Was the Ethereum Merger a Mistake?

– What do you think of the merger? I recently asked innocent William “Wills” de Vogelaere, co-founder of Spankchain and probably half a dozen other protocols in the grisly underworld of Ethereum.

I was of course referring to the long awaited software upgrade that kicked off Ethereum’s miners and replaced them with a group of environmental stakeholders on September 15.

“You mean Ethereum’s delusion?” de Vogelaere bitterly agreed.

wake up!” I thought. This could be juicy. It turned out that de Vogelaere was voicing an opinion rarely aired publicly: that the merger was a error. Or, if not a cursive error, sort of irrelevant distraction.

“It didn’t really add anything of value other than the environmental factor,” he said.

In de Vogelaer’s view, the whole enterprise has been a naive capitulation. The influential people who worried about Ethereum’s huge carbon footprint, he said, were only exploiting environmentalists’ fears for their own cynical ends. “Nobody really cares if something is green, as long as it works,” he said. “Companies don’t care as long as they can be perceived to care.”

brown! Admittedly, it’s not hard to see why people like de Vogelaere are in a bad mood – since the merger unfolded, the price of ETH has dropped. Bitcoin supporters ridicule the change. Dark mutterings that Ethereum is now a “security” has raised the hackles of even the most veteran Ethereum connoisseurs – and even driven some into the embrace of a long-scorned band of fanatical Ethereum militants. (We’ll get to that.)

As de Vogalaere told me, the notion that public opinion of Ethereum would improve in the wake of the merger may have turned out to be a canard. Regulators, he said, are unlikely to change their tune now that this one environmental complaint has been eliminated, especially given the newfound willingness to label it a safety.

And yes, yes, the merger our a fabulous display of technical expertise. Merging Ethereum in real-time was like revving up a car’s engine when it’s barreling down a freeway at full throttle, so we’re told. It is ground-breaking from an R&D perspective – but so was the atomic bomb.

Nevertheless, de Vogelaere believes, the supposed technical improvements of the merger are overhyped. It was intended to facilitate various upgrades that would introduce more efficiency into the network. But de Vogelaere believes these solutions have existed for a long time anyway, in the form of side chains— attachments to the flagship network that use different validation methods — such as Polygon. Only Ethereum’s computing environment, the “Virtual Machine,” has any real value, he argued—and it is not affected in any meaningful way by the transition to the stake model.

He also (good heaven!) pointed out that those who do not have the minimum amount to bet independently – 32 ETH, around $42,500 dollars and falling at the time of writing – must bet via centralized exchanges like Coinbase. That means putting the majority of Ethereum on a corporate exchange with a single point of failure.

So, we’ve established that Ethereum’s price is now in hiding, and the regulators are on the move. But is de Vogelaer’s view perhaps just a minority?

Not so! Kristy Leigh-Minehan, a long-time Ethereum miner (who admittedly may be a little biased), is not pretty anti-merger in the same horrifying way as our de Vogelaere. Rather, she wonders if it came a little too soon. “The move to proof of stake is a central part of Ethereum’s DNA and was always intended,” she said. “It was necessary and necessary for future optimizations and scalability features – the question everyone must ask themselves is: was now the right moment?”

Minehan is not so sure. “I personally don’t think it was in the current regulatory climate,” she said. She wonders if the prospect of ETH being recently classified as a security could risk “scare off validators, operators and founders”. The primacy of US regulators in particular, she added, can be unnerving. Echoing de Vogelaere, she said: “There is no doubt that Ethereum has taken root in the US – that will be its greatest strength and weakness.”

At least some pedigree Ethereum advocates remain good. “It may be the case that this has some impact on regulatory decisions,” ventured Mat Dryhurst, a left-leaning podcaster and one of the earliest adopters of NFTs. “But to be honest, I don’t get much of an impression that there’s too much concern on the developer side. People are excited to build more utility for the network, and the merger felt like a celebration of another milestone on a long road map.”

But isn’t that a bit overhyped? “It’s not a grand technological innovation, and I don’t think it was intended to be,” Dryhurst said. “Rollups, zkEVMs [zero-knowledge virtual machines] etc is still needed to scale. I think if anything it just establishes credibility for this corner of crypto, and increases confidence that other ideas being discussed will be carried out.” He added that he was recently at ETH Berlin and that the energy was “as upbeat as ever.”

The merry old guard

There is perhaps a cohort that fully agrees with all de Vogelaere and his ilk’s dire diagnoses of the merger – and is unashamedly cheering them on. They are the custodians of another now-defunct network which, they will argue, was, like the miners, also betrayed by the craven handlers of Ethereum proper: an older, abandoned iteration of the Ethereum network called Ethereum Classical whose supporters are arguably the most OG you can get in the short but melodramatic lifespan of Ethereum politics.

Ethereum Classic was born in 2016 in the wake of a malicious hack of the Ethereum network’s first Decentralized Autonomous Organization, or The DAO. Mainstream Ethereum developers voted overwhelmingly to “roll back” the hack and make the victims whole, which a few sticklers saw as a fatal betrayal of Ethereum’s core principle of immutability. They clung to the old, hacked network, and Ethereum was split in half. They have been waiting ever since for the merger, believing that recently unemployed miners (whom they actively tried to seduce) would flock to Ethereum Classic in search of new revenue.

Amazingly, after six years of patient anticipation, they were right.

“We’ve seen a significant increase in interest in Ethereum Classic over the past couple of months,” said Bob Summerwill, CEO of ETC Cooperative, the foundation behind the development of Ethereum Classic, whose ticker is ETC. “The merger was obviously a catalyst.” He added that the amount of mining power on the network has since increased around tenfold, and that Ethereum Classic is now the third largest proof-of-work chain by market capitalization and second by volume.

Summerwill, as with others, pointed out that fears surrounding US capture of the network and recent heavy-handed regulators may have galvanized many of these miners and driven them to ETC. “Ethereum Classic appears to benefit from providing a known and likely safer alternative to these concerns,” he said. It has nevertheless been a bumpy start: Ethereum Classic, like many others, took another dip, and the miners are losing money. “We’re still trying to find a new equilibrium,” Summerwill said.

Still, it’s a somewhat impressive reversal. After years of agonizing waiting, you have to wonder if the plain old pedants of the Ethereum Classic network—and even Ethereum’s up-and-coming regulators—have had the last laugh.

As de Vogelaere said: “ETH may have played its damn self.”

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