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How online porn can save the planet

It might be amusing talking about porn among your friends but the industry is serious business. Many of its digital platforms draw in bigger audiences than Amazon, Netflix and the majority of social media sites. And with that comes an environmental impact to match.

The porn industry has the potential to be one of the biggest players in tackling climate change and influencing hundreds of millions of people globally.

In 2018, a landmark report found that 60% of all online data flows (downloading, uploading, live streaming) across the globe was in video form. Over a quarter (27%) of those videos were pornography.

The monumental scale of this industry is hard to comprehend. YouTube is the second most visited website on the planet (34 billion visits a month) and makes up 95% of “tube services”, video streaming platforms hosting predominantly safe and mainstream content. Online video pornography, meanwhile, is responsible for 6% more data flows than all of the tube services on the web combined. And that’s not including the porn being distributed via social media platforms.

As of October 2020, porn video sites were the eighth, tenth and eleventh most visited websites worldwide. TikTok, the hailed online platform that has made its name in video streaming, draws barely half the monthly audience of xhamster.com, a site you’ve probably never even heard of.

Data centres hold incredible amounts of information, using extraordinary amounts of energy doing so

But why does it matter?

Data centres are hungry pieces of infrastructure that get bigger the more traffic a site generates. In the US, data centres are responsible for 2% of the country’s electricity use.

But while many companies claim to power their data centres using renewable energy, in most parts of the world they are still largely powered from the burning of fossil fuels.

And that extreme level of energy is causing serious environmental damage. It is estimated that in 2019 alone, 82 million tonnes of CO2 emissions, the equivalent to that of the residential sector of France, were created by streaming online porn videos.

The tech industry has quickly become a major contributor to greenhouse gas emissions. With more than 53% of the world’s population now online, 3.7% of global greenhouse gas emissions come from our online gadgets and the infrastructure that supports them – which is more than global aviation or the shipping industry.

Despite what many might think, online pornography platforms are not scummy operations thrown together in shadowy warehouses. They are billion dollar tech industries that are outperforming household names such as Netflix, Pinterest, eBay and LinkedIn.

But while Microsoft trials deep sea servers to reduce refrigeration needs, and Google employs AI to lower their energy demands, attempts by the porn industry to address their carbon emissions have been at best greenwashing and at worst capitalising on the environmental crisis through PR stunts.

Greenwashing at best

Pornhub is leading the faux charge with multiple campaigns that are all promise and no delivery. In 2014, the site claimed they would plant a tree for every 100 views of videos within their “big dicks” category. The counter on their campaign page froze at a suspiciously low 15,473 trees with no evidence of any forestation projects.

Then there was the watch that generated renewable energy through the movement of pleasuring yourself.

But perhaps the worst example is the promotion of a recent video, shot on a rubbish riddled beach by some of the platform’s top performers. The premise was that money raised from the video would go towards supporting Ocean Polymers, a initiative that aims to remove plastic waste from the ocean. Once again, there’s little evidence stating how much funding was raised and Ocean Polymers failed to comment in time for publication.  

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The online porn industry is unlikely to act in an environmentally positive way any time soon. Hiding in the shadows created by cultural bashfulness, they can get away with dodging any commitments that address their mammoth environmental impacts, knowing they have a captured market. But, like many climate initiatives, the biggest impact might come from the grassroots.

Over the last ten years, online porn has been steadily finding its way out of the studio and into people’s homes with the rise of amateur/independent services and streaming. These performers have been using traditional porn platforms to create communities of followers who watch their videos, exchange messages, send gifts and other forms of engagement.

Overnight, Covid-19 confined adult performers to their rooms where they quickly changed their operating model to retain their income. Waiting on the other end was a booming audience of bored and socially isolated fans. The result was an explosion in community based porn with far closer and meaningful interactions than ever before.

Again – being online pornography – the numbers are not small.

Community power

The 10 most popular videos from the “Pornhub community” (mostly private, home filmed, videos as opposed to ones set up in a studio or by a production company) in October alone received 110 million views. “Reislin”, an independent performer on the site who set up her profile only 18 months ago, has over 1 million subscribers (that’s people who have signed up specifically to an adult website in order to follow her). Her 66 videos have been watched over half a billion times. That’s a greater engagement rate than most successful celebrities and so called influencers on Instagram.

We’re not suggesting that adult performers start replacing their traditional performances with lessons on glacial melt and the wet bulb effect. That’s not why an audience connects. But beyond their traditional content, when it comes to climate change, the power of porn doesn’t necessarily lie in renewable energy or offsetting emissions, but perhaps in the unlikely form of education.

Not convinced? Well consider this. Just 1% of Reislin’s view count in 18 months is greater than some of the leading environmental media platforms on the internet. There is significant power in these numbers.

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Adult performers have social media followings in the tens if not hundreds of thousands. That is more than most politicians and definitely more than most environmentalists. Their tweets, posts and shares have significant engagement rates because they have interested, dedicated followers. If those performers who genuinely cared for the environment posted about issues that concern them and – more importantly – what people can do about it, they could have a significant impact on raising awareness among a community that the environmental sector might struggle to reach.

The giants at the top of the online porn industry don’t take their environmental responsibilities seriously. But perhaps that’s because we as society in general haven’t taken them seriously either. The online porn industry could be a powerful and far reaching tool in bringing the climate crisis to the attention of a mass, mainstream audience.

We have less than a decade to bring about the transformation needed to prevent runaway climate change. Energy efficiency, renewable power and impactful investment is part of that. But so too is the power of influential people. We can’t ignore the awesome reach that the online porn industry has and the impact that could be made by its army of socially active, highly influential performers. It’s time for taboos and entrenched perspectives to be set aside for the good of the planet and a liveable, better future.

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