[Originally published December 9, 2017]
As bitcoin’s price has exploded this year — from $770 in January, to Thursday morning’s record-breaking $19,000 breach — the 49er-esque gold rush is in full swing. Ethereum and Litecoin are starting to really heat up as well due to the unattainable-for-most nature of the bitcoin market. While there has, no doubt, been an exponential increase in the amount of millionaires and billionaires created by the 100-yard dash to the hottest investment on earth, what is the environmental impact of the boom? Does that thought even factor into the minds of those raking in dividends hand over fist or even those of the cryptocurious?
Friday morning, CNN reported about the climatic impact of bitcoin (with a lowercase b, which denotes the specific blockchain and currency) and it’s serious implications for the very near future as Bitcoin (with a capital B, referring to the eponymous cryptocurrency ecosystem as a whole) grows in popularity. To be honest, the thought had never crossed my mind, and I think it’s safe to say that many of us don’t think about how and where we obtain our electricity in general. While I am proud of my new electric vehicle, I realistically have to factor in that every time I charge it up, I’m contributing to the carbon emissions emitted by the burning of natural gas, which accounts for roughly 40% of my state’s electricity generation.
According to the Bitcoin Energy Consumption Index, which I personally did not know was a thing, bitcoin itself (even before the boom in recent months) was using approximately 32 TWh (terawatt hours) per year, which is enough to light up 3,000,000 American homes. For comparison, VISA — which processes exponentially more transactions per year — consumes electricity equal to that of about 50,000.
As anyone who has had the opportunity to be educated on blockchain and emerging technology in general can tell you, we now live in a world of exponential technological growth (and socioeconomic, for that matter) that advances wildly by the nanosecond. For instance, as Joseph Raczynski explained to me, taking 30 exponential (as opposed to linear) steps will carry you a distance equal to 26 trips around the earth (or roughly 1,000,000,000 steps).
For further illustration of the current rate of our exponential growth, Dr. Richard Susskind shared the (now common) prediction — in his 2016 speech to the Artificial Intelligence and Law Conference at Vanderbilt University — that by 2020, the average personal computer will have the same processing power as the human brain. By 2050, we will have processing speed and power equal to that of all of earth’s humanity. With great processing power, comes great responsibility and consequence.
One of the biggest deterrents to fraud that is woven into the fabric of cryptocurrency is that it would take an unbelievable amount of processing power to be able to over power and outsmart the network of hundreds of thousands — maybe even millions — of computers on a given blockchain. However, that same feature is also a bug that could cause a fatal error in our environment if another way is not realized, and quickly.
The renewable energy sources of which we know and use are wind, hydro, solar, geothermal, and bio. While they have brought electricity to many remote parts of the earth and have reduced energy expenditures for state and local governments, can our current crop of renewables ramp up to the needs of the volcanic cryptocurrency market and maybe stretch our finite resources just enough to make it through the worldwide transition to blockchain? Can we reasonably assume that over the next few years, the mad technologists who feverishly pour their souls into keeping us all networked can figure out a way to scale back the power consumption without sacrificing security? It sounds almost utopian to have a new way of interacting with one another and conducting commerce — and perhaps even a new way of life altogether — and have it run on energy sources, over the last drop of which we don’t have to fight each other.
Even more alarming than the current piggish consumption of bitcoin is the statistic, reported in Wired, that the energy needs grow daily by roughly 450 GWh, or about what the entire nation of Haiti consumes in a year. For comparison, as we know from the Back to the Future trilogy, a lighting bolt is 1.21 GWh. By July 2019, the electricity required to run the bitcoin network will equal that of the entire United States, and of the entire world by February 2020.
So what is the answer? The science still seems to be out, though it seems clear that we don’t have much time to waste hypothesizing before we have a real crisis on our hands. I’m confident that the technical messiahs among us will be able to at least buy us some more time as they figure out a permanent solution. Until that happens, though, we will continue to hear crazy stories, like the guy who attempted to take advantage of free electric vehicle charging stations in his area to turn his Tesla into a mining operation. On the topic of Tesla, we can take some comfort in the idea that Elon Musk is furiously working on affordable ways for us to generate and store our own power at home. Just as blockchain decentralizes our data, perhaps we need to decentralize our power grid as well so we can all take active roles in weathering the blockchain revolution?
In the meantime, for the good of humanity, we need the media — now, more than ever — to step up and educate the general public about blockchain, cryptocurrency, climate change, and the ramifications of accepting the future without letting go of the past. That seems like an applicable plan of action for most aspects of our lives.