The Non-Green Internet

Did you know that by reading this you are contributing to climate change. Oops! Seriously, it is claimed that by 2025 the internet will use a fifth of the world’s electricity, assuming no massive increase in the use of electric transport. And before you decide to stop reading this to save the climate, apart from the use of your computer, you make no difference whether you read it or not. On the other hand, apparently Bitcoin mining consumes the total electricity consumption of Switzerland, so steady on there. The infrastructure for the internet is always on, and the messages you send make no difference. Sorry but you cannot save the world by not sending that email, and of course had you posted a physical letter, there would have been significant greenhouse gas emissions from getting the letter from your desk to wherever.

People that store their work in the cloud do contribute. A major data centre consumes about 30 GWh per year, and the UK has about 450 data centres. After all, all this rubbish we write and record has to be stored somewhere. That raises the question, how many data centres will have to be built? These centres are where the “cloud” resides, and if everyone is busy filling them up, what happens when it is no longer so easy to build more? How long can we continue recording everything?

How much has to be recorded for posterity? All those pointless Facebook posts that make pointless comments (rude or otherwise) or show a few emoticons. If they were deleted after a few weeks, would anyone notice? The problem then, of course, is, who decides? Notice the recent fuss about Trump not being allowed to tweet. In my opinion, if they had done that to him when he became President he would have been more effective but that is another matter. The problem is, when you appoint a “Great Deleter” you open up so many cans of worms it is not funny. Some of what we store will be of interest historically, perhaps especially Trump’s tweets. Right now photos recovered from long ago fascinate many of us. I know that I recently downloaded a whole lot of photos of the area where my mother grew up, and where, still a long time ago, I drove her back to have a look around. So for me, it was of interest to hear her say what was there, where, and now be able to see it. Quite simply, in two lifetimes everything has changed remarkably, and what was there is no longer, other than in memories, and memories die. Also, storing photos in data centres takes up much less space than storing hard copies. Of the hard copies left, many have been lost, but how much of what is stored digitally will be available in a hundred years?

Much of what is stored digitally may become unreadable. In the scientific community, for example, the Royal Society for Chemistry has noted that computations carried out in the last century often use code that nobody now understands. Some of us have computer files written many years ago, but unless they were updated and converted into new formats they are unreadable other than on an ancient computer. Back to electricity, either we can go into our shell and try to live like the Amish, do something about electricity generation, or be like politicians and make encouraging speeches and hope all gets well. Apparently, Facebook, Apple, Google and others have committed to using 100% renewable electricity (although when is another question) and Microsoft claims that by 2050 it will have removed all the carbon emissions it has ever produced. These are noble aspirations, but so far, according to Greenpeace, only about 20% of the electricity used by the world’s data centres is renewable. Further, the data centres run uniform power consumption over the entire time. Solar is of little use during the night, and wind power fails when the wind is not blowing. If we rely heavily on such renewables, what happens when there are blackouts? And, of course, there is the question of the non-renewable resources used to build the computers in the cloud. So no, I do not think anyone will be reading my blogs in a hundred years. However, we should make more effort to generate electricity more sustainably. Unless we solve the fusion problem, I favour the liquid salt thorium-type reactor.


7 thoughts on “The Non-Green Internet

  1. I suppose we who generate stuff would be the ones to delete some of it. With the problems you cite here, it may very well be that historians of the distant future will see as spotty a record of our time as we do now of ancient times, from which only a fraction of writings have survived. Maybe future archaeologists will have to figure out how to read ancient electronic documents.

    • It is interesting that when there was the so-called “anomaly” with the Voyager probes, NASA had to get people out of retirement because only theses older guys could understand Cobol. It could be like people searching for a Rosetta Stone so they could read hieroglyphs.

      I think a lot will have to be lost simply because there is so much of it.

      • That’s the way Nature works, I suppose. Think of all the life forms that have left no trace over the long history of the Earth. No reason we should be any different.

  2. Down With Bitcoin
    Bitcoin and its ilk should be unlawful. It is an ecological waste, a refuge for contract killings.

    A currency has meaning only when backed up by a government, that is, an army. Yes, I know there were currencies shared by several polities (Thaler), and that countries such as New Zealand do not have much firepower, and, yet, a currency… Apparently contradicting my (currency = sovereignty = army) equation. However, closer inspection shows that such polities are part of larger ensembles with powerful armies. For example it is the leading military powers of the West which protect and gives meaning to the Aussie and Kiwi currencies…

    Aside from fusion, which may come soon after high temp superconductors are used, and Thorium fission reactors, both of which involve new science, one needs to develop hydrogen and its ilk. They enable the storage and transport of renewable energy, and of those using it… Hydrogen planes are perfectly feasible…

    • Bitcoin is the crims answer to money-laundering legislation (not claiming it was invented by a crim – just that they love it), and a great gambling place, making the average bank trading floor small change.

      Fiat currency is worth exactly what everyone thinks it is worth; usually it is just a piece of paper, but the lowly NZ pieces of paper in my wallet still buy me things. (And yes, following my recent run of minor disasters of things breaking down, it is now down to electronic ledger changes.) I am not sure that the military has much say in our currency, but yes, the Western powers’ military may be necessary to protect our nation because we can’t do it ourselves.

      I am not so sure that it helps to have hydrogen for aircraft because I am not so sure the average airport could handle it properly, but maybe I am just pessimistic. Certainly apart from safety, hydrogen would work very well.

      • If one analyzes worth throughout history, one realizes that its evolution is dominated by military events. The Late Roman empire, especially under the Christian dictatorship, around 400 CE, saw the fiat currency value plummet to zero (the gold Solidus kept its value for another 6 centuries, but
        that was currency for the wealthy). When the Franks reestablished the fiat currency, based on silver, in the late Eight Century, they also re-established respect for it. In a tradition that extended to the late Middle Ages, faux monnayeurs were forced to reside, for their last few hours, in special elongated iron cages, which were partly immersed in increasing hotter water, oil, or even wine… enabling them to express enthusiastically for all to hear, their denunciation of the equivalent of bitcoin…

        Some studies have claimed hydrogen is not necessarily more dangerous than hydrocarbons in all ways. When one makes a Molotov cocktail, one adds sticky elements: pure gasoline is too volatile, does not stick around the fascist object the courageous rebel is trying to ignite.

        In the World Trade Center collapse, office furniture, by sticking around and burning for an hour or so, heated the steel to 500 Celsius, when it lost half of its strength. The kerosene fireball from the plane dissipated in seconds. The real problem is to make capital investments in hydrogen and its less dangerous substitutes (ammonia, NH3, which boils at minus 33 C, and can readily regurgitate its Hydrogen…)

  3. One of these days I should do a post on fuel options using hydrogen but not as hydrogen. (e.g. ammonia) The WTC was unfortunate, but as you point out the end position had little to do with the kerosine, apart from those on the floors that were struck. You can’t stop terrorism apart from stopping the terrorists.

    The Roman inflation had nothing to do with military force, other than the military forced people to use the currency. In those days, the value of the currency was the value of the metal in it. The aureus always held its value, but only the rich had any. In the period prior to Diocletian and his reforms, imperators issued the currency, but their silver currency tended to be diluted with copper, until at one late stage the silver coin was copper, but coated with silver. After it wore a bit, the scam was uncovered, so to speak. Of course, while the Roman denarius might have been mainly copper, the bitcoin is, well, nothing underneath.

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