(Clarifying language added 4 Apr 2016, 12:26 EDT.)
I just watched an episode from the last season of Star Trek: The Next Generation entitled “Force of Nature.” As anyone who pays the least attention to this blog knows, opposing human behaviors which cause climate disruption is a key value in my life, and, perhaps, it might be said, opposing human behaviors which disrupt natural systems has been a key value since my college years. In this episode, a fundamental technology of The Federation, warp drive, is shown to have side effects which disrupt the very structure of the Universe. Given that the very existence of The Federation, its principles, and its economy (although its economy is a far more liberated and expansive idea than ours) are dependent upon this basic technology, the idea that it could cause existential harm is accepted with, say, some reluctance.
The social, governmental, and economic changes needed to contain disruption are very large in magnitude and impact, and need to be done on a schedule quite independent of preferences and conveniences.
This does not make people happy.
People are used to planning how their development, business, life, and conveniences will play out, on their schedules. They see constraints, whatever the reason, as being fundamentally wrong. I do not fault them.
What if the most favorite things in your world proved to be harmful to everyone else, even to the unborn? Would not giving them up be difficult? Of course it would. Would giving them up still be necessary? With pain, yes.
There are times when we Must Grow Up. It’s not like this happens in a moment in time and we are okay every moment thereafter. I think and feel we are asked to Grow Up at key times in our lives. Perhaps we are asked to do so even at the moment of our deaths, to synchronize with The Real. That moment of synchronicity, that realization is the moment that the Twelve Step programs identify as acceptance and surrender to a Higher Power.
(That Higher Power is, incidentally, for me, Mathematics. But, then, I am a Platonic Idealist.)
We don’t (completely) control our lives or our existence. It is a kind of bargaining. It is ongoing, yes, but a bargain nonetheless. The dictates are deep and long, set by what we call Nature. Who really can fathom that Contract or that Complexity?
So, the question I ask, what if my favorite things, in my case, probably my computers, were to be found to fundamentally harm that Contract, or harm my fellows, my companions, extending to perhaps my non-hominid fellow travelers on this beautiful Earth? How much would I be willing to give up? This is not idle speculation. Computers do hurt the environment, in their manufacture, and in their use. The data centers that power the Internet, corporations, and government are enormous consumers of electrical and other energies, for primary power and for cooling. Dayarathna, Wen, and Fan remark (*):
For example, in 2005, the total data center power consumption was 1% of the total US power consumption, and created as much emissions as a mid-sized nation like Argentina . In 2010 the global electricity usage by data centers was estimated to be between 1.1% and 1.5% of the total worldwide electricity usage , while in the US the data centers consumed 1.7% to 2.2% of all US electrical usage . A recent study done by Van Heddeghem et al.  has found that data centers worldwide consumed 270 TWh of energy in 2012 and this consumption had a Compound Annual Growth Rate (CAGR) of 4.4% from 2007 to 2012.
Granted, if they are used and applied properly, computation can help us improve energy use, and, using the methods devised by Jacobson and colleagues, bring the United States and other countries to rely solely on zero Carbon energy. But very few data centers are powered by 100% zero Carbon energy, and Carbon offsets are not capable of eliminating fossil fuel energy sources. My very employment relies upon these things. So, my world has a long way to go here. I’d love to help with that more, and I do where I can. But companies are just not motivated to do this on their own. A Carbon Tax would be nice and has been identified as something which could be used to justify to shareholders why great expenditures for moving to zero Carbon energy are necessary. In order to have an effect of any size a Carbon Tax has to be stiff enough to really hurt, and that will have its own repercussions (**).
And in that I see the difficulty of my fellow citizens in the United States. Facts are, they have deep responsibility for causing harm to the climate of the planet, at least in terms of its hospitability to fellow people. We are, after all, per capita responsible for most of that harm. We could, were we to reverse that behavior, annul that harm.
But my empathy for them is circumscribed. For one, they have seldom felt grief at causing harm to our companion creatures on the planet, even if it was the impact of simply a Much Bigger House. For another, the Alarm has been sounded and repeated since 1990, at least. If computers were the single Cause Of Our Troubles, I hope that I would have the bravery to disown them, even if it meant a whole new career or lifestyle.
Success and happiness are contingent, a notion which is more delicate and subtle than the direct existentialism of my years in liberal arts training, under religious guidance, a parallel track to my mathematics and sciences. Someplace in there are embraced principles of ethics, learned from centuries of pain. Yes, like the Judaic thread, I believe ethics are interwoven with the physical principles of the Universe, or even, as E. O. Wilson implies, dictated by them.
Reality and happiness are bigger than the day-to-day. It is long. It involves Others. It involves The Unseen. They or Those are imagined, or felt.
While our reality might be beyond the shadows on the walls of The Cave, that cave remains where we be. If it crumbles, we are not.
Accordingly, the most meaningful things and acts in my life are my relationships — Claire, my wife, kids, Dave and Jeff — and applying every skill I have to the furtherance of our collective coexistence with Earth, as She is, not as She might be wished to be.
And, yeah, there is a bit of Selfishness in my Art, beauty for its own sake, in the forms and expressions of Mathematics.
I don’t see those as incompatible.
So, the remaining Questions are:
- What’s stopping me?
- What’s stopping you?
- What’s stopping us?
(*) M. Dayarathna, Y. Wen, R. Fan, “Data center energy consumption modeling: A survey”, IEEE Communications Surveys & Tutorials, 18(1), 1Q2016, 732-794.
(**) Some companies have imposed severe sustainability plans upon themselves which they are gradually pushing onto their supply chains, the stick being that if the supply chain companies don’t comply, they cannot serve them.