Let’s release more carbon and then store it

Would you look at this hypocrisy. George Church’s startup Colossal recently raised $15 million towards his longer-term effort to revive woolly mammoths – at least, he wants to splice woolly-mammoth genes with those of an Asian elephant to create a ‘mammophant’ – to bring back the Pleistocene-era ‘mammoth steppe’, a landscape he hopes will preserve the Siberian permafrost. At the same time, Church decided earlier this year to auction off a representation of his genome as a non-fungible token (NFT) – that is, into a ‘one of its kind’ digital certificate whose ownership and transfers will be recorded with blockchain technology. It is hard for me to take this bit of technology seriously anymore; here’s one wide-ranging explainer.

Pertinently, NFTs are energy-intensive digital objects (which the US SEC chairman Gary Gensler recently called just a “highly speculative asset class”) whose use consumes large amounts of electricity as well as feeds into, and perpetuates, wealth accumulation and Silicon-Valley techbroism. Church is going to auction off his genome as an NFT – a process that will release an unconscionable amount of carbon – to raise funds for a programme to revive the Siberian permafrost that will store more carbon.

George Church in 2012. Credit: Heyytessa/Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 4.0

First, the problem with technofixes is that they are more concerned with the ‘techno’ than with the ‘fix’. Their proponents want to hone the technology more, to the point of being able to profit off of it, especially by selling it to increasingly desperate, and at the same time increasingly populist, governments – which will then deploy them to incur short-term gains and long-term disasters in a way that will broaden the margins of society while concentrating access to resources to those huddled in the centre. The problem they apparently set out to solve, the thing that needed the ‘fix’, is secondary.

Second, Church, like the other techbros he has thrown himself in with, are obsessed with the greater good, as I’m sure Church will defend his idea to auction off information of his genome as an NFT (it is sure to find many takers among white libertarian pro-scientism types) as a small sacrifice to make in the now for big gains tomorrow. But both ends of this euphemism are wrong.

On the former, the world is already rapidly approaching a point where carbonaceous ‘sacrifices’ big or small will be rendered trivial relative to their inevitable climatic consequences. Perhaps more importantly, Church’s participation in the NFT enterprise will also popularise the concept and bring it to the attention of more potential users, not to mention the tokenisatisation of his genome will add one more lucrative asset into the ‘blockchain’ that is available to bid on, trade and release more carbon for years to come. (Also see: Tokenize This.) The latter end, that the Siberian permafrost will ‘lock’ more carbon into the ground than might be released by transactions on the blockchain, is foolish on three counts.

First, the ‘mammoth steppe’, if Church’s Colossal manages to revive it à la the Zimovs’ ‘Pleistocene Park’, will destroy the wetlands of the Arctic tundra, which will trigger its own spiral of consequences, including cascading ecosystem degradation. Second, by not auctioning off his genome, Church won’t raise money that he won’t then use to fund his woolly research, which won’t bring the Pleistocene back and ultimately won’t be able to store more carbon that Church didn’t release with his NFT product. Fuck the ‘techno’, focus on the ‘fix’. Third, anthropogenic global warming – which has caused techbros to think up absurdly inefficient ways to help save the planet – happened over the last two centuries. Bringing mammoths back while glamorising carbon-heavy forms of value is the same as creating a license for people to keep consuming and emitting more carbon without having to address the root cause. This won’t solve climate change, as the bros are wont to claim, but sideline it in favour of ‘business as usual’.

A press release accompanying Church’s announcement, and quoted by The Hill, said, “By auctioning off his genome as an NFT, [Church and his genome-sequencing company] are kick-starting a conversation around fair and transparent ways to monetize and share health data.” Would tokenised forms of anyone’s genome exist were it not for blockchains and NFTs? If the answer is ‘no’, the conversation that Church and his company are kick-starting is a red herring that’s dead in the water.