.
The concept of a “blockchain” is largely as it sounds — you have a number of “blocks” of data “chained” together. Each contains a little bit of cryptographic data responsible for verifying the contents of the block before it. This makes changing prior data in the blockchain nearly impossible, as it would disrupt the integrity of the chain. This enables a trusted public, decentralized ledger for transactions.
Traditionally, as with the original cryptocurrency, Bitcoin, this chaining process is done by putting the entire network of “miners” behind the validation of each block of transactions in exchange for free digital coins. The vast majority of this computational work is ultimately useless. Only a small fraction is meaningfully used for validation and rewarded. This creates an absurd arms race that involves throwing more and more computing power not behind solving more problems but through racing to be the first to solve the same problems. This is “Proof of Work.” And it must die.
NFTs in particular have attracted a lot of concern for their environmental impact. This is because a “classic” NFT is minted on the main Ethereum blockchain. Though this particular chain is seeking to transition away from Proof of Work, its transaction validation is a voracious electricity eater on the level of Bitcoin — which it is expected to overtake in popularity soon. When Ethereum finally adopts the “Proof of Stake” alternative, its power consumption will drop by 99.9%, but it currently uses the same wasteful Proof of Work method as Bitcoin.
Melania Trump, who I admittedly personally despise, recently gained attention for minting NFTs on another blockchain known as Solana. Many were quick to their usual rallying cry of, “NFTs are destroying the environment.” But, much as I genuinely do wish I could join them in dunking on Melania, Solana does not use Proof of Work. Solana transactions use power on the order of a couple of Google searches.
Similarly, Kickstarter has gotten quite a bit of pushback for its announcement that it will power its system on blockchain while still enabling people to use it to raise funds as normal. Many angrily and to great social media engagement said they were clearly just using carbon offsets, which is not enough to fully mitigate environmental impact. But the chain they are proposing using also does not rely on Proof of Work.
As with many things, people are resistant to letting go of their prior convictions — as was I with blockchain technology for quite awhile myself. If you hate “NFTs” for killing the environment, what you actually hate is Proof of Work cryptocurrency transactions — as you should. The terrifying carbon footprint numbers tied to crypto transactions are its creation.
Even if you are against blockchain, you cannot properly criticize what you do not understand. Acting as if massive electricity waste is an inseparable part of the technology will simply make you look like a fool to the informed. And increasingly, it looks like these technologies are here to stay, so hopefully understanding Proof of Work and the push to move past it can help assuage what was, at least for me, my biggest concern about web3.