The Economic and Environmental Impacts of Bitcoin Mining

zigzagpod
former aluminum plant via ZigZag podcast

The folks at ZigZag podcast have been reporting a series of stories about a bitcoin mine up in The North Country of New York State. The mine they are reporting on sits on the Moses Saunders Dam on the St. Lawrence River. This dam, built in the mid 20th century, attracted companies like GM and Reynolds Aluminum to build and operate factories there. Today these factories are being converted to bitcoin mines which on the surface seems kind of cool, but it’s worth a deeper look.

Economic impact. Bitcoin mines extract an insane amount of value for their owners. But as for labor, its computers that do most of the work in the mines, not people. This means that the job numbers that come with these mines aren’t as high as they were with aluminum plants. Even though we know we are in the age of automation, there’s some confusion in how town and city officials negotiate deals with incoming mine operators because they, the officials, have a hard time understanding bitcoin.

Here’s an idea for these folks: since the “new job” numbers are likely to be low in this sector, explore other options for extracting value from the mine for people in your town. If it’s not jobs, what is it? A one time expense for the mine, like a community baseball field, might not be the best fit. Look for ways to extract value over the lifetime of the company in a way that paychecks do.

Environmental impact. Mining bitcoin is energy intensive. Much more so than producing physical goods. However, this impact is something that most of us don’t think about because bitcoin and other crypto goods are digital and seem abstract. But make no mistake, the impacts they have on the physical environment and human health are real.

There is some hope if we use a triple bottom line lens for crypto. Triple bottom line considers economic, environmental, and social impacts of business activity. There are some experiments that use crypto to track the environmental and economic impact of its use, then use that data to make it better. But this innovation will only happen if we choose to do make it a priority. In the meantime, let’s be wide awake about the systemic impacts of bitcoin and other digital goods.

 

TAKE IT FURTHER

Energy cost of ‘mining’ bitcoin more than twice that of copper or gold
(The Guardian, Nov 2018)

on streaming:
Greenpeace says binge-watching all those TV shows is bad for the environment
(Quartz, Jan 2017)

a call for innovation:
Cryptocurrency mining could become the new face of energy storage
(World Economic Forum, Sep 2018)

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Kids Build a Bakery in the Forest

brawn-and-bread-studio-micat-design-oven-new-hampshire-usa_dezeen_2364_col_12
Brawn & Bread by Studio Micat

Bread & Brawn is an outdoor, human-powered bakery designed by Studio Micat and built by kids in a New England summer camp. Human-power is used to mill the grain, knead the bread, and stoke the fire. What a lovely project for children to build and use. This project affords a design experience that nurtures a sense of appreciation for how many resources go into making seemingly simple, everyday items.

See more detail on the project here and here

A superfund to address the negative impacts of social media?

Check out this interview with investor and author Roger McNamee. McNamee’s written and recently published, Zucked: Waking up to the Facebook Catastrophe in which he articulates his thoughts on the negative impacts that facebook has on our economy, media, public health, and our brains. He argues that the gov’t needs to respond to these impacts as they responded to industrial pollution in the late 1970s – they created a system to hold companies accountable for cleaning up the mess.

WHAT YOU CAN DO

  1. Delete your facebook account or, at least, don’t use it as your primary news source
  2. Curate your own news feed with an RSS reader like feedly
  3. Subscribe to and support quality journalism like WNYC’s On the Media
  4. Tell your reps that they need to address these issues at a policy level. (And if they need help getting up to speed, encourage them to reach out to you or someone you know who is tech savvy and a clear communicator)

Artist Spotlight: Craig Mains

mains 2
trailers at sea via craigmains.com

This weekend I’m taking a printmaking workshop with Craig Mains at The Ink Shop here in Ithaca. I dig Mains’ work and have for a while now.

In the workshop, Mains is going to show us how he integrates a vinyl cutter into his printmaking process. I have a vinyl cutter in my studio. It’s one of my favorite tools. I’m looking forward to learning how I can expand my use of it.

Check out some of Mains’ prints on his website: http://craigmains.com/printmaking

Inventor Spotlight: Florence Knoll

florence_knoll_100_04

Iconic architect, furniture designer, and co-founder of Knoll Associates, Florence Knoll, passed away last week at the age of 101. She developed her classic modernist style for corporate interiors in the mid 20th century and it still rings true today.

Knoll studied architecture at the renowned Cranbrook school with masters like Mies van de Rohe and Eliel Saarinen, father of Eero. She went on to co-found Knoll Associates and was the driving design force at the firm. She designed spaces for corporate giants like IBM, GM, Heinz, and CBS, and she commissioned innovative pieces from Bertoia’s wire chair to Saarinen’s fiberglass tulip series (which she had to convince a New Jersey boat maker to fabricate) to van de Roe’s Barcelona chair. The work is timeless.

 

TAKE IT FURTHER

Knoll Associates

Remembering Florence Knoll (Fast Company)

 

 

Understanding the Environmental and Social Impacts of Commercial Products

Yesterday I saw yet another headline about green packaging. Something like: So and so android phone is changing their packaging from plastic to paper. My greenwashing antennae immediately went up and I asked these questions, “How much of an impact will a change in the packaging make? Does this change offset the conflict minerals used in the phone or the embodied energy in its manufacture and use over the product lifetime? Is changing the packaging for a cell phone solving the right problem?”

Our obsession with eco-friendly shopping bags and packaging is merely a metaphor for how important consumer culture is to us. If only we make green bags to put our purchases in, then everything will be ok. In addition to revealing our values, this focus on packaging also reveals our limited understanding of the environmental impacts of the stuff we make, sell, buy and use.

There’s a framework called Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) that can help us gain a holistic understanding of the environmental and social impacts of commercial products. My explanation here is not for environmental scientists – they already know this stuff. But it’s for designers and inventors. And it’s also for those of us on the ground, average people with curiosity about these things. It’s for people who can handle grey areas without black and white answers. It’s for people who won’t shut down when faced with complexity but rather continue to be curious and questioning.

Life Cycle Assessment – phases

RAW MATERIAL. This is to examine where materials come from. Some questions we might ask are: Are the sources sustainable? Does extracting them have negative impacts? Do they use fair labor practices? Are the economics fair? Do the growers get a fair price for the raw materials they grow (think coffee or chocolate).

PRE-PRODUCTION. Raw material needs to be processed for manufacturing. In the case of reclaimed plastic, it needs to be processed before it’s recycled and turned into new material. As for leather, a material I’m working with now, it needs to be tanned. There are different types of tanning. Vegetable tanning uses a lot of water. Chrome tanning uses more chemicals. You can also look at labor practices including the health impact on workers in this phase.

MANUFACTURING. Questions you might ask here are about the environmental impacts of how a manufacturing shop is run. And what are the labor practices? Some shops that I’ve visited around here have programs that train people who need a second chance to work on the factory floor. This is pretty awesome and the handful of folks I’ve met in these rolls seem grateful. Other factories use chemicals that make their workers and surrounding communities sick. So when voters and their reps complain about regulation being anti-business we need to remember that regulation is also pro-human health.

DISTRIBUTION. The simple question to ask here is how far did the product (and its components) travel before it got into the consumer’s hands. This can be one of the benefits of shopping local. If the merchant you are buying from is selling locally made goods, then the goods didn’t travel far. There are also packaging questions to consider in this phase. Is the product designed to be shipped flat packed and thus take up less space on a ship or truck? And at the risk of causing a distraction, I wonder what impact distributed manufacturing might have on the distribution phase. Distributed manufacturing is what affordable desktop tools like 3D printers enable.

USE. These are the questions asked once the product is in the user’s hands. Let’s look at a home energy monitor. No matter how the product was manufactured, we want to look at the impact on its user’s behavior. Does it cause them to significantly lower their energy use? Or with a dishwasher, does it cause it’s user to use less water? One that’s really complicated is streaming video – how much energy does this use in the home and how much does it use in servers around the world? And if you fly a lot, well jet fuel has a much greater impact on the environment than any shopping bag.

DURABILITY. This phase is often misunderstood as “longevity” with longevity equalling “good.” But that’s not complete. I think of durability as a proportion that looks like this:

HOW LONG IT IS USED :: HOW LONG IT LASTS

With a chair, for example, I might want it to last for 100 years. Or longer if it’s designed to be an heirloom. But for picnic ware for a party at the park, it’s only going to be used for a few hours. So it doesn’t need to be designed to last 500 years in the landfill. Something that bio-degrades might be a better fit.

END-OF-LIFE. This phase is about tracking where the product and parts will go when we are finished using it. A lot of what happens in this phase is determined in earlier phases of the product life cycle. Some products are designed to be disassembled. Some products release toxins when disassembled (think e-waste). Some products are designed to have a second function. Some packaging is designed to be taken back by the company. Some materials keep their integrity when they are recycled and others lose integrity.

So these are the phases of LCA. If you need fewer questions and more quant data, do a search for “LCA calculator.” I haven’t reviewed those but if you find one that you like, let me know!

Design — what is it good for?

The designer’s skill set is seen as a generalist skill set. This might be because designers are trained in two complementary areas: artistic practice and social science. They learn artistic practice so they can master a creative process (sketching, modeling, building, testing, iterating). Designers train in social science so that have tools that help them to understand and collaborate with end users of what they design.

It’s a valuable skill set. But it’s also broad. It can be applied to just about anything. It can be applied to scaling a product like facebook so that the company can get billions of users addicted to using the platform. Or it can be applied to a non-profit so that they can engage their community in positive change.

These examples are two extremes and of course, there are lots of applications between them. But I want to pause here for a moment and ask the people who are interested in design to ask this question: Design — what is it good for? Why is it important to learn this skill set? Do we learn it so that we can help the 1% get richer which, at the end of the day, is what the facebook application is about? Or do we learn this skill set to genuinely make the world better?

Lizard Brain + Illusion of Interactivity

Douglas Rushkoff of Brian Lehrer

Douglas Rushkoff’s on tour talking about his new book, Team Human. The argument he makes in the book is one he’s been making a while now. But something about the timing this time feels different as the problems he addresses in it are reaching an inflection point.

His argument, like media theorists before him, is that modern technology isolates us. He gets into the economics and the neuroscience and the computer science and other big systems reasons for why technology has this isolating effect. And he offers a solution – to connect with people in our local communities.

But in the interview with Lehrer, he wonders if all of the small interactions made by connecting locally will be enough to make systems-level change. It’s an interesting question. If you ask someone who needs to measure effectiveness with quant data, then the answer will be, “We need to intervene not just at the local level, but at the systems level so we can measure it.” But if you ask someone who finds value in things that can’t be measured, then they might say local intervention is the right path.

Rushkoff is the person who asks us to look at what can’t be measured or put into an algorithm and to cherish that part of being human. But it’s hard to do, isn’t it. I appreciate how hard it is and his willingness to simultaneously offer solutions and express doubt.

TAKE IT FURTHER

Team Human podcast

Buy the book from an indie retailer