randombio.com | science commentary
Saturday, December 16, 2017

Bitcoins cause global warming

So does pizza, watching porn, and everything else we don't like

G lobal warming is like a mutant virus that escaped from a lab. It is no longer just a scientific curiosity; now it threatens industrial civilization. It's such a sticky meme that it has picked up bits of DNA from every group that has something to hate.

Maybe I should have seen it coming. After all, if everything that happens is evidence of something bad, it stands to reason that the things we hate the most, like kicking puppies, watching porn, and being profit-oriented, must be to blame for it. People have compiled amusingly long lists of improbable things attributed to global warming, like this list, which includes Buddhist temples being threatened, drops in birth rates, rape waves, and earthquakes. Maybe now we need a list of all the things that cause it.

Bitcoins in the cloud
Bitcoins in the cloud

The decline of global warming as a phenomenon of scientific interest was signified years ago when they started calling it climate change. But the tunnel vision aspect of it tells us something about the human mind, and that makes it interesting again. What is it about global warming that makes it such a meme glueball?

The latest meme is that bitcoins cause global warming. The number of bitcoins that can be created is finite, and it takes more and more CPU time to find them. Environmentalists claim that this “wastes massive amounts of computer power.”

The original story seems to have come from something called the Bitcoin energy consumption index or BECI. Alex de Vries at Digiconomist estimates that the total rate of energy consumption in mining bitcoins is 32.35 terawatt hours per year (TWh/year) as of Dec 6, 2017:

That's on par with the energy use of the entire country of Morocco, more than 19 European countries, and roughly 0.7 percent of total energy demand in the United States, equal to 2.8 million US households.

About 58% of bitcoin mining is done in China, where electricity is cheap and therefore “dirty”, by which is meant generating it emits carbon dioxide, which is said to contribute to global warming. It's a reductio ad carbo dioxygenium argument.[1]

Mark Bevand has calculated that Digiconomist's estimate is likely overestimated by 2–2.5×. He says the annual electricity consumption is between 2.85 and 6.78 TWh/year. The author, he says, falsely assumed that the entire cost in creating bitcoins was electricity, and ignored the cost of hardware. Many of his other assumptions, Bevand says, are also questionable.

Be Evil

Even if the calculations were correct, the unquestioned assumption is that using energy to make money is frivolous and therefore wasteful. Bitcoin mining is self-limiting. The number of possible bitcoins is strictly limited; at present it's barely cost-effective to search for one. Does this mean searching is wasteful?

Bitcoin miners provide a valuable service: some day, we all may be using bitcoins or something similar. Just as gamers drive video card technology, bitcoin mining drives computer technology. There's a whole industry dedicated to manufacturing ASICs (application specific integrated circuits) designed for bitmining. An example is the Antminer S5.

Bitcoin mining is small potatoes compared to other uses of computers. Internet gaming, for example, uses 75 TWh/year according to LBL.gov. If, as claimed, data centers use 1% of the world's electricity, Google, whose servers collectively use 260 MW, which equates to 2.2776 TWh/year (according to Time), would have to be classified as one of the dirtiest industries on the planet. Each search query uses 0.0003 kWh of energy, which (it's claimed) is equivalent to 0.2 g of carbon dioxide per search query, equivalent to a car driving 1.65 meters. Google claims to emit 1.46 million metric tons of CO2 per year, mostly to power their data centers.

At least bitcoin mining contributes to global wealth. It's dangerous to criticize Google, so let's just say that if they're censoring the Web, they would be generating negative wealth.

Give pizza chance

If the Bitcoin kerfuffle were just a matter of improving energy efficiency, we could applaud it. But to greens, anything that makes money is evil. This puts them at odds with the majority of their fellow humans. Their finger-wagging attitude toward economic activity convinces many skeptics that their real motivation is something other than concern for the environment.

To put bitcoins into perspective, we're told it takes 42 gallons of water to make one slice of pizza. It supposedly takes 766–3000g of CO2 to transport and cook one hamburger (depending, I suppose, on how far you transport it and how much you cook it). Thus, from the equation above, the 142,200,000,000 lb of CO2 per year produced by Americans eating hamburgers is equivalent to 122.448 TWh/year, or 18 times more energy than bitcoin mining and 53 times as much as Google.

If it's true that Americans eat 50 billion hamburgers a year, we can estimate from the fact that a hamburger contains 298 kcal of energy (= 346 Wh) that there's 7.08 times as much energy used in transporting and cooking as we get back by eating it. So, if you're worried about your carbon footprint, you should move to a farm and eat your cows raw.

Unfortunately, it could take a lot of energy to convince a cow to cooperate; and eating cows raw gives you significantly less energy than eating them cooked. Believe it or not, somebody did a scientific study on this. In the study, mice lost 2% of their body weight trying to eat beef raw, compared to about 0.5% eating cooked beef. Raw tubers were even worse: mice lost 4% more weight trying to eat raw ones than cooked ones. Moral: You need to consider all the factors, not just CO2 and methane emissions, when doing energy calculations.

Give porn a chance

The Atlantic website now claims that porn is also causing global warming:

Nathan Ensmenger, a professor at Indiana University who is writing a book about the environmental history of the computer, calculates that if Pornhub streams video as efficiently as Netflix (0.0013 kWh per streaming hour), it used 5.967 million kWh in 2016. For comparison, that's about the same amount of energy 11,000 light bulbs would use if left on for a year.

Now hol- hold on a minute. One hour of video streaming is equivalent to 4.3 Google searches? Something doesn't add up. One TWh is 1012 watt-hours, so 5,967,000 kWh is only 0.006 TWh. That's much lower than the 7 claimed for bitcoin and the 75 claimed for gaming. It seems the porn watchers have a lot of work to do if they want to catch up. They must work harder and more furiously to hold back the next ice age.

Tunnel vision

Psychologists tell us that attributional tunnel vision is common in persons with borderline personality disorder. Lisa Schilling et al. (2015) found that patients with BPD displayed more “mono-causal inferences,” which means they had difficulty considering alternative explanations. They describe it like this:

[R]elatively harmless events are catastrophized because only a univalent (narrow) representation can be activated (e.g., “He is going to leave me, because I am worthless.”)

Now, I'm not saying that belief in AGW is a psychiatric phenomenon. Tunnel vision is a learned response that any of us could have, and its function, as with ideology, is to simplify the person's view of the world and reinforce a pre-existing point of view.

This may be what conservative bête noire Jonah Goldberg was getting at when he said conservatives are too political and they should just get on with their lives. Now, sure, a professional writer would want others to stop writing about politics. But when ideology is in the air we breathe, how do we escape it?

So it may be with the warmers: what if their goal is to create tunnel vision, and they go back to whatever it is that collectivist gramscians do when they're not trying to destroy Western civilization? By the way, what do collectivists gramscians do for fun, anyway? Maybe they're like those people in sci-fi movies who say, “What does ‘having fun’ mean?”

I'd call it a classic case of tunnel vision, but for the fact that tunnel vision is what created the idea of global warming in the first place.

1. The Romans didn't have a word for carbon dioxide. Google translates it to carbo carbonis dioxide, which is clearly wrong, and William Whitaker's Latin dictionary translates it to zinc oxide. The closest that Microsoft Translator had was Latvian; in Latvian it translates to oglekļa dioksīds. So I'm taking a wild guess here.

dec 16, 2017, 5:05 am. image changed dec 17, 2017 10:03 am. edited dec 19, 2017, 6:11 am.

Related Articles

Carbon Inequality
Carbon inequality is the latest term for global warming. It's carbony, it's dirty, and it's getting all over everything.

Global warming and CFCs
A remarkable paper has provided strong evidence that global warming was not caused by carbon dioxide, but by chlorofluorocarbons.

An autopsy of the late global warming movement

On the Internet, no one can tell whether you're a dolphin or a porpoise

book reviews