Thursday, December 17, 2015

The Internet: Industrial Civilization's Swan Song

Recently I read an article in The Atlantic titled “The Environmental Toll of a Netflix Binge” by Ingrid Burrington. The article discussed the material costs of streaming--the energy, water, precious metals and so on--required to keep the gigantic data centers which power the internet running. Keeping the internet online consumes an incredible amount of resources; Google’s data centers consume as much power as the country of Turkey used in 2013. The energy costs of streaming just an hour of video per week for a year (52 hours of video) is equivalent to running a new refrigerator constantly over a year.

Now think about how often you stream content. As I type this, I’m listening to music on SoundCloud. Most days, in fact, I’m streaming music from somewhere--often Pandora radio or albums on Youtube--while using my laptop to read, write and browse, typically for several hours a day. How many watts do I waste in a day of computer use? Just thinking of the coal or oil being burned to support my music habits make me queasy. And I don’t even use Netflix.

These data centers can’t last forever. Despite the abundance of planet Earth, there are limited amounts of crucial resources like fossil fuels and fresh water. The timescale on which biomass is pressurized into hydrocarbon deposits or in which fossil aquifers refill with fresh water is beyond human comprehension. Once we’ve used them, they’re effectively gone. And long before the last drop of oil or water is extracted from the ground, the internet will be a distant memory.

To say that the internet will not last forever is a heresy in our modern society, something John Michael Greer discovered after writing an excellent article on the topic this past spring: “The Death of the Internet: A Pre-Mortem.” Many readers were unable to come to terms with the idea that the internet might not outlast them, indeed that it might have a finite lifespan at all. Burrington’s article in The Atlantic provides some useful insight to this issue. The author interviews a Greenpeace IT analyst named Gary Cooke. In a 2010 campaign, Greenpeace pressured Facebook to switch from coal to “renewable energy” (primarily wind) to power its data centers. At the end of the article, Cooke makes a striking pronouncement: “the Internet is the single biggest thing we’re going to build as a species.”

In terms of physical infrastructure projects, Cooke is probably right. Fiber optic cables span the globe, crisscrossing continents and running underseas in a manner similar to the telegraph lines of last century but with much more cable. And the telegraph system didn’t have enormous data centers. But the statement suggests a higher meaning than physical size. It suggests a belief that the internet is the crowning achievement of our civilization. And why not? It’s a massive undertaking in a material terms, but for end users all those costs are externalized, hidden well out of sight. All we see are our screens and the content the internet allows us to display on those screens. The internet allows us to read more articles, listen to more music, and watch more videos than we would have been able to otherwise. Pretty neat, huh?

The irony is that the rapid expansion of the internet, which really took off with the boom in data center construction a little less than a decade ago, coincided with the global peak of conventional oil production (2005-08) and the last hurrah of debt-fueled consumer spending which stuttered to a halt with the onset of the Great Financial Crisis. The few businesses that have done well in the seven years since the housing bubble collapsed have been companies heavily involved in internet infrastructure spending. Just consider Jim Cramer of CNBC’s favorite four stocks, FANG (Facebook, Amazon, Netflix, Google), which have consistently outperformed the market: three of them are heavily invested in data centers and the fourth, Netflix, is one of the biggest providers of streaming content around. Unfortunately for investors, these companies’ business models are built around exploiting nature in a way that is unsustainable; sooner rather than later even FANG will no longer be able to drag the economy forward by itself.

The relationship between human economies and the natural world was first and perhaps most thoroughly explored by the Club of Rome’s historic 1972 report, Limits to Growth. The authors created a computer model to study how ecological and economic systems interact with each other. Their results were less than encouraging. In brief, our society’s predilection towards growth, both in terms of population and material consumption, place an ever-increasing strain on the Earth’s finite resources. Eventually, global resource consumption will surpass the Earth’s limits, a phenomenon they refer to as “overshoot.” In their Thirty Year Update, released in 2004, the authors claimed that global society had overshot its limits and that, consistent with their model, material constraints would soon force society to return to a sustainable level of consumption. If we were wise, society could manage the transition downward to sustainability in what the authors called an “oscillating” fashion, but the most likely path is a dramatic collapse to a smaller population with much lower standards of living.

One of the most useful insights I gleaned from Limits to Growth is their model of how the human economy reacts to challenges. The key terms here are “investment” and “capital stock.” A business produces some good or service using its capital stock, the machinery required to operate its business. Google’s capital stock, for example, consists of its many data centers as well as the plethora of fiber optic cables through which its services flow. Investment refers to the portion of the surplus profit (the money made from selling their product) which is reinvested in the capital stock, in the case of Google, to build new data centers and lay more fiber optic cable. There has been very little investment in the US economy since the Financial Crisis; most big companies are using their earnings to buy back their own stock, a financial trick which inflates the value of their stocks to keep shareholders happy. Another slice of corporate earnings are invested in financial markets in order to maintain profits, even while consumer spending drops and profits made by most companies on their core businesses shrink.

Want to guess where much of that financial investment flowed to? You guessed it, FANGs, and other “tech” companies heavily involved in the internet are receiving a disproportionate share of the surplus wealth generated by our economy. That wealth is then invested in maintaining and increasing the already huge capital stock of data centers and funding their consumption of unfathomably large amounts of energy (primarily coal, oil, and natural gas), water, and rare earth minerals (new computer parts arrive by the truckload to replace worn-out components). All the while, those other businesses, many of them representing crucial economic sectors such as the energy grid itself, are not reinvesting a sufficient amount of profit in their capital stock, for fear of “losing money.”

Disturbingly, investing in one economic sector at the expense of others is exactly what Limits to Growth predicted a society in overshoot would do to try to avoid collapse. However, in the scenarios presented in the Thirty Year Update, the sector receiving disproportionate investment was always one crucial to the survival of the society. For example, in a model run from the Thirty Year Update labeled “Scenario 3,” a society facing a pollution crisis brought about by the continued burning of fossil fuels might allocate a large amount of investment towards the pollution control sector. Eventually, however, that society is investing so much in pollution control that it cannot maintain the capital stock required to keep the broader industrial society running. Civilization collapses.

Without a program to control pollution, civilization in Scenario 3 would have collapsed much sooner due to a pollution crisis hampering the ability of society to feed itself (the authors detail this process in “Scenario 2;” I highly recommend getting a copy of the book and reading through the scenarios yourself). The ridiculous truth about our current predicament is that the sector into which society is pouring all of its surplus is not crucial; it’s not even necessary! People got along just fine in the mythical year of 1990 without the internet. Yet here we are, expending society’s wealth on a project that burns through crucial finite resources just for the convenience of more accessible media or faster communications.

If the internet is our civilization’s crowning achievement, it is also our swan song. Even now, we are on the precipice; economic growth has plateaued, energy extraction is undergoing one final orgy as conventional reserves dwindle, and the natural world is beginning to react to our degradations in the form of climate change. Soon, the internet will be shut off, perhaps in stages, with typical consumers losing access first, and then universities, and then the state itself as ecological pressures bring down governments. In 2004, the authors of Limits to Growth: The Thirty Year Update believed we still had a slim window to guide resource consumption back to sustainable levels, to oscillate to a happy, if reduced, standard of material comfort. They couldn’t have known that society would expend so much energy expanding the internet from a smaller affair to a behemoth, devouring unbelievable amounts of power and other resources.

More than a decade has passed. Today, that window of opportunity appears to have closed. The internet expands, resource consumption continues to grow apace, other crucial sectors of the economy contract, environment pollution and degradation has quickened, and climate change has not been dealt with, despite the cheery pronouncements from Paris. We are headed towards collapse; perhaps we already are collapsing. Somehow, I can’t manage to muster much sympathy for us. If our crowning achievement is a maze of chips, wires, and screens designed to deliver the highest quality porn, pop music, and encyclopedias to our homes, do we really deserve to stick around for much longer?