Climate Change; From Crypto-currency to Porn

When we think of Climate Change and our carbon footprint there are many things to consider, some are obvious, many others are not. Take the Crypro-currency Bitcoin for instance. The exploding price of bitcoin in recent months has raised questions about the environmental sustainability of the currency. Although it’s hard to measure accurately the Washington Post reported that bitcoin probably consumes 1 to 4 gigawatts, or a billion watts, of electricity, which is roughly the output of one to three nuclear reactors. As a digital currency bitcoin is not controlled by any central bank or commercial clearinghouse but by a network of users who expend large amounts of computer energy building a so called “blockchain” of bitcoin payment transactions.

The bitcoin network relies on “miners”. Bitcoin miners have to perform a phenomenally large number of computer calculations to track and verify transactions and solve complex puzzles to obtain bitcoin rewards. In the early days, miners could use their own computers but as bitcoins became more popular and valuable, the puzzles became more difficult and more high-powered computing power was needed. More energy is used not to mention the embodied energy related to the additional hardware. If the price of bitcoin continues to rise it will continue to use more energy according to Mike Read the director of Blockchain Program office for Intel Corp. If the price remains high, there will be more incentive to add more mining equipment. While bitcoin mining electricity use may have grown, it’s still a tiny part of all U.S. data-centre electricity use, for now at least.

If bitcoin’s price, and concurrent energy consumption continue to rise at the clip seen this year, that could be a serious problem. Who knows if the rate of growth and consumption will continue? Claire Henly, a manager at the Rocky Mountain Institute think tank says there are two ways this problem can be solved. There can be changes in protocol of bitcoin that would allow for reduced energy spent, or users could switch to other cryptocurrencies that require less energy expenditure. If bitcoin consumers and miners let bitcoin organizers know that changes in energy protocol are contingent to them continuing and not switching to other crypto-currencies it would send a signal for positive action.

Another issue to consider is the environmental cost of internet pornography. Online streaming is a win for the environment as it eliminates all the physical material, CDs, boxes and jewel cases etc. not to mention the carbon footprint of shipping, and that of the rental outlet itself. Online streaming and its associated dematerialization will cause carbon-dioxide emissions to drop with the probable exception of the porn industry.

Since the turn of the century the industry has had a number of popularity spikes. First in the early 2000s broadband enabled higher download speeds. Then in 2008, so-called tube sites allowed users to watch clips for free, (as we do on YouTube). Precise numbers don’t exist, however Pornhub, the world’s most popular site has some of the industries only accessible data. A web traffic report tabulated that 23 billion people visited Pornhub in 2016 and they watched 4.59 billion hours of porn. And Pornhub is just one site. Gail Dines a sociologist, who studies pornography, attributes its explosive growth to the principal of the “Three A’s” which are affordability, accessibility and anonymity.

Tube sites require no log-in or credit card information. There is no fear of being seen by someone you know at a sex shop. Are the “Three A’s and the digital era leaving a larger carbon footprint than the days of magazines and videos? Nathan Ensmenger, a professor from the University of Indiana who is writing a book about the environmental history of the computer, calculates that if Pornhub streams video as efficiently as Netfix (0.0013 kWh per streaming hour), it used 5.967 million kWh in 2016.

The Jevon’s paradox comes to mind. Combine that with human social realities and we may have to rethink how we proceed with our digital future if we are to achieve our sustainability goals.

 Sandy Aberdeen –  Climate Change

 

 

 

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