Is personal pleasure worth the planet’s pain?

Kate Byrne explores the effects that the pornography industry has on climate change

I’m sure you have grown tired of seeing and hearing the phrase, “there’s no ethical consumption under capitalism,” thrown around on social media as an attempted justification for five hundred euro Shein hauls. It diminishes in meaning every time it flashes across our screens as an excuse for the overconsumption of goods that are unethically produced and cause damage to the environment. However, this statement is, of course, true. Inherent to capitalism’s nature is the creation of a social hierarchy that exploits workers and places profit over the environment. But buzzwords and phrases do little to promote change and instead continuously encourage the same unethical habits.

It is frustrating that, as consumers, we constantly receive the blame for climate change. The responsibility is always placed in our hands to tackle an issue caused for generations by the most wealthy people in the world. We are encouraged to shop second-hand, use reusable cups, and take public transport. But what if I told you that another demand is being placed on our climate action to-do list? The request is this: Stop watching porn.

“The power used by devices and the energy consumed by the servers and networks that distribute the content account for 80 million tons of carbon dioxide every year.”

You may be surprised to hear that online pornographic videos generate a significant amount of greenhouse gas emissions, according to a study published by the Shift Project. In fact, the power used by devices and the energy consumed by the servers and networks that distribute the content account for 80 million tons of carbon dioxide every year. This vast quantity is as much as emitted by all the households in France.

The energy emitted is not limited to pornography itself. Videos on Youtube, Netflix and social media also contribute to the production of greenhouse gases. But, with pornography accounting for 27% of online videos — not including the pornographic content that permeates social media platforms — it sparks a large debate about the consumption of porn. Firstly, we must question why porn makes up such a large percentage of online videos. And secondly, we must ask ourselves this: is the pleasure that porn can provide worth the toll that viewing it takes on the planet?

When we mix the moral panic surrounding the consumption of pornography with the impending doom of climate change, it sparks an explosion of debates. The fact that porn makes up a significant percentage of online videos should already raise alarm bells, regardless of its environmental effects. The ease of accessibility to porn has not only promoted and perpetuated patriarchal standards but has also been proven to lead to depression, sexual dysfunction, and relationship issues.

However, we are constantly bombarded with counterarguments, such as suggestions that porn allegedly empowers those who partake in it, that it benefits sexual health, and that it is a stress reliever. And maybe it is. But to many, porn is not a healthy habit but a serious addiction.

“While some may be aware of their own overconsumption of porn, others may not see the problem yet.”

In 2022, the Cork Sexual Health Centre saw a 360% increase in attendance at its porn addiction therapy over two years and now has a waiting list of over seven months for those seeking help. While some may be aware of their own overconsumption of porn, others may not see the problem yet.

After all, according to statistics released last year by Pornhub, Irish viewers visit the site much more per capita than many other countries and watch for longer, ranking 42nd worldwide for traffic on the website. Survey results from the Men’s Development Network found that more than 70% of men under 45 in Ireland have reported using porn at least once a week. The lack of ethical pornography available on the internet allows us to assume that most of this porn is exploitative. And if people watch porn at least once a week, there is clearly a society-wide dependence on it.

The issue is that while we might be aware of our overconsumption, we are unwilling to address it. Personal consumption is a difficult topic, given that most of us are quick to jump on the “no ethical consumption” train instead of meaningfully engaging in the discussion. But the truth is that lifestyles are shaped by context, and nobody lives in a vacuum. If others around us are doing it, then we’re more likely to do it too. Watching unethically produced videos normalises and excuses its unethical production and damaging consequences. Merely blaming the pornography industry for producing such a high volume of videos or utilising unethical practices does little to address the fact that climate change is occurring rapidly.

“But when it comes to porn, some of us may not be ready to make that sacrifice.”

Reviewing their findings from the study, The Shift Project authors recommend “digital sobriety” to address the emissions that videos release. This mindfulness entails only watching what you must watch rather than an all-out ban on pornography. Many of us already practise this in our day-to-day life, such as not buying that dress we know we’ll only wear once or waiting until the dishwasher is full to turn it on. But when it comes to porn, some of us may not be ready to make that sacrifice. However, if the climate crisis is to be meaningfully tackled, perhaps it is a sacrifice we should be willing to make.

And yes, it still is true that there is no ethical consumption under capitalism, and porn certainly proves this. But there can and should be conscious consumption under capitalism, even when the thing that we are restraining ourselves from is a source of pleasure. Of course, we can’t expect people to stop watching porn completely, just as we can’t expect people to go vegan, exclusively buy second-hand, or stop using single-use plastics altogether. But we can ask people to indulge in moderation. So the next time you want to watch porn, ask yourself: how often am I doing this? Is it impacting my relationship with myself or my relationship with others? And, of course, is my personal pleasure worth the planet’s pain?

Kate Byrne

Kate Byrne is the Deputy Comment Editor at Trinity News and is currently in her Junior Sophister Year studying History and Political Science.