Imaginary currency, real consequences

Tori Johnsson

Bitcoin, Ethereum, Dogecoin – these names catapulted ordinary cryptocurrency investors into riches. While they may sound like knockoff video game currencies, these blockchain-based stores of value supposedly revolutionize the future of money and trade. But I don’t believe in the power of crypto-currency, and I don’t think you should either.

When an imaginary product is more important than its massive environmental impact, its goals are severely out of line with reality. It’s a strong possibility that the crypto market may crash and fade away. In the meantime, there may be a way to bring crypto’s conveniences more in line with the best interests of the planet. If people are going to insist that this is the Next Big Thing, we might as well ensure that it isn’t the Next Big Environmental Disaster.

Sure, cryptocurrency is convenient and innovative in many ways. Crypto-currencies can be independent of central authority and provide users with a way to make anonymous, irreversible trans-actions. Crypto mining involves solv-ing complex mathematical equations to double-check whether those trans-actions are legitimate. Then they’re logged in a decentralized and secure record called the blockchain. Bitcoin is over a century away from running out of unique blocks on its blockchain.

Some crypto, unlike currencies tied to a sovereign country, is non-inflationary. There can only ever be 21 million bitcoins in existence, and over 18 mil-lion exist now. As ‘fiat’ money, not tied to anything with intrinsic value, crypto-currencies owe their value to their popularity in the public eye.

Crypto can’t be that bad, right? Stable currencies that aren’t beholden to a particular country could spur growth in developing nations and give people a unique personal investment.

But it’s not all sunshine and roses for crypto enthusiasts or the planet. Blockchain-based currencies cause explosive electricity consumption and environ-mental impacts. And they certainly can’t be categorized as “stable.”

Take Bitcoin for example. Accord-ing to the University of Cambridge, the Bitcoin network uses 148.53 terawatt-hours of electricity per year, more than the country of Malaysia and less than Egypt. Bitcoin ranks 26th in the world for energy consumption when counted as a nation. That staggering figure is just Bitcoin – not counting Ethereum, Litecoin, NEO, or any of the mediocre cryptocurrencies that rise and fall like weeds under the lawn mower of capitalism.

China is currently the country with the most Bitcoin miners, at about 71% of the world’s total. Data shows that the electricity for Chinese mining – and mining around the world – is large-ly produced from nonrenewable re-sources. Specialized currency-mining equipment is pricey, lasts only 12-18 months, and creates tons of technological waste. They’re structured around artificial scarcity, and use real natural resources to promote that illusion. Us-ing up our precious planet’s resources on an unnecessary currency displays a stunning lack of forward thinking. Cryptocurrency has no inherent value other than what people give it.

Crypto stability, like all fiat currencies, is heavily reliant on consumer confidence to maintain value. Without a country implementing monetary and fiscal policies, it’s even more difficult to control wild value swings. For ex-ample, Dogecoin tanked 40% when Elon Musk hosted Saturday Night Live on May 8.

I would not put my savings into a volatile meme coin that plummets when Elon Musk makes mediocre jokes, but you do you. Musk also has the power to drop Bitcoin’s valuation by thousands of dollars by simply declaring that Tesla won’t accept it as payment for cars due to its disproportionate environmental impact, as he did on May 12.

Will there ever be a way to have an environmentally friendly cryptocurrency? While complete sustainability might be a pipe dream, there are vast improvements that can still be made. The most critical may be switching from a “proof of work” blockchain system to “proof of stake.”

Proof of work systems like Bitcoin, Dogecoin and Ethereum use exponentially more computing power as more and more coins are mined, and the monetary reward goes to the computer that solves the transaction equation(s) first. This creates an unfair system, incentivizing massive networks of fast computers. The community’s power consolidates into “mining pools” that share in the rewards and crowd out smaller miners.

Proof of work systems have slower transaction times and can handle fewer transactions at a time.

Proof of stake systems are more electrically efficient and increase linearly in computing power usage. Those who create proof of stake currency, called “forgers,” buy an initial “stake” of the currency that acts as a security deposit.

The comparative size of their stake to the existing supply of currency deter-mines the likelihood that they’ll get a transaction fee reward. Proof of stake prevents conglomerate mining without a financial investment in the network.

Proof of stake cryptocurrencies include Dash and NEO. Ethereum, the second most popular cryptocurrency, will be transitioning from proof of work to proof of stake in the future.

This focus on proof-of-stake is a patch job over a glaring flaw in cryptocurrency as a whole, using a system that prof-it-focused investors will accept. Those who simply can’t kick the habit should consider swapping Bitcoin for Ethereum after the proof of stake transition or another less energy-intensive coin.

Imaginary currency and an unregulated, volatile market spell disaster for investors when the bubbles inevitably burst.

I respect crypto enthusiasts’ desire to hang out on this glamorous band-wagon. I realize that the profits people can make off crypto are potentially life-changing. When we accept that the invented value of cryptocurrency takes priority over preserving tangible re-sources and solving climate change, we may have already lost the battle.

But I hope there will be a day that people can whip sustainable energy out of thin air just as easily as a new currency.