Silicon Valley’s Deep Debt Weighs Heavily On My Future

Recently, I’ve been thinking a lot about what I want to do next with my life. Visiting home for the holidays and thinking about a “new year, new me” can do that, the way a long shower can sometimes lead to an existential crisis. Almost two years ago, I moved to the San Francisco Bay Area with plans to start or join a company that serves the bitcoin economy, and have spent most my time since pursuing that dream. I started a consulting website so people could contact me to learn about bitcoin, and I started a blog and podcast to share my ideas about how bitcoin and all things p2p can change the world for the better. The latter two endeavors have been more hobby than business, not netting me any notable financial gains. Instead, I consider them speculative philanthropy in pursuit of educating the public as to the best ways to acquire and use bitcoin and other p2p technologies. My more entrepreneurial endeavors, PawnCoin and Bitwal, have so far netted me no notable financial gains either, instead serving as learning opportunities that no accredited university could have ever offered me. I’ve learned a lot about cryptocurrency technology, startup entrepreneurship, and the Bay Area entrepreneurial ecosystem. I’ve also learned something which may forever change how I look at my role as an entrepreneur: Silicon Valley is in deep environmental and social debt.

My journey as an independent thinker started when I was a child, reading encyclopedias and history books in my free time, but reached a peak around the time that I graduated high school. I graduated early, leaving me with a lot of free time on my hands while my friends were still at school. This time was mostly spent playing video games, surfing Wikipedia, or watching documentaries online. It was these documentaries, and everything I learned from the Internet when I was following up on claims or references made in them, which led me to think deeply about my lifestyle and my own impact on the planet.

What I learned about the state of society and our planet’s environment made me more conscious about where the products I purchased came from. I chose to use a credit union instead of a bank, I began to buy organic products almost exclusively, I bought local produce more often to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and support the local economy, I bought an electric bike to reduce my dependency on oil companies, and I purchased clothing made from a hemp blend instead of cotton or polyester; in general, I started to “vote with my wallet” for a better world. This trend continued when I found bitcoin, which I saw as an alternative to a financial system that is rigged top-to-bottom to benefit the largest banks, corporations, and governments at the expense of everyone else.

Bitcoin was like a strong magnet, on the one side attracting me, and on the other, repelling. I have written before about how its total transparency was both reassuring and frightening to me, and about how unsustainable its mining process seems from an environmental standpoint. Addressing the sustainability concern is of deep interest to me, and is why I’ve been supportive of efforts such as Ripple and Ethereum, both projects that are trying to address some of the challenges that Bitcoin faces today. The reason Bitcoin’s sustainability is of such interest to me is that, as my personal story here describes, I am conscious of the impact that my existence has on the world and try to do my best to make my impact net positive. If I am going to put my money into something, and go so far as to encourage other people to also put money into something, I want it to be something that is holistically sustainable – something that is a win-win-win all around to the greatest degree possible.

Right now, bitcoin is kind of disappointing from a sustainability perspective. Bitcoin mining equipment itself has issues stemming from “dirty” component sources to questionable labor practices in certain manufacturing centers. Mining machines also require a lot of electricity to run, and while some of that electricity is thankfully coming from solar, hydroelectric, or geothermal power, I’d reckon a lot more of it comes from coal, oil, nuclear fission, or natural gas (it’s hard to say for sure since the mining network is decentralized and lacks meaningful statistics aside from its current and historical hashrate). I consider coal, oil, nuclear fission, and natural gas unsustainable due to the fact that they are non-renewable and environmentally destructive to produce and consume. Even solar, hydroelectric, and geothermal have their issues; the components used to create solar panels can be toxic, hydroelectric projects have been known to disrupt local ecosystems, and geothermal has only been deployed at a meaningful scale in areas near tectonic plate boundaries. On the whole, bitcoin mining is dirty business which will only get worse as the bitcoin price goes up and the network hashrate increases.

Thinking about bitcoin mining in this light has brought me to think about the broader environmental and social impact of electronics in general. Such technology has brought about rapid advances in productivity and connectedness, and yet average working wages in the US are stagnant and increased connectivity has brought with it mass surveillance and a new generation of narcissists. At the same time, landfills are overflowing with toxic e-waste, and recycling simply can’t keep up with the demand for new electronics, fueling a destructive mining industry and increasing demand for toxic chemicals and cheap labor (which only remains cheap because governments prevent competition in the labor market to protect incumbent businesses).

It is in this context that I find myself as a budding entrepreneur who is conscious of the impact my existence has on the world, and who seeks to always leave things better than I found them. I can’t even consider buying a laptop without feeling a twinge of guilt as I think of the workers exploited and air, land, and water polluted to create the device and deliver it to my doorstep; instead, I have chosen to use the same laptop since 2011 and I am not yet looking forward to the day that I must replace it. I have heard people justify such purchases as being a means to an end. I used to hear this argument in response to criticisms of environmentalists who fly on planes for work or play, and never found it very satisfying.

As I wrote in the first post on this blog, I have been thinking of shifting my focus from cryptocurrency to identity, and accompanying this shift is a desire to build and sell servers for personal use so that people can gain control of their digital identity and personal data. My concern is that, if I am to do this the way I perceive to be the right way, I face a lot of difficulty in doing so. I will have to source all of the components from both environmentally and socially ethical and sustainable sources, and manufacture the devices in facilities that offer people healthy working conditions and not just a living wage, but a thriving wage. Doing all that would be very expensive, even prohibitively expensive given that I am not a rich founder who can bootstrap a venture to success. Such a venture is something I’ve been discussing at length with my colleagues at the okTurtles Foundation as a means of making our work financially sustainable, and they share my concerns.

There is some precedent for success in ethical electronics: Fairphone is a really fantastic initiative to “open up supply chains, solve problems and use transparency to start debate about what’s truly fair.” That social enterprise has been alive since 2010, and has been independently funded without donations or VC investments. successfully completed a crowdfunding campaign and raised over $100,000 to finance the development of a distributed social network, which will culminate in the development of an “indiephone” and personal cloud platform which gives people control of their data. Combining these projects with networks like Maidsafe and Ethereum could create the ultimate p2p platform and fulfill my dreams of sustainable, ethical technology without the need for a new venture to catalyze change.

And where does that leave me?

I don’t know, but I do know that Silicon Valley and the electronics industry in general has a deep environmental and social debt to pay, and I wish to add no more debt to that burden.

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