Streaming video, a link between pandemic and climate crisis (Journal of Visual Culture & HaFI, 2)

This is the second instalment of a collaborative effort by the Journal of Visual Culture and the Harun Farocki Institut, initiated by the COVID-19 crisis. The call sent to JVC’s editorial board, and a wide selection of previous contributors and members of its extended communities, described the task as follows: “There is a lot of spontaneous, ad hoc opinion-making and premature commentary around, as to be expected. However, the ethics and politics of artistic and theoretical practice to be pursued in this situation should oblige us to stay cautious and to intervene with care in the discussion. As one of JVC’s editors, Brooke Belisle, explains: ‘We are not looking for sensationalism, but rather, moments of reflection that: make connections between what’s happening now and the larger intellectual contexts that our readership shares; offer small ways to be reflective and to draw on tools we have and things we know instead of just feeling numb and overwhelmed; help serve as intellectual community for one another while we are isolated; support the work of being thoughtful and trying to find/make meaning…which is always a collective endeavour, even if we are forced to be apart.'” TH


Tiger King (Netflix)/data center (stock image)


Streaming video, a link between pandemic and climate crisis



With the CoVid-19 pandemic, people all over the world are taking refuge in streaming media—binge-watching movies, browsing cheering ’Tubes, holding a lot of video conferences, consuming more porn than usual.

This pandemic panacea is fueling a more pressing global catastrophe, for streaming media has a significant carbon footprint. Online video represents nearly 60% of world data traffic. By a conservative calculation, streaming video is responsible for over 1% of global greenhouse gases—a figure increasing exponentially. This fact, long known to IT engineers and industry insiders, is gradually entering public discourse.

For this text I calculated the carbon footprint of the wildly popular Netflix miniseries Tiger King, which streamed 34,000,000 times in the United States in the last ten days of March 2020.[1] Many variables enter, so this is an approximation, but it’s not off by orders of magnitude.


Tiger King has 7 episodes at ~45 minutes = 5.25 hours. Let’s assume that each unique viewer watched an average of ¼ of the whole show. Thus:

Time per viewer: 5.25 x ¼ = 1.3125 hours

Gigabytes per viewer:

I chose the average resolution, 1080p [4300-5800 kbps = ~1.9-2.55 GB per hour (webgeek 2018)]. This averages to 2.225. 1.3125 hours x 2.225 GB/hour = 2.92 GB per Tiger King viewer

Energy per viewer: 2.92 x 5 kWh/GB (Costenaro and Duer 2012) = 14.6 kWh

Total energy: 14.6 kWh x 34,300,000 unique viewers = 496,453,125 kWh of energy, or half a terawatt hour. That’s the same as the electrical consumption of Rwanda in 2016.

Carbon footprint: According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Greenhouse Gas Equivalencies Converter, 496,453,125 kWh of energy would produce 351.012 metric tons of CO2. That’s equivalent to the emissions of 75,834 passenger cars for one year. (Of course, if the US were not so reliant on fossil fuels for energy, this figure would be lower.)


On the upside, according to the EPA calculator, the carbon emitted by that Tiger King pandemic-streaming equals the amount of carbon sequestered by 5,804,061 tree seedlings grown for 10 years. If every 6 Tiger King viewers planted a tree…

Industry is invested in convincing us to consume more media at higher bandwidth, and governments the world over are buying in. Media corporations will likely leverage the CoVid-19 crisis to insist that ubiquitous high-bandwidth media constitute an essential service. As consumers, citizens, and activists, there are several ways we can resist this siren song. These include:

-demanding government regulation, for example a carbon tax on data centers and networks

-practicing “digital sobriety,” in the term of The Shift Project (2019): consuming less streaming media at lower resolution

-paying carbon offsets for streaming

-once the pandemic settles, going to the movies!

-purchasing and renting DVDs (during the pandemic, my local store, Black Dog Video, is doing curbside video pickups)

-circulating media by mail

-for teachers, conserving bandwidth, e.g. by uploading slide shows with audio narration rather than videos (Hilderbrand 2020)

-demonstrating that low-bandwidth, small-file media are attractive in a “cool” (McLuhan), haptic (Marks) way. This is what we are doing at the Small File Media Festival. Submit your maximum-5G videos! Deadline May 30, 2020

-and fundamentally, demanding that our governments push for renewable energy.



Alsharif, MH, J Kelechi, J Kim, & JH Kim. 2019. “Energy Efficiency and Coverage Trade-Off in 5G for Eco-Friendly and Sustainable Cellular Networks,” Symmetry 11, 408-439.

Andrae, A, & T Edler. 2015. “On Global Electricity Usage of Communication Technology: Trends to 2030.” Challenges 6, 117-157.

Costenaro, D, and A Duer. 2012. “The Megawatts behind Your Megabytes: Going from Data-Center to Desktop.” Proceedings of the 2012 ACEEE Summer Study on Energy Efficiency in Buildings, ACEEE, Washington, 13.65-13.76.

Hilderbrand, L. 2020. Remarks at our roundtable “Let’s Deal with the Environmental Impacts of Streaming Video,” Society for Cinema and Media Studies, April 4, 2020 (held online)

Lorincz, J, A Capone, & J Wu. 2019. “Greener, Energy-Efficient and Sustainable Networks: State-Of-The-Art and New Trends.” Sensors 19, 4864. 29 pages.


Thanks to my colleagues Joe Clark and Stephen Makonin for their feedback on drafts.




Laura U. Marksworks on media art and philosophy with an intercultural focus; she teaches at Simon Fraser University, Vancouver.
April 16th, 2020 — Rosa Mercedes / 02

Some basics from the Strike MoMA site: “Campaigns, actions, and letters chip away at the regime’s facade from the outside. Inside, every time workers organize, defy the boss, care for a coworker, disrespect secrecy, or enact other forms of subversion, cracks are created in the core. Cracking and chipping, chipping and cracking. As the walls that artificially separate the museum from the world collapse, we reorient away from the institution and come together to make plans. Let us strike in all the ways possible to exit from the terms of the museum so we can set our own.”


via Hyperallergic on the environmental impact of blockchain referring to recent NFT (non-fungible token) art sales: “This is not the first time the art world has come under scrutiny for being on the wrong side of the climate conversation. Artists and activists have protested everything from the carbon footprint of physical art fairs to the fossil fuel money funding major museums. But some say the energy consumption of cryptocurrencies is particularly egregious, and research shows it’s relatively easily quantifiable. A study by Cambridge University, for instance, estimates that bitcoin uses more electricity per year than the entire nation of Argentina. (Ethereum mining consumes a quarter to half of what Bitcoin mining does, but one transaction uses more power than an average US household in a day, according to the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers.)”


Nicholas Mirzoeff on “Artificial vision, white space and racial surveillance capitalism”: “Based as it is on ‘epidermalization’ (the assertion of absolute difference based on relative differences in skin color), AI’s racial surveillance deploys an all-too-familiar racialized way of seeing operating at plan-etary scale. It is the plantation future we are now living in. All such operations take place in and via the new imagined white space of technology known as the cloud. In reality, a very material arrangement of servers and cables, the cloud is both an engine of high-return low-employment capitalism and one of the prime drivers of carbon emissions.”


Sara Ahmed on the performativity of disgust (from The Cultural Politics of Emotion, 2004): “To name something as disgusting is to transfer the stickiness of the word ‘disgust’ to an object, which henceforth becomes generated as the very thing that is spoken. The relationship between the stickiness of the sign and the stickiness of the object is crucial to the performativity of disgust as well as the apparent resistance of disgust reactions to ‘newness’ in terms of the generation of different kinds of objects. The object that is generated as a disgusting (bad) object through the speech act comes to stick. It becomes sticky and acquires a fetish quality, which then engenders its own effects.”

November 7th, 2020

David Graeber (1961-2020) on What Would It Take (from his The Democracy Project. A History, a Crisis, a Movement, 2013, p. 193): “We have little idea what sort of organizations, or for that matter, technologies, would emerge if free people were unfettered to use their imagination to actually solve collective problems rather than to make them worse. But the primary question is: how do we even get there? What would it take to allow our political and economic systems to become a mode of collective problem solving rather than, as they are now, a mode of collective war?”

September 7th, 2020

T.J. Demos on why cultural practitioners should never surrender, via  “For artists, writers, and curators, as art historians and teachers, the meaning-production of an artwork is never finished, never fully appropriated and coopted, in my view, and we should never surrender it; the battle over significance is ongoing. We see that battle rise up in relation to racist and colonial monuments these days in the US, the UK, and South Africa. While the destruction of such monuments results from and is enabling of radical politics, it’s still not enough until the larger institutions that support and maintain their existence as well as the continuation of the politics they represent are also torn down. This is urgent as well in the cultural sphere, including the arts institutions, universities, art markets, discursive sphere of magazines and journals, all in thrall to neoliberalism, where we must recognize that it’s ultimately inadequate to simply inject critical or radical content into these frameworks, which we know excel at incorporating those anti-extractivist expressions into further forms of cultural capital and wealth accumulation. What’s required is more of the building of nonprofit and community-based institutions, organizing radical political horizons and solidarity between social formations.”

August 21st, 2020
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