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Cryptomining image: Adobe Stock

Greenville’s controversial facility proposal is a final reminder that what’s good for business isn’t always good for society

There is no doubt that when it comes to wealth generation and innovation, the market economy is one of the great inventions of modern human history. There can and should be legitimate arguments about how long humans can sustain the rate of economic growth to which they have become accustomed; As Duke University researcher Dirk Phillipsen points out, it is literally impossible for economic growth to continue its exponential ascent. But it is also true that today, for billions of humans, life is longer and easier than ever and that is largely due to the market.

However, as even a moment of honest reflection reveals, the market economy is, like all other human creations, far from perfect. While the pursuit of efficiency, wealth, and self-interest can be extremely powerful forces for good, they can also cause enormous damage.

At the dawn of the last century, it took decades for activists and advocates of the Progressive Movement to dramatically curb (at least in the United States) the market’s natural and long-standing affinity for cheap child labor and voracious monopolies.

Likewise, as authors Donald Cohen and Allen Mikalien point out in their new book, “The privatization of everything” (Click on here to watch Policy Watch’s Crucial Conversation with Cohen from last week), this conflict between market “efficiency” and the common good at work can also be seen in dozens of modern examples in which public functions have been entrusted to private companies.

Cohen and Mikalien point out that private profit and the public good are often at odds: private prison corporations lobby against criminal justice reform. Private weather reporting companies are fighting to stop the National Weather Service from making public safety information more accessible. After selling its parking meters to a giant conglomerate, the city of Chicago was forced to pay a fine to the company in order to build bike lanes.

One of the founding conflicts of modern human society is between the market and the health and sustainability of our natural environment. From coal mining companies bulldozing mountaintops, to organized crime-linked waste haulers making toxic waste ‘disappear’, to the myriad ways our reliance on highly profitable fossil fuels is at risk. he origin of the global climate emergency, the pursuit of short-term profit is something that often must be curbed to protect the common good.

For a classic recent example, be sure to check out NC Policy Watch environmental reporter Lisa Sorg’s Jan. 28 report on the Greenville City Council’s recent highly questionable decision to approve the construction of a giant “cryptomining” in an undisclosed part of town. .

As Sorg explains, cryptomining is a rather mysterious (at least to ordinary people) activity that uses powerful computer networks to “verify” cryptocurrency – an alternative form of currency like Bitcoin and Ethereum.

What’s perhaps most remarkable about these facilities, however, is that the giant computer banks they use are truly heavy consumers of electricity and contribute to carbon pollution and climate change.

The Greenville proposal from a Minnesota company called Compute North predicts a need for 150 megawatts of electricity, which is enough to power nearly 25,000 homes. And this, even if the installation will only create jobs for 15 people.

In fact, it is estimated that cryptomining – an activity that has only been around for a few years – already consumes a remarkable 0.6% of all the electricity produced on planet Earth.

With such startling and disturbing statistics, the many sketchy purposes to which cryptocurrency is often put (its anonymity makes it ideal for money laundering and human trafficking) and its frequent wild volatility, it is very difficult not to see in this a classic example in which the pursuit of profits and wealth comes into conflict with the common good. Senator Elizabeth Warren, to her credit, was raising this question lately.

This is not to say that the idea of ​​cryptocurrency is inherently and totally devoid of redemptive aspects. While one might wish its tech-savvy developers and “miners” would devote their formidable brains and computing power to solving thorny real-world problems like, say, our dying oceans or finding energy truly sustainable, one can appreciate the appeal of a currency that is not controlled by any particular government and relies heavily on shared monitoring and auditing provided by millions of internet users around the world. And, of course, one can understand the profit motive that drives companies like Compute North to make money from a business that remains, at this point, legal in the United States.

Ultimately, however, just because something can work in the market doesn’t mean it should. Less than 160 years ago – the span of just two lifetimes – the “genius” of the market enabled the legal and highly lucrative trade in human beings in this country until democratic institutions imposed rules prohibiting it. . For the good of the planet, cryptomining seems like a likely candidate for similar public regulation.