Thinking about your own carbon footprint kind of sucks. You start to think about the fact that you have a whole computer monitor devoted entirely to Spotify, a game console idling across the room, and the heater running full blast because it’s -5°F outside. That might be really specific to me, but you get the idea. It can make you feel bad about the way you live. So scientist Miles Traer took a different approach to show the impact one human or, in this case, superhuman, can have on the world around them. Instead of looking at the carbon footprint of a single person who is, let’s face it, mostly just trying to pay the bills and get by and doesn’t have time to think about how much energy their life consumes, he looked at some of our favorite superheroes. It turns out that, with a few notable exceptions, superheroes use a lot of energy.
The numbers he came away with are based on modern tech and some of the usually-foggy assumptions we make to make superpowers and fantasy tech work for these discussions, but they’re still pretty revealing.
According to Traer’s math, Oracle is the very worst offender of the bunch. As Batman’s personal hacker, Barbara Gordon has countless computers and servers at her beck and call, and she could consume enough electricity to produce as much as 1.3 billion pounds of carbon dioxide. The Flash comes in second place. To maintain his slim figure, he would have to eat a 12-foot-tall burger clocking in at 1200 cubic feet each week, or enough peanut butter to fill a cement truck in the same time period. Spider-Man is a surprisingly big offender, too, thanks to the limitations of modern tech. While Toby Maguire’s Spidey might’ve made his webbing internally, Traer assumes we’re talking about the version of Spider-Dork that makes his with external chemicals. The only thing capable of handling the stress Spidey puts on his webbing is carbon nanotubes. Traer calculates that would take about 8,500 homes worth of power to produce, or about 49 million pounds of carbon dioxide.
On the other end of the spectrum are DC characters Superman and Swamp Thing. Superman would be the world’s most efficient solar cell. For all the good he does flying around saving people, hooking him up to a power generator while he sits outside in a lawn chair might actually do the planet more good. Superman pulls in 140 gigawatts a second according to the comics, and the Man of Steel could certainly provide quite a bit of power with a pair of alligator clips and a tanning mirror. Swamp Thing, meanwhile, is a literal plant, so he has a negative carbon footprint.
We’ve had a lot of fun here, but let’s get down to it. We’re nerds. We can’t just let Traer drop all these numbers without poking at some of them. To say Oracle’s activities produce over a billion pounds of carbon dioxide seems way off. While she certainly has her own computers, there’s no indication anywhere in the comics that she has Amazon-sized data centers. She’s hacking into other computers out there that are already on and active. Do we also take into account the electricity that lights the streets Batman watches over? And Swamp Thing isn’t just a plant, he’s all the plants. He’s a plant elemental, and even the total destruction of his body doesn’t kill him. His negative carbon footprint is the negative footprint of all the plants on earth.
And the Flash? Yeah, the comics establish that he does eat a lot, but he’s not a beef-powered superhero. His powers come primarily from one simple source, the Speed Force, which basically explains anything and everything.
Even so, it’s fascinating to look at different heroes and think about what kind of resources their superheroism might use. It can put our own resource consumption into perspective and make an uncomfortable topic less uncomfortable to talk about and a lot more fun to debate. Do we incorporate the repair costs of a destructive character like the Hulk into these calculations? Where does an electricity-based hero like Black Lighting sit on the scale? Do we know how much money ultra-wealthy characters like Bruce Wayne, Oliver Queen, and Tony Stark spend on environmental initiatives? Just how much damage is Superman doing by not hooking himself up to a power generator in Arizona and sitting down with a good book?