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Irony can be pretty ironic sometimes

17 Jul 2019 | News Roundup

Vancouver grocer David Kwen puts weird slogans on plastic bags to shame shoppers into bringing reusables. He thought printing “Wart Ointment Wholesale”, “Into the Weird Adult Video Emporium” and “The Colon Care Co-Op” would prove embarrassing, but instead they became a “thing” and people flocked to the store to spend 5 cents on this latest must-have status item. So now Kwen is putting the weird slogans on canvas totes. Which shows the capacity of much-derided capitalism to produce whatever consumers want including environmental consciousness. But also calls into question the devotion of many consumers to the actual environment rather than just seeming cool about it. And let’s not even mention the Weird Adult Video Emporium.

Actually let’s. Because a recent study says that online pornography is responsible for as much CO2 emissions as Belgium. (Maybe you weren’t booing Belgium over GHGs but it’s a highly industrialized country and consequently a significant emitter though only about 1/6 of Canada’s total).

People often do go about booing capitalism for distorting people’s desires, as though we never wanted anything bad for us or tasteless until a store put it on a shelf and had a celebrity endorse it. But wherever we get our desires, markets are very good at satisfying them. Which is for instance why nobody goes to a building to rent a VHS any more. We just stream video. And according to that study, online videos account for about 300 million tonnes of CO2 a year, nearly 1% of the global total. A third of that amount comes from on-demand services like Netflix. And another, embarrassingly, comes from online porn. Which appears to equal the annual total of various countries from Nigeria to Belgium.

It might seem counterintuitive since the Internet seems to be environmentally benign and in many ways is. Certainly an email has a smaller footprint than a letter, which must be printed on paper that has to be manufactured, then loaded into a truck that burns some sort of fuel to take it to your house, by a person who probably drives to work and certainly does things like eat food. But hang on. Smaller doesn’t mean nonexistent. And if the greater ease of sending email leads us to send more of it (and there’s no way you used to get as many paper letters as you now get emails) it’s possible that the total impact will be higher.

Email has to be sent, using a few electrons. But the whole Internet has to be powered, a vast network of cables, nodes and of course servers. And the latter use energy. Lots of it. Google has huge server farms. And they are energy intensive. (We know because we Googled.)

How intensive? Well of course it’s not just Google. Everybody’s doing it. Two years ago a Forbes Council article said “U.S. data centers use more than 90 billion kilowatt-hours of electricity a year, requiring roughly 34 giant (500-megawatt) coal-powered plants. Global data centers used roughly 416 terawatts (4.16 x 1014 watts) (or about 3% of the total electricity) last year, nearly 40% more than the entire United Kingdom. And this consumption will double every four years.” Likewise Bitcoin might be cool. But Bitcoin calculations are very energy intensive. There’s no free lunch.

Email is still better than paper and so are emailed PDFs. But they aren’t free. And streaming video is very not free. According to that study, digital technology accounts for something like 4% of total human GHGs and rising fast.

The Internet puts all of culture at our fingertips. The best that has been thought and said. So we look for cats that resemble Hitler, exchange bitter insults with complete strangers and um watch smut. For hours on end. Online video evidently accounts for some 60% of global data flows (without even counting live streaming or telemedicine), partly because video files are big and partly because of what it is that we want to do when we can do anything we want.

Arguably people shouldn’t be watching pornography at all. But even if that view is brushed aside as prudish, or if people concerned about the environment shun such material for elevating productions like Game of Thrones, it is a reminder that those who would reform the world must begin by reforming human nature (good luck with that, especially if you don’t start with yourself) and that there are always tradeoffs, frequently in unexpected places. So anyone claiming to be deeply concerned about the environment, and about climate and energy, should think twice or three times, instead of rushing out to buy a trendy plastic bag while smugly deploring all those ordinary folks whose ordinary plastic bags are supposedly destroying the Earth.

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