Sunday, December 20, 2009

Peak Oil Novels

To the best of my knowledge, only two “pure” peak oil novels have been published this far. If you know any more, feel free to comment/advise me on this! Only two novels are a bit surprising considering how many non-fiction books there are about peak oil. A search for "peak oil books" on will yield more than 200 hits.

The two books I know of are "Last Light" (2007) by Alex Scarrow and "World Made by Hand" (2008) by James Kunstler. If you have only heard of only one of them it will probably be Kunstler’s book because Kunstler is a peak oil "celebrity" who has also written "The Long Emergency". Below I write about each book in turn, and conclude with a brief comparison between the two books.

Last Light
British author Alex Scarrow has written an adrenaline-filled thriller that takes place during one week – a week in which the world is experiencing a global oil crisis and quickly goes down on its knees. The first day of the week, Monday, is the last normal day on Earth. Simultaneous attacks on several key oil chokepoints around the world immediately paralyzes the entire world's oil production and two thirds of it is down-and-out. Ordinary people do not understand the scale of the crisis and its consequences and believe that everything will be back to normal in no time at all - if they even notice the news. But already on that Monday, the British prime minister's advisors propose no further sale of petroleum products, food rationing, martial law, the total switch-off of all non-military traffic, including buses, trains and planes. The prime minister's immediate reaction is incredulity:

"This is over the top. If I get on breakfast TV tomorrow morning and announce measures like these, There'll be rioting in The Streets by lunch time!"

It is not oil production figures that are the focus of the book, but rather the social consequences of a radical and immediate reduction of available oil. With an apocalyptic tone, the author vividly describes how quickly the thin veneer of civilization dissolves into thin air when electricity is lost, when water no longer comes from the tap, when the food stores are empty and when the police disappears. Many incidents of lawlessness and riots are depicted in the book.

The main characters of the book are a family that consists of:
- Andy - father (a geologist and a somber peak oil proponent)
- Jenny - mother (sincerely tired of her husband's doomsday prophecies and just about to separate from him)
- Leona - daughter (a 20-year-old university student who is also sick of her father's warnings and who is only partially aware of the fact that she knows about a secret of the utmost importance).
- The family also includes the young son Jacob who is 7 years old, but his only role in the book is to be protected and to be taken care of.

Mother Jenny and daughter Leona became tired of Andy's obsession with Peak Oil a long time ago:

"The walls of his study were filled with diagrams, charts, geological maps. He had become one-dimensional over that damned fixation of his. It had eroded the funny, complex, charming personality that he had once been, and now it seemed that anything that he could be bothered to say to [Jenny], in some oblique way, linked back to this self-destructive, doom-laden of his fascination with the end of the world."

The book is an exciting thriller and the story moves forward at a furious pace. This is a book especially for those who “woke up” a few years ago and with horror realized the social consequences of declining availability of oil, but then failed to convince others (including friends and family) about the weight of the issue. There are many places in the book where such readers may beat their chests and exclaim "What did I tell you!". In the end of the book there are also a lot of goodies for conspiracy theorists...

Despite their previous skeptic attitude, Jenny and Leona are one step ahead when it really counts. Years of unwelcome sermons about the (possible) imminent destruction have left their mark. They are therefore faster than the people around them to understand what is happening, and thus think clearer and better about how to (try to) take appropriate action.

"Andy's warning, his advance warning ... the one they should have heeded a little earlier than this, had sort of paid off, kind of. Of course, if [Jenny had] listened to him four or five years ago, they'd be living in some secluded valley in Wales, with an established vegetable garden, a water well, maybe some chickens, a generator and a turbine."

Unfortunately, Jenny went to Manchester on Monday for a job interview and spends most of the book/week trying to get back to London and her children. Tuesday evening, stuck somewhere between Manchester and London, she has to admit to herself that Andy was right all the time:

"If she now, finally, had come round to trusting Andy's prophetic wisdom [...] then she had to concede this wasn’t going to sort itself out in a couple of days. Things were going to get worse. "

Andy is even worse off because he is in Iraq when all hell breaks loose, and spends most of the book/week trying to get out of there. Except for the very exciting story, the main theme of the book is the vulnerability of modern society and how dependent we are on our current energy infrastructure. The Prime Minister's advisor summarizes the core message of the book sentenciously:

"It's a very fragile world [prime minister], very fragile, built on very vulnerable interdependencies. And something like this ... what's been happening today, really could bring the whole lot down. "

World Made by Hand

The story in Kunstler’s book is set in the small town of Union Grove in the state of New York some time after peak oil. Globalization is dead and buried and the people in the story nowadays know very little about the world around them.

"There were no distant markets to send [things] to because shipping anything was slow at best and often unreliable, and travel was something you just didn’t do anymore.

The few times when electricity temporarily comes back, what can be heard on the radio is mostly crazy religious fundamentalists. Sometime in the past, there have been two nuclear explosions over Washington DC and Los Angeles, but perpetrators and motives are shrouded in mystery. The U.S. has some sort of president and government that may or may not be seated in Minneapolis, but if this is true, they are so distant that they could just as well be sitting on the moon. Beyond globalization, both nations and industrialization have collapsed and society (small scale and with a focus on agriculture and practical crafts) must be built by hand - stone by stone and wooden plank by wooden plank.

We’d gone from a few people using machines to grow monoculture crops and process them for everybody else, to a society in which at least half the people used tools skillfully with human and animal muscle to feed the other half. […] These days, most anyone who had survived was in good physical condition because life was so relentlessly physical.”

The exact year or how much time has passed since the world embarked on this new course is unclear, but a good guess is that the year is somewhere between 2020 and 2025 and that the point of divergence happened about ten years earlier. The population has been strongly decimated, mainly due to diseases and epidemics which have arrived in waves after the modern world and the modern health care system collapsed.

The main protagonist is Robert Earl, now a skilled carpenter in his wife's hometown, and with a past as a manager in the software industry. His wife, daughter and parents in law have all passed away in diseases, and his son left several years ago as a 19-year-old to "see the world". Robert and the rest of the residents of Union Grove are suffering from a kind of low-level depression, which mainly manifests itself as discouragement and lack of initiative. The book is partly about their way back to hope for a better future.

Besides the small-town residents, three other groups also play important an important role in the book:
- "The Proletarians" who live in a trailer park outside of town. Less respectable than small-town residents, but also more pushy, more active and more tattooed. This group has taken control of the city's old landfill (now a treasure trove) and they make their living on "asset stripping", i.e. traveling around in the countryside and disassembling and recycling everything that has any value whatsoever.
- The plantation owner who lives some distance from the city and "cares for" his workers. This social system is similar to a feudal system or an old cotton plantation in the South. Some people are willing to give up their autonomy and voluntarily settle as "serfs" since the plantation is well ordered and workers are served three meals a day.
- The travelling religious group (cult?) which has fled from racial tensions in the South and makes Union Grove its new home. The group is led by a charismatic preacher who is very driven and forward. The group is well organized but irritates non-members by insistent attempts to convert and recruit new members. Some members ("brothers") are former soldiers with combat experience (that come in handy in the story).

It’s hard to get away from the feeling that Kunstler’s novel is partly an addendum to his previous book “The Long Emergency”. A world made by hand is simply a way of describing the world "on the other side of the tunnel" (peak oil) in the form of a novel. Much of what Kunstler writes about in “The Long Emergency” is exactly what has happened in the world where “World Made by Hand” takes place. The book may be effective as a pedagogical way of depicting a post-peak oil world, but if unfortunately feels less successful as a work of fiction.

The two books differ a lot from each other. Where “Light” is a fast-paced thriller, the story in “Hand” moves forward at a much slower pace. Where “Light” describes the events of the actual collapse, “Hand” only vaguely refers the collapse which took place several years ago. I read “Hand” over the course of several weeks and “Light” in a few days. Although James Kunstler is the more wellknown author, it is Alex Scarrow’s book that I have to recommend. Based on the three books by Kunstler I have read, I think Kunstler is better as a non-fiction writer, and rather than recommending “Hand”, I recommend "The Long Emergency” which concerns the same topics but written in the form of non-fiction.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

The Effects of the Crisis - Part 5


This is part five in a set of articles about the losers of the American economical crisis. The first article set out to describe the background to the later texts (including the connection to Peak Oil). In the previous text I wrote about those who have been hit by unemployment and evicted from their homes in Suburbia. In this text I go on to those desperately searching for a job on an ever tougher American labor market.

The labor market in the U.S. today is nothing short of a catastrophy. The official numbers indicate that almost 10% are unemployed (15 million people), but these numbers exclude those who want to work more but are underemployed, and those who have given up hope and do not even bother to search for a job any more (for example by retiring prematurely, or becoming unwilling housewives or -husbands. If these groups are included, the unemployment number ends up closer to 17%.

It is hardly surprising that the youngest on the labor market have been hit harder than any other group since they have the least experience, are fired first and are re-employed last. The numbers of teenagers who want a job but can’t find one are the highest in 60 years... and before 1948 no statistics were gathered. Youth unemployment is three times higher than in other groups on the labor market and half of all college graduates under the age of 25 have jobs that do not require college degrees (for example working in a clothing store or at Starbucks). These jobs used to be staffed by less qualified youth, and among young Americans between 16 and 24 that do not study at university or perform their military service, less than 50% have a job. (Youth unemployment has also reached record numbers in a number of European countries - Spain has the questionable honor of topping this list with 39% youth unemployment.) The consequences can be long-lasting, especially for the individual, but also for the American economy:

"the damage to a new career by a recession can last 15 years. And if young Americans are not working and becoming productive members of society, they are less likely to make major purchases -- from cars to homes -- thus putting the US economy further behind"

As I have written earlier, many older Americans fear that they have not saved enough money for their retirement, and therefore postpone it. As a consequence, there are fewer chances to advance within a company, and fewer spots opening up at the bottom of the hierarchy.

As unemployment rises, the U.S. military becomes a more attractive employer for many young Americans. In 2008, the U.S. military reached their recruitment targets figures for the first time since 2004 when the violence in Iraq intensified. A 22-year old man who signed up for eight years of service says that “Hopefully, when I get out, I’ll have all my fingers and toes and arms, and the economy will have turned around”.

Others who are unemployed try to shape up and sharpen their skills in writing CVs and networking and look for support and tips in ”job clubs” that meet in churches, libraries, restaurants and hotels. But the underlying harsh reality is impossible to ignore - the labor market is very difficult in the U.S. right not. The home of the American automotive industry might be worst of as Detroit now is a city that tops all unemployment statistic.

Whatever people did not like about their jobs before, be it the salary, the boss or maybe the work load - now pales in comparison with the prospect of losing it. Where people previously counted on routinely raising their salary with 10-15% when they switched jobs, salary cuts of 20% or more is now the norm. A survey showed that 65% of the unemployed are prepared to accept wage cuts up to 30% and that 7% were prepared to lower their salary demands with up to 40-50%.

The longer you have been unemployed, the bigger the cuts you are prepared to make in your salary, but ”those who do accept lower salaries in order to ride out the recession might find that they've permanently damaged their value in the workplace”. It might thus be the case that the picky Colt Phillips (whom I wrote about in my previous text on the effects of the crisis) is doing the right thing when he is not accepting the first job offer that appears. It is on the other hand more difficult to get a job if you have been unemployed for half a year or more. In the end of September almost 5 out of 15 million (officially) unemployed Americans found themselves in this situation.

For those who accept a lower salary it is a struggle to adapt to a situation with less money, and to be forced to accept a new identity. One example is the pilot and father of five Bryan Lawlor (great article) who lost 50% of his salary when the number of flights decreased and he was ”degraded” from pilot to first officer. For others it is a struggle even to find money to pay for the basics; rent, gas and food on the table. The margins can be very thin, for example for Rainie Uselton who managed to find a new job after she became unemployed, but who lost it when her car broke down and she did not have the money to fix it (since we are talking about the U.S. it goes without saying that you must have a car to get to work). The competition for available jobs harden and this also goes for the worst paid jobs. Beyond accepting a job with a significantly lower salary, many are now also prepared to commute on a daily or weekly basis, and leave their family behind.

“people are starting to move in a makeshift and impermanent fashion. […] There are costs to this strategy. Spouses left at home must do the work of both parents. Children miss out on things. Loneliness is a steady companion for the parent on the road. Researchers have long documented strains on families that are separated.”

The situation is obviously especially difficult for those with (small) children. At the same time as the number of unemployed Americans with unemployment benefits increased from 2.5 to 9.5 millions in two years, years of neglected maintenance have decreased the possibilities of the administrative systems to deal with the high demand and to hand out money to those who are due. Most states have computer systems that are to 30 years old and that use such ancient computer languages that retired programmers have been called back to work on adapting the software.

Hundreds of thousands have therefore had to wait for money they are entitled to for months. For someone without any margins, one week’s delay is enough to make them unable to pay the rent or buy food. For Kenneth Kottowitz, three months of waiting for the unemployment benefits meant that his savings ran dry, and that he lost his flat and was forced to move to a homeless shelter that was so crowded he had to sleep on the floor for the first couple of nights. A former hotel porter, Luis Coronal, had to wait six months for his money. He and his pregnant wife moved back to his mother, but in spite of this, there were periods when they couldn’t even afford to buy food. The worst day in his life was the day when his daughter was born and he had no money to buy her clothes.

Beyond the problems for some to get their unemployment benefits, the biggest cloud on the horizon for many Americans is that there is an end date beyond which the unemployment benefits are terminated. Millions of Americans have lost their jobs since the autumn of 2007 and at the end of the summer no less than 9 million Americans got unemployment benefits. The US Congress extended the period for which you could get support twice last year.

”States typically provide 26 weeks of unemployment benefits, an average of about $350 a week. Last year, Congress tacked on 20 extra weeks of benefits, and later it added 13 additional weeks for people in states hit hardest by unemployment.”

The 59 weeks limit (at the end of 2008) has further been extended twice this year. Citizens in the hardest hit states - with with unemployment numbers above 8% (almost half the states) were eligible for support up to 79 weeks (18 months). In September a decision was taken to further extend the limit with 13 additional weeks of unemployment benefits in severely affected states.

Whiteout this last extension, large groups were expected to fall out of the system from September and on (after more than a whole year of being unemployed). Many have no plans for how to deal with such a situation even if they might formally qualify for food stamps or social security. It is difficult to determine exactly how many people are affected. I have at different times seen estimates ranging from 750 000 to 1 500 000 people losing their benefits this year, but these numbers are now smaller (at least temporarily) after it was decided to extend the benefits.

"increasing numbers of people fall off the far end, beyond the duration of unemployment benefits. The worst hit states […] will have to pony up the most in additional benefits, as an estimated 1.5 million people will have exhausted all resources by Christmas. For some states, this must cause nightmares already. Especially since it won't stop in 2009; not even the most rose colored forecasters see a significant improvement in jobless numbers any time soon. […] we could see millions of long-time, structurally unemployed soon. A true underclass."

My guess is that the problem of individuals losing their unemployment benefits will escalate in the near future, in spite of predictions that the insurance period will be further extended next year (the last extension of 13 weeks lasts until the end of the year, but it does not apply to all states).

Another problem is that employers are usually careful about re-hiring even after a recession has officially ended. After the recessions both in the beginning of the 1990’s and the beginning of the 2000’s, the number of unemployed started to fall a full year after the economic recovery had begun. Except for the fact that no recovery has been sighted, many commentators seem to have the opinion that this time around we will have a ”jobless recovery” - meaning that the economy will eventually recover, but the number of jobs will not. For those who have lost their jobs, this would mean that there is no recovery at all. As always I want to add a brief note that we can not yet even speak with confidence about a recovery:

"I’m starting to wonder how many people there are left who actually believe all the talk about the economic recovery we're supposed to have entered. You know, the one proclaimed by governments, central bankers, institutions such as the IMF and the entire flock of parrots and parakeets that call themselves media [...] Surely many must have realized by now that perhaps that talk about a recovery is just that, talk."

Finally I want to draw the attention to those who have lost their jobs but do not live in the worst affected states, and therefore have not had their insurance period extended. Of the approximately 400 000 who were on the way to fall out of unemployment benefits in September, 300 000 benefitted from the recent extensions, but 100 000 did not. Also send a thought to those who were unlucky enough to lose their jobs right before the big wave of job cuts in the spring 2007 - and who ran out of benefits a long time ago. Where are they today...? We will turn to them next, in the following text about the effects of the crisis.

The topic is tough, but there is no way to avoid mentioning the fact that the number of suicides is expected to rise in the time ahead of us. The baby boom generation (who are between 45 and 60 years old now) have the highest suicide frequency among all age cohorts. Beside the fact that people are more prone to commit suicide as they age, this group has already had a higher frequency of suicide rates than previous generations - a fact explained by higher stress in the form of higher divorce rates, a more mobile lifestyle with more moving around throughout life, and a bigger intake of drugs. The economy is obviously one more stress factor and for sure it is worst for those who are alone, old and with bad or no health insurance. In a summary of the connection between economy, unemployment and suicide from the Suicide Prevention Center, it is stated that:

“Unemployment causes financial strain and can lead to depression and other problems as individuals perceive a loss of personal control. […] We can expect a sharp downturn in the economy to increase suicide risk, especially among working-age adults and older adults whose retirement security is threatened.”

While women attempt to commit suicide more often than men, men are more ”successful” in their attempts. In 2006, one year before the economical crisis hit, more than 33 000 took their own lives in the U.S. (75% of these were men).

This text has been about those fighting by whatever means they have at hand in order to (re)enter the American labor market, and who are prepared to take any job at any salary. In part six of this series I will write about those who are even worse off and need help with the basics - like food.

This text was originally published in Swedish on November 4, 2009.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Energy footprint of Google Searches

I like Google. Slowly, step by step, I have started to use more and more services from Google. It started with searches, then continued with Gmail, Google Earth and a number of other applications and services (including Blogger, which was bought by Google in 2003 and which provides the technical platform for this blog).

I have found almost all the services I have tried useful (for myself or at least for someone else), but it is now time to scrutinize Google through the lenses of my peak oil glasses. Even if I primarily write about Google in the text that follows, “Google” could mean any business competing with Google, or even the entire Internet with all the services it provides to us in our daily lives.

In the beginning of this year, the young Harvard physicist Alex Wissner-Gross claimed that Google searches contribute significantly to CO2 emissions. The angle that the newspaper chose was that two Google searches produce the same amount of CO2 (carbon dioxide emissions) as boiling a kettle of water for a cup of tea, and that Google searches thus have “a definite environmental impact”. More specifically, Wissner-Gross claimed that one Google search generates around 7 grams of CO2 emissions. The carbon dioxide originates from producing electricity to run your computer and to run Google’s data centers. A few grams of CO2 may not sound like much if not for the fact that the number of Google searches each day exceeds two hundred million searches, and may be closer to one billion according to some sources

Wissner-Gross further claimed that the architecture of Google’s search engines was an important factor as each Google search is distributed to several data centers across the world that then compete against each other to find and return the fastest answer. What you gain in speed thus comes at a cost of higher energy consumption caused by all the extra computer capacity (unused, misused or redundant) built into the larger system.

To no one's surprise, Google rejected this interpretation and stated that the company is ”among the most efficient of all internet search providers” because their data centers are relatively energy efficient compared to "average" data centers. Google furthermore claimed that the number 7 grams CO2 per search is ”many times too high” and that the true numbers are 0,0003 kWh of energy and 0,2 grams of CO2 emissions per search. This small amount of energy is in parity with the energy burned by the human body in 10 seconds, and the CO2 emissions are thousands of times lower than the CO2 emissions caused by the average car traveling only a few kilometers. Another powerful formulation from Google is that “In the time it takes to do a Google search, your personal computer will likely use more energy than we will use to answer your query”.

Another comparison is with the numbers from this report (pdf) which claims that each spam mail ending up in your mail box on average generates 0,3 grams of CO2 emissions (the same amount as if you drive your car 1 meter). Since the number of spam e-mails sent during 2008 was approximately 62 000 000 000 000 (62 trillions), the total amount of CO2 emissions caused by spam is not insignificant and more precisely corresponds with the amount of CO2 emitted by a car driving around the world 1,6 million times. If we assume that there are about 800 million cars on Earth, then all the spam sent during 2008 corresponds to the accumulated CO2 emissions from all the world’s cars driving 80 kilometers each. I am not sure whether this is much or little in a big-picture perspective, but I have no problems being judgmental and deeming spam e-mails 100% unnecessary, and now for yet another reason. Where are the technological and social solutions to stop them`

I saw a reference in January 2008 stating that a "bizarre" record was broken one day in October the preceeding year (2007). During that one day, more than 160 000 million spam e-mails - roughly two dozen per man, woman and child on Earth - were sent. Comparing this number with the total number of spam e-mails send during 2008 (see above), we find that the record from 2007 is actually lower than the daily average of spam e-mails sent during 2008...

Other experts who have made claims about the energy use of (Google) searches state that CO2 emissions are between 1 and 10 grams (depending on whether you have to turn on your computer first), or between 7 and 10 grams (if you use your computer for 15 minutes). The Times of London, which published the original article (above), informed its readers a few days later that the newspaper accepted Google's official claim that one (simple) search (taking less than a second) produces only 0.2 grams of CO2, and that the "search" refererred to in the article involved several attempts over a teme period of several minutes. In a clarification by the physicist Wissner- Gross, he states that he never mentioned Google specifically, that the example with the kettle of water was not of his origin, and, between the lines, that the newspaper made a hen out of a feather based on the interview with him.

Maybe the number 7 grams of CO2 emissions per search originally came from this blog (May 2007)? We should anyway probably take Google's numbers with a pinch of salt since the company probably counts only the marginal cost of performing one extra search, and not the nergy cost for temporarily inactive servers, support and maintenance, and the distributet and thus reduntand work being done in several data centers for each search. Also, the idea that badly written inefficient software code wastes electricity and thus has a bigger ecological footpring than neat code is thought-provoking (although I do not mean to imply that this is a problem for Google).

The "news" about Google searches and kettles of water quickly spread to several newspapers, but seem to have been a storm in a teacup when viewed in the read mirror. So let us step back and think about the larger issues that this text touches upon. Using computers has an environmental impact. What we read and look at when we use our computers is stored on many servers that are all connected by computer networks. All of these parts require electricity (personal computers the most, servers and data centers the least, and computer networks in-between).

The electricity that we use for these purposes is generated mainly from fossil fuels like coal and natural gas (85% of the energy consumed on Earth is produced from fossil fuels). when Google states that each search generates 0.2 gram of CO2 emissions, they surely count only the energy costs for their enormous-but-highly-efficient data centers, whereas the big energy thief is right in front of your nose - your own computer at home or at work. The use of a personal computer may cause CO2 emissions of somewhere between 40 and 80 grams of CO2 per hour, and if you include this energy consumption it is easy to reach 7 gram of CO2 for an advanced search that constitutes of several steps.

As I wrote in the beginning of this text, "Google" could in this context represent something much bigger than the company itself and it is somehow difficult to understand why exactly Google was singled out for its energy consumption. In general, Google should be acknowledged for their energy policies and for their lobbying in Washington for cleaner energy sources. A few searches on the Internet (there we go again :-) reveal several examples of interesting and good inititatives from Google, like their report "Clean energy 2030 and their work on RE<C (renewable energy less than coal), where the goal is to produce renewable energy cheaper than electricity generated by coal plants. According to Google, the company's data centers use only half as much energy as the average data centers.

The global IT sector is responsible for 2% of the global CO2 emissions (according to the firm Gartner Inc.). It may not sound much, but it is as much as the global airline industry emits, and in contrast to an airline industry in crisis, the IT sector is growing rapidly on a global basis. Many actors consider numbers about energy use business secrets, and for exampe Google does not want to tell how many or how big their data centers are, or how many servers they own.

Google clims that using their search engine on the larger whole saves money and natural resources, since a Google search replaces more energy demanding activities - we no longer have to use as many car trips, time, paper or ink to have our questions answered. This is a valid argument, but it assumes that we are doing more or less the same things (the same number of searches) as before, but now in a more resource-efficient way. But we obviously did not perform a hundred million searches per day before Google and other search engines existed. Furthermore, we burn energy by doing a lot of new things with our computers which could not be done easily - or at all - before:

We may be obsessive about turning off the lights when we leave a room, but at the same time we may happily spend hours clicking around online, oblivious of the electricity lighting up our screen, heating our chip, and powering ad cooling the data centers we're connected to. (It's true that in some cases Internet use may substitute for other activities, such as travel, that would consume more energy, but let's not kid ourselves: the vast majority of computer and Internet use represents additional energy consumption.) How many Twitterheads think about their electricity use before they tweet? Not many. How many blogger think about it before they blog? Not this one.

More interesting than to examine Google in particular is to think about the energy cost of computer use in general. Alex Wissner-Gross (again) has calculated that each second of watching a web page generates 0.02 grams of CO2 emissions. This applies to "static" website content - if you watch animations or video, that number quickly becomes ten times higher. The rule of thumb is of course that the more you use a computer, the more energy you consume, and some activities (playing computer games, watching movies) are more energy intensive than others (reading a document, working with a word processor). Regarding the energy consumption of avatars, I wrote the following almost one year ago:

It is difficult to determine the benefit (or damage) of using virtual worlds. On the one hand you use considerably less energy (and generate a lot less in terms of CO2 emissions) if you cancel a trip and set up a meeting in a virtual world. A computer on the other hand uses a lot of electricity compared to non-electricity-consuming activites (go for a walk, talk with a friend, help your children with their homework).

To play World of Warcraft several hours a day can hardly be described as an activity which "replaces traveling". It is more probable that playing such a game for a long time increases the chance that you will make new (faraway) friends whom you would later like to visit (sometimes by hopping on an intercontinental flight). I am here walking on a minefield of trying to differentiate between "good" and "bad" uses of computers and the Internet. I prefer to avoid this particular discussion at this particular point in time, but might return to the issue later. We can at least for sure state that computers and galloping use of electricity may be problematic in the long run - a characteristic shared by all types of exponential development: "If not addressed, unlimited, ever-increasing compute performance will ultimately consume all the energy on the planet".

I think it is definitely legitimate to critically investigate the energy consumption and CO2 footprint of using for example YouTube, Twitter and virtual worlds. Even without approaching the issue in a normative manner (making claims about "good" or "bad" use), one may thus find clues as to which activities could become painfully expensive if the electricity and energy prices will rise and keep on rising in the future. According to a vice president at Sun Microsystems, it is totally clear that "We need more data centes, we need more servers. Each server burns more watts than the previous generation and each watt costs more".

Something to further take into account are proportions. A person who uses a computer one hour per day (40 to 80 grams of CO2 emissions per day) generates emissions somewhere in the range of 15 to 30 kilos per year. A hardcore computer user who uses his/her computer 10 hours per day thus generates something between 150 to 300 kilos of CO2 per year. Is this a lot? Driving an average car 1000 km/620 miles (a single round trip between Stockholm and Gothenburg) generates approximately 200 kilos of CO2. This by no means absolves us from caring about the energy use of computers, but it hints at the fact that the potential of reducing CO2 emissions in the computer/IT sector is - for now - limited compared to the potential of reducing our energy use by changing our habits of travelling.

This text was originally published in Swedish on October 18, 2009.