We Can Use as Much Energy as We Want, Forever

Show this documentary to anyone worried about Bitcoin’s environmental impact.

AccessTimeIconOct 1, 2021 at 3:48 p.m. UTC
Updated Apr 10, 2024 at 2:29 a.m. UTC

I am a committed environmentalist, both in my personal life and in my stance on public issues. I’m an Eagle Scout who once spent a month on the Appalachian Trail. I haven’t owned a car in five years, I pay extra to get my home energy from renewable sources and I do my best to minimize single-use plastics (though that’s depressingly difficult these days). I would even love for governments to take much stronger steps on regulating pollution, which the market can’t accurately price.

I say all of this not to pat myself on the back, but to make sure you know exactly where I’m coming from when I say that I find criticisms of the Bitcoin network’s environmental impact to be so astonishingly stupid I question their sincerity. I have been planning for months to lay out the stunning illogic at their heart – but as luck would have it, there’s now a fantastic documentary that does the work for me.

“This Machine Greens” is a 40-minute surgical disemboweling of the environmental case against Bitcoin, presented by Swan Bitcoin and produced by Enrique Posner, former managing director of Warner Brothers’ Spain division. The film was directed by veteran documentarian Jamie King, perhaps best known for 2006′s “Steal This Movie,” a documentary about peer-to-peer file sharing. King learned about bitcoin during the early days of VODO, a film distribution platform that uses peer-to-peer technology.

“It’s sort of my crowning shame that I was very, very early to bitcoin,” says King of the cryptocurrency. “I was implementing it within the first couple of years – VODO started in 2008 and we were experimenting with [bitcoin] in 2011. But we didn’t hold on to any of it.

“You don’t have to write that up.”

Sorry, Jamie. On the record is on the record.

CoinDesk readers are probably familiar with the argument – that the Bitcoin network uses more electricity than Washington State or more energy than Argentina or more energy than American Airlines. There are some statistics to counter these claims, such as a Cambridge University survey that found 39% of hash power used was powered by renewables – but those numbers were self-reported by miners, so they’re largely useless.

What gets me so heated, though, is the plethora of gaping logical fallacies underlying the critique. “This Machine Greens” attacks the most egregious first: the idea that “using energy” is in itself bad. “Every advance in civilization,” King told me, “has hinged on a new innovation in capturing and using energy … from fire to windmills.”

The film draws on the idea of the Kardeshev Scale, which ranks civilizations according to their utilization of available energy. On Earth, we’re just learning to harness the power of the sun, meaning there is still a staggering amount of waste energy waiting to be tapped. In the grand scheme of things, we should be aiming to use more energy, not less.

Of course, there is the small issue of global warming: The excluded premise of most critiques of Bitcoin’s energy usage is the idea that most energy today is of the carbon-generating variety. But “This Machine Greens” compellingly makes the exact opposite argument, citing three factors. The profitability of mining bitcoin hinges heavily on electrical costs; renewables are now the cheapest way to generate electricity; and bitcoin mining has no geographic restrictions. Add those up, and the Bitcoin system creates incentives to seek out and build renewable energy.

Another thing that triggers me about the “Bitcoin uses too much energy” argument is the implication that other financial tools, and the people who run them, somehow magically don’t use energy. It’s a basic tenet of financial and business reporting that numbers should be presented in context, but many media outlets seem to make an exception in this case. “This Machine Greens” outlines the obvious corrective truth: The existing monetary system already generates a whole lot of carbon.

In fact, the film goes further, arguing that Bitcoin’s “proof of work” system is part of a much longer legacy of money production based on seemingly “wasted” labor or resources. That applies to gold mining, native American wampum and the notorious Yap stones, all of which devote huge resources and specialized talent to creating mediums of exchange that are difficult or impossible to fake. Wampum even became subject to pseudo-industrial production, with entire Native American villages focused on the task in lieu of “productive” work.

“The only difference is its scale,” King points out. “If you don’t think there was anything wrong with native Americans making wampum … bitcoin is the same.”

In the here and now, the dollar’s connection to energy use is even more nefarious. According to “This Machine Greens,” the Bretton Woods agreement that took the U.S. dollar off the gold standard was closely tied to deals with OPEC nations to price oil sales in dollars. This created the “petrodollar,” which has been defended for decades with untold military spending by the U.S. And no, in case you’re wondering, F-16 jets don’t run on solar power.

(Much of that military action was also sold to the public using official lies that, as writer Rebecca Solnit has argued, led us directly into Qanon-land. But that bedtime story will have to wait.)

The film also offers some correctives on the question of scale, which are less airtight as rebuttals but still important. Mainstream media headlines focus on comparing small countries to Bitcoin, but it feels much different to learn that the godforsaken cruise industry uses twice as much energy as Bitcoin, or that digital devices in always-on mode use 12 times as much energy as Bitcoin, just for the fleeting convenience of a quick startup.

This, by the way, actually understates the damage done by the cruise industry. Many cruise ships still burn bunker fuel, an ultra-cheap, ultra-low-quality maritime diesel that looks like black tar and produces massive amounts of particulates when burned. Those particulates are not classified as greenhouse gases by the Environmental Protection Agency and are not calculated as part of national totals under the Kyoto Protocol on climate change. That’s essentially a giant giveaway to the cruise industry at the expense of every human on Earth who, you know, breathes air.

And for that, we get floating cheap hotels featuring buffets with 100 different preparations of corn syrup, designed to give the most lazy, sheltered people in the world the delusion they’re “traveling.” So I say we should ban cruises now to stop global warming. Sink the distasteful hulk of the Harmony of the Seas to the bottom of the ocean to replace dying coral reefs so at least something good will have come from this massive waste of human capital and resources.

Such an argument runs into an inevitable hurdle, though: If you actually like cruises (no accounting for taste), you may think it’s worth it to burn all that bunker fuel. By the same token, most arguments against Bitcoin’s energy use presume that the energy is being wasted, without actually supporting that assumption. In essence, talking about energy use is a trick, a way to make the argument that “Bitcoin is just a scam” at a time when that argument is becoming less tenable by the day.

“There is no amount of persuading you that this [usage] is a good energy policy if you don’t think Bitcoin has [social] value,” says Enrique Posner, the documentary’s producer.

Debating which uses of electricity are ‘acceptable’ is not just pointless but dangerous

And ultimately, that’s the most enraging and stupid element of the Bitcoin energy argument. Efficiency is one thing, and I’m all for using less energy for every possible application. But debating which uses of electricity are “acceptable” is not just pointless but dangerous. As humans we have immensely divergent priorities, and the totality of our individual cost-benefit analyses is how democratic societies set social priorities. The Bitcoin energy critics seem to imagine some friendly authority who can define and enforce “acceptable” uses of energy, but you can probably think of several strong terms to describe such a system.

If you’re not a puppet of the petrodollar or a complete dunce, you probably understand that the real focus right now needs to be on energy production, not banning consumption you don’t like. Have more concern-troll articles been written about Bitcoin’s energy use, or the fact that governments worldwide spend $500 billion a year to subsidize fossil fuel production? Or that U.S. courts are being subverted to punish a lawyer who had the temerity to win an environmental case against Chevron? Which is really more of a problem?

Quick, someone call the FT or the New York Times. They seem to have all the answers.


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David Z. Morris

David Z. Morris was CoinDesk's Chief Insights Columnist. He holds Bitcoin, Ethereum, and small amounts of other crypto assets.