Keith "Maggie" Brown

Keith “Maggie” Brown

Nothing straight is ever made from the crooked timber of humanity.

At least, so said Immanuel Kant. Humans, the “rational animal,” are masters of the irrational. Civilization is a Rube Goldberg device composed of a million wasteful oddities that no rational person would ever design. Military bloat, highway sprawl, topsoil erosion, fake news, and food waste and space-bound billionaires in a world with malnourishment and poverty.

These are the results of power far more than reason. We wear these ridiculous hypertrophies like peacocks wear their feathers. But we rationalize them after the fact as if we meant to do all this. We are so smart!

It is with this wry cosmic humor that we see the *ahem* “data center” coming to grace Denton. This high-tech operation in a series of trailers will double the electricity consumption by our city. It will employ 16 people to monitor air-conditioned computers cranking out guesses to digital puzzles. The computers will be “mining” for bitcoins, a cryptocurrency.

Bitcoin, like so many human inspirations, was born of noble sentiment. We are told that it will offer billions of people in corrupt regimes financial stability. It will democratize finance by cutting out banks and credit card companies. It will secure us against identity theft and crime.

Yet this “web 3.0,” like the two versions of the internet before it, is getting all bent out of shape along our crooked timbers. Remember the heady utopian days of social media? A global village. Democracy for everyone. Community connections. Oh, but what about fake news, hyper-polarization, cyber-attacks, the death of local papers and the ascendance of conspiracy theorists?

We already see bitcoin wrapping itself around the crooked fingers of the powerful. The wealth-making activity is concentrated in facilities like the one coming to Denton where the already-rich have the means to get even richer. So-called “whales,” large investors, have recently moved to gobble up more bitcoins. Private vaults full of servers in Swiss mountains become the new Central Banks. Amazing how everything at a certain scale seems to mimic the pattern of trickle-down casino capitalism. Of course, maybe we will inch forward here and there. Faster transactions on the internet, say, with no bank fees. But at what cost? Bitcoin mining is consuming as much electricity as Sweden.

Do we in little, ol’ Denton want to be a part of this latest hypertrophic contraption? We find our morality twisting with the grain of things. The bitcoin mining is legal. Despite centuries of history in which many bad ideas were legal, who are we to judge the moral purposes toward which electricity is used? And the money is good, that is, useful for lowering property taxes even if it may not be, you know, morally good. Plus, the bitcoin miners (supposedly) will shut down operations immediately if the ERCOT grid tells them so. This “responsive demand” helps get more renewables on the grid, at least, according to those who are forbidden from revealing any secrets about the deal. Besides, if we deny the permit, they will just set up somewhere else with fewer environmental scruples. We can lessen the impact and make a little scratch along the way.

These aren’t necessarily bad reasons … they are just “twisted.” And they are part of a process that was far too secretive.

Rumor has it that another bitcoin miner might be wooing Denton. If so, let’s hope we can be more transparent next time, because we need the space to examine our moral lens. With fracking, we tried the same logic: It’s legal and inevitable, and we can manage it better than others if we get the rules right. That didn’t work. Maybe we can make bitcoin mines run on renewable energy, but is this the rational path to zero emissions? Especially when this deal only uses renewable energy credits (RECs), not actual power purchase agreements? Are we just rationalizing the sale of our “green values”? How much money would we have to put into our Sustainability Fund to make us feel good about consuming another 1.4 million MWh of electricity?

Maybe we should look at bitcoin mines like we look at predatory lenders. If we are positioning ourselves to become the Silicon Prairie of cryptocurrency mining, we should start by detangling “legal activity” from “ethical action.” With one decision, we doubled our electricity use. And we might be fixin’ to do it again. And this is happening in the context of a warming planet and a stressed-out Texas grid.

Is this really the right thing to do?

ADAM BRIGGLE lives in Denton and is an associate professor at the University of North Texas. KEITH “MAGGIE” BROWN (they/them/their) is a native Texan and neo-Socratic thinker who has called Denton home for three decades.

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