Are data centers the new animal agriculture?

Surprisingly, the hamburger you ate for lunch and the cloud storage you sent the artsy photo you took of it to may have more similarities than you think when looking at them through the lens of environmental concerns.

In the article “The Environmental Toll of a Netflix Binge” by Ingrid Burrington, she discusses how the infrastructure behind the seemingly ephemeral and neutral Cloud could actually be quite disruptive to the environment. She explains how people view data centers as pristine, white “cathedrals,” when in reality they resemble crude factories. Of course, Apple and similar companies try to hide this infrastructure with glass-walled stores, minimalist interfaces, and sleek headquarters. Unless you did some digging, you may never know the environmental impact the Cloud has. For example, the article explains that “streaming an hour of video on a weekly basis uses more power annually than a new refrigerator.”

When reading Burrington’s piece, I couldn’t help but draw similarities between problems with Cloud infrastructure and problems with animal agriculture. First of all, many people like to think that livestock lives in large open pastures and then is humanely processed by a skilled butcher.  Instead, most of the meat we eat comes from large factory farming facilities with animals living and killed in horrendous conditions, similar to illusion hiding the dingy factories of data centers. Animal agriculture also has a detrimental impact on the environment. If you think that the ramifications of your netflix binge are bad, consider this: your quarter-pounder used up to 460 gallons of water, 65 acres of land to produce, and 4 pounds of total carbon footprint. 

Both data centers and factory farms are highly powerful and profitable businesses with horrendous environmental footprints. However, one critical difference is that for the data centers, it’s more feasible for them to cut back. For a factory farm to decrease their impact on the environment, they would have to severely cut back on production (and consequently, profits).

For now, the negative impacts of data centers are more under-the-radar than that of factory farms, as shown by the very different results you get with a google image search of both. In the future, though, will searching “data centers” give similarly grim results to the ones for “factory farming”

google image results for factory farm
google image results for data centers

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