Let’s bash Bitcoin


Infographic by Olivia Buccieri and Ryan Solot

If you’ve been following any mainstream news outlets at all this past year, chances are you’ve heard of Bitcoin. Or Ethereum, or Ripple, or Litecoin, or any of these trendy cryptocurrencies heralded by many as revolutionaries of our marketplace economy.

These virtual forms of currency have certainly come a long way from being associated with drug dealing and fraud just a few years ago. After a price surge in 2017 — which elevated a notorious few speculators from dingy rags to unimaginable riches — investors all around the globe have reoriented their sights from traditional currency to whatever’s currently dominating the rankings on CoinCap.io.

(Some are even mortgaging their properties and quitting their jobs. If only I were making this up.)

But as with almost all new developments, there are consequences. And this time, they’re ones our planet can’t afford.

Let’s discuss Bitcoin, which has evidently stolen the cryptocurrency show. A single bitcoin is currently the virtual equivalent of an estimated 11,000 U.S. dollars — very much subject to change. A decentralized form of cryptocurrency, Bitcoin enables its growing populace of users to exchange money without involving third-party intermediaries. Most notably, the banks.

(My mother, a financial analyst for Bank of America, is unamused. My father, a software-engineer-slash-tech-hipster, is thrilled.)

Bitcoin transactions are all logged in a public ledger, and facilitated by a fast, secure technology known as blockchain. The SparkNotes version of this admittedly fascinating technology is that the details behind each transaction — its source, destination and timestamp — are compiled into a block. Blocks are then “chained” together by miners, computers configured to solve numerous algorithms (read: really hard math) to ultimately process, and legitimize, the trades.

Right now, this technobabble is probably either a) seemingly harmless or b) completely incomprehensible. If B, consider hitting up Investopedia. If A … “Honey, you’ve got a big storm coming.”

Here’s the thing: Bitcoin’s electricity usage is enormous. Unjustifiably so. The aforementioned mining operation, responsible for legitimizing transactions by computing arithmetic quintillions of times a second, is on its way to consuming over 42 terawatt hours (TWh) of electricity each year. This figure exceeds those of actual, tangible countries — upwards of 160, for the record. And because all this electricity is provided for by greenhouse-gas-releasing, climate-change-inducing fossil fuels, we’re also talking about carbon dioxide emissions of an estimated 20 megatons. In other words, 1 million transatlantic flights.

That’s a lot of trips to Paris.

So imagine the terror of the environmentally conscious when we hear of people — many of them, well-educated men and women — seeking to redefine Bitcoin as a global currency. More demand will inevitably precipitate more supply; more supply entails more electricity burnt away at the digitized stake. It’s a Salem witch trial, an auto-da-fé; only the truly troubled want all our energy going up in flames.

Of course, environmentalists aren’t so fragile as to flinch at the mere mention of a gas or two. It’s understandable that certain day-to-day procedures will naturally contribute to the greenhouse effect (which is actually healthy for the planet, to a certain extent). Vehicular transportation remains predominant in even mildly industrialized locales. Rural areas aren’t exempt, either; the cultivation of rice, for example, releases a decent amount of methane into the atmosphere. And the one that’ll have all toddlers giggling: Bovine flatulence — a.k.a., cow farts — are as pollutive as they are … completely unpreventable.

So what’s the big deal about Bitcoin? What’s so bad about just normalizing it just like the rest?

My gripe: It’s simply more trouble than it’s worth. Bitcoin fundamentally does not provide a significant public benefit in exchange for its staggering electricity consumption and subsequent pollutive emissions. Remember that Bitcoin, however attractive its modernity may seem, still exists in a finite amount for mining. And as more bitcoins are mined, more electricity must be consumed. Personal computers were once powerful enough to mine; now, we have to cram thousands of Application Specific Integrated Circuits, or ASICs, into warehouses on the brink of overflow. As a result, electricity plants all over the world are beginning to buckle under the sheer power consumption of running all these mining setups.

I will concede that Bitcoin, if given the opportunity to further develop, might actually aid the environment; namely, by tracking supply chains. Currently, it’s difficult to source all the products we consume to eco-friendly origins. There are countless opportunities for harmful or unsustainable goods, such as meat, to slip into our long and at times labyrinthine supply chains. But with the blockchain technology behind Bitcoin, it’d be much harder to cover up dirtied tracks. The idea is appealing — was once appealing, to a doe-eyed me.

But to propagate this unrealistic argument, thinly veiled by verdant intentions, is to ignore the very nature of Bitcoin. Remember that one of the only things consistent about this cryptocurrency is how inconsistent it is. Its market is exceedingly volatile; its future, as murky as the Love Canal that first necessitated Superfund. Just three weeks ago, its value plummeted from over $20,000 to where it is now, halved in price. Liquidity is nonexistent. And with our approximately 30 years remaining before

Bitcoin fundamentally does not provide a significant public benefit in exchange for its staggering electricity consumption and subsequent pollutive emissions”

carbon emissions officially push us beyond “the point of no return,” we don’t have the time nor the energy to waste on Bitcoin.

Bitcoin has the potential to be sustainable and great. But with how things are going right now, it won’t be.