Campaigners explain why they’re convinced all it takes is support from a few powerful firms and people to change the fundamentals of Bitcoin.
When environmentalist groups in March unveiled a campaign to move Bitcoin’s code away from the energy-intensive proof-of-work (PoW) model, many bitcoiners scoffed at the idea.
Setting aside the question of whether proof-of-work mining is the environmental peril the activists claim it is, many cryptocurrency veterans doubt the strategy could work.
That strategy hinges on persuading a limited number of firms or people who, the campaigners claim, have the power to make the change or at least convince a critical mass of people to support it.
To old hands, this plan seems ignorant of Bitcoin’s history – specifically the block size wars of 2015-2017, including the debate over the Segregated Witness (SegWit) upgrade, in which one of two proposed alterations pushed by the biggest companies failed in the face of widespread user opposition.
The leaders of the campaign to “Change the code, not the climate” say they are aware of this history and even take it as a sign that change is indeed possible.
Interpreting Bitcoin history
The block size wars and the SegWit update “serve as a case in point” to show that “changes can be made,” Faber, senior vice president, Government Affairs at Environmental Working Group (EWG), one of the groups spearheading the campaign, told CoinDesk. Whether these changes come as “a hard fork or a soft fork,” they can indeed be made “when there’s general consensus within the Bitcoin community,” he said.
Rolf Skar is a special projects manager at Greenpeace USA, an environmental protection organization that is part of the campaign. According to Skar, there are two key questions as to whether the network can change; first, whether it is technically feasible. The 2017 SegWit update “shows that it is, quite obviously, technically feasible to do so,” Skar said to CoinDesk. But, he added, the second question is “whether a proposed change could be supported enough to be adopted.”
“Despite skepticism,” the campaigners don’t see a good reason why enough support will not be eventually garnered, said Skar. “Solutions will need to be developed and tested to address valid concerns of the community. If effective solutions are not developed we understand that uptake of new code would be unlikely,” Skar said.
Considering how industries have scoffed at other environmental campaigns, such as electric trucks, which were initially ridiculed but then sales soared, a change away from PoW may not seem so impossible, according to the campaigners.
Ken Cook, founder and CEO of EWG, said that, based on his conversations with various insiders within the Bitcoin industry, he thinks Bitcoin’s governance has changed, such that there is now an “inexorable concentration of power and control.”
The “notion that this was as democratic as it was originally conceived is gone,” he said.
Skar similarly said of Bitcoin in an interview: “Although it’s a decentralized system, there are key players within it.”
EWG’s Cook pointed to an October 2021 paper from the U.S. National Bureau of Economic Research, which found, “The top 50% of miners control almost all mining capacity. Top 10% control 90% and just 0.1% control close to 50%” and that “the largest 55-60 miners controlled at least half of all bitcoin mining capacity.”
Faber said that he doesn’t think the decision will literally be made by 50 people, but if leaders in the Bitcoin community “raise their voices, they can help start the conversation that could ultimately lead to the changes needed.”