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Two Takes on Well-Being: One Confused, One Out of Its Mind

We contest OECD and American Express reports on well-being and cloud computing.

The Organisation for Economic Co-Operation and Development, or OECD, is comprised of the world’s thirty-four most economically advanced democracies—from the US to Mexico, Turkey to Australia. It recently released a report called How’s Life? 2013: Measuring Well Being. This year’s installment (a previous study was published in 2011) focused on four topics: “the impact of the global financial crisis on well-being; gender differences in well-being; well-being in the workplace; and sustaining well-being over time.”1 

The report incarnates an odd mixture of confidence and anxiety as its authors attempt to balance capitalist growth with environmental risk. They acknowledge that “[q]uality of life is strongly affected by a healthy physical environment. The impact of environmental pollutants, hazardous substances and noise on people’s health is sizeable. The environment also matters intrinsically as many people attach importance to the beauty and the healthiness of the place where they live, and because they care about the degradation of the planet and the depletion of natural resources.”

But the report then diminishes the significance of environmental well-being by redefining it as part of capitalism: as “natural capital,” which it places on an equal footing with three other “capital stocks”—economic, human, and social. These capital stocks must be sustained in order to maintain average levels of “well-being outcomes.” It’s a tricky maneuver, evaluated through “policy relevant indicators” that can be monitored and maintained inside a growth engine that is also supposedly sustainable.

The report reminds readers that climate change is the “mother of all externalities”—which means current accounting systems are incapable of internalizing environmental costs into the bottom-line measurements of economic capital stocks—but punts this fundamental problem down the line for future analysts to resolve.

Nevertheless, its final chapter admits to various scenarios where environmental degradation and risks threaten to become capitalism’s Achilles heal. This earnest effort to fuse incompatible, even mutually self-destructive, elements together under the rubric of capital stocks requires a faith that borders on psychosis

Which brings us to the loony tunes of American Express and its recent white paper (since when does a credit card company produce white papers?) called Cloud Computing 101: It’s a Brave New Virtual World. The title alone should raise alarms about AmEx’s grip on things, as it refers to Aldous Huxley’s deeply dystopic novel Brave New World, which is about technology animating and directing people’s lives.2

Perhaps ironically, perhaps ignorantly, AmEx troped Huxley to entitle its jointly-produced primer, which avows that the cloud “has made technology globally available to an evergrowing [sic]user audience. New technologies continually pop up, promising to increase efficiency, reduce costs and improve work effectiveness all while being faster, smarter and smaller.”

We could almost excuse the OECD’s delusions of sustainable capitalism next to AmEx’s feckless pitch for cloud computing. Even advocates for the expansion of the electronics and dirty-power industry concede that the latter has toxic origins and appetites. Just last year, the National Mining Association and the American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity avowed that “Cloud Begins with Coal.” They almost boasted that the world’s information and communications technologies use 1500 terawatt hours each year—the same as Japan and Germany’s overall energy use combined.3

That’s 10% of global electricity—and 50% more energy than aviation uses. Next time someone who is on line all day and all night, or who watches movies streaming to their tablet, calls you out for flying in order to do your job, learn something, or keep your family humanly linked, offer some of those “big data” to their moralistic selves. The Association and the Coalition even quote Greenpeace research, against the grain, on the horrendous environmental implications of data centers, as support for the endless coal opportunities to come! Big mining and big coal are excited at the importance of their polluting ways for the present and future of the cloud.4

It’s time to return to the folks who told the OECD about the importance of the environment to their well-being. They were trying to bring some sanity into the current political economy. We all need that hard-hitting reality check, because the contradictions of growth versus environment under sustainable capitalism are not going away. We must connect the dots and confront the dangers that the technological drivers of digital capitalism pose to our fragile ecology. As individual workers, consumers, and citizens, that means attending to the life cycle of the commodities and processes we encounter, such as the existence of laptops before, during, and after our use of them and the coal-fired energy that is needed each time we make a simple search on a browser. And we need to think of ourselves not only as consumers, but as workers and citizens whose well-being depends on a fragile environment.