Since the 1970s, the decade that gave us the creation of both Earth Day and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), people have become more mindful of the impact human civilization is having on the planet. After all, it’s the only home our civilization has known and may ever know.
The concept of climate change has grown even hotter this decade, with increased temperatures in many regions, and increasing attention on the subject. You need not look any further than at the recent introduction of the “Green New Deal” in the U.S. Congress or the famous Climate Strike initiated by Swedish teenage activist Greta Thunberg.
While our leaders face increasing pressure to develop climate solutions, outside of calls for less pollutive transportation and eating less meat, climate activism is a movement currently short on actually developing collective, comprehensive measures that can easily be enacted. It doesn’t help that the media narrative around these efforts is driven more by personal, dramatic conflict (e.g., Ms. Thunberg or Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez vs. the current U.S. President) than by actually identifying both problems and solutions.
This isn’t meant to criticize the efforts of climate activists or to say that what is being targeted shouldn’t be targeted and reformed. Still, I would also plead with these movements to begin explicitly focusing on a largely hidden driver of much of humanity’s current carbon footprint: modern computing.
The planet’s hidden killer
What about those phones that we are using to broadcast our climate protest engagement or the social networks we use to promote this activity to our family, friends, and strangers, and enlist them in the cause? These are questions rarely asked and even more rarely answered.
A recent report in Fortune, however, did provide some kind of answer on the topic. It found that the music video for “Despacito,” which became the first video to reach five billion views on YouTube, ended up burning as much energy as 40,000 U.S. homes in a year on its way to five billion streams “served.” This story did not get nearly the attention it should have, certainly not as much as young Ms. Thunberg’s efforts on these shores.
As that Fortune report on “Despacito” also pointed out, there is a whole infrastructure of data we take for granted when performing the simplest of internet activity: a typical Google search activates servers in six to eight data centers around the world. Most of these servers eat up a ton of energy just so that they can stay at a cool enough temperature to remain functional.
Fortune also reported that data centers consume about 2 percent of electricity worldwide with projections of up to 8 percent by 2030, and U.S. data centers consumed 70 billion kilowatt-hours of electricity in 2014, the same amount that 6.4 million American homes used that year.
When one internet video can potentially do as much damage to our planet as a small city does in a year, perhaps we’re missing a large part of the human-generated climate change equation.
Think global, compute local
Considering that YouTube is only 15 years old, and the modern smartphone just a little more than 10, we still have a very limited sample size as to the ultimate impact, and possible destruction, the computing industry is having on our planet. It could be an unintended consequence that also acts as a dangerous accelerant for the existing global climate crisis that already feels like a runaway train.
Our computers and smartphones are still a new part of modern consumer society. We still haven’t initiated—let alone become habituated to—measures we might be able to take to soften their impact, something like the computing industry’s version of the reusable bag or (the occasionally reviled) paper straw.
Of course, change begins within. Collectively, individual users should start being mindful about their computer use, just as they are about recycling or taking public transit/ridesharing. However, we can only expect so much of the single consumer, even in aggregate.
Even if our typical computer usage was cut in half overnight, it wouldn’t help much. Computing’s climate change problem is a structural problem built around how the “track” of consumer computing was laid in its first decades of existence to serve that consumer computing market. Ultimately, better computing efficiency comes down to a kind of “network” problem, a problem that can only be solved with an equal or better “network” solution.
It is a challenge to the entire computing economy, both producers and consumers, to create a new infrastructure of efficiency that might improve energy usage, computing resources, and, ultimately, the carbon footprint created by the industry. This may include implementing better distributed computing, incorporating more shared resources, and incentivizing a new model that rethinks the traditional client-server model, especially when the server side is now required to devour so much energy.
Large data brokers like Amazon and Google may be as willing to break up the “big data center” as oil companies are to promote electric vehicles. Still, we need to at least start having a conversation about our “overreliance on data,” at least as much as we talk about our “overreliance on oil.” Doing so today, as soon as possible, could have an incalculable impact on our future.