The potential energy of being entertained

Netflix just published a report drafted by its Sustainability Accounting Standards Board, estimating – among other things – its environmental footprint for operations during the year 2019. According to the report, as The Guardian columnist Arwa Mahdawi writes:

Binge-watching Netflix doesn’t just fry your brain; it may also be frying the planet. The streaming service’s global energy consumption increased by 84% in 2019 to a total of 451,000 megawatt hours – enough to power 40,000 average US homes for a year.

This is staggering but not surprising. Through history, the place at which energy is consumed to produce a product has been becoming less and less strongly associated with where the product is likely to be purchased. The invention of sails, the steam engine, the internal combustion engine and then satellites each rapidly transformed the speed at which goods could traverse Earth’s surface as well as the speed at which consumers could make more and more informed – therefore more and more rational – choices, assisted by economic reforms like globalisation and foreign direct investment.

The most recent disruption on this front was wrought, of course, by the internet and a little later the cloud. Now, with industries like movie-making, gaming, digital publishing and even large-scale computing, nothing short of a full-planet energy-accounting exercise makes sense. At the same time economic power, inequality and effective governance remain unevenly distributed, leading to knotty problems about determining how much each consumer of a company’s product is effectively responsible for the total energy required to make all products in that batch (since scale also matters).

Such accounting exercises have become increasingly popular, as they should be; private enterprises like Netflix as well as government organisations have started counting their calories – their carbon intake, output, emissions, trade, export, etc. – as a presumable first step towards limiting greenhouse gas emissions and helping keep Earth’s surface from warming any more than is already likely (2º C by 2100).

There is a catch, of course: it’s difficult to affect or even estimate the relative contribution of one’s operations to the effort to restrict global warming without also accounting for one’s wider economic setting. For example, Netflix likely displaced the DVD rental industry as well as stole users, and their respective carbon ‘demand’, from cable. So Mahdawi’s ringing the alarm bells based on Netflix’s report alone is only meaningful in a stand-alone scenario in which the status quo is ‘memoryless’.

However, even in this contextually limited aspiration to lower emissions and its attendant benefits for human wellbeing, joy, hope and optimism don’t seem to feature as much or, in many cases, at all.

Knowing Earth is already headed for widespread devastation can certainly smother action and deflate resolve. But while journalists and researchers alike have been debating the pros and cons of using positive or negative messaging as the better way to spur climate action, their most popular examples are rooted in quantifiable tasks or objects: either “Earth is getting more screwed by the hour but you can help by segregating your trash, using public transport and quitting meat” or “Sea-levels are rising, the Arctic is melting and heat-waves are becoming more frequent and more intense”.

It seems as if happiness cannot fit into either paradigm without specifying the number of degrees by which it will move the climate action needle. So it also becomes easily excluded from conversations about climate-change adaptation and mitigation. As Mahdawi writes in her column,

Being a conscientious consumer does not mean you have to turn off your wifi or chill with the Netflix. But we should think more critically about our data consumption. Apple already delivers screen-time reports; perhaps tech services should start providing us with carbon counts. Or maybe Netflix should implement carbon warnings. Caution: this program contains nudity, graphic language and a hell of a lot of energy.

If Netflix did issue such a warning, it would no longer be a popular pastime.

One of the purposes of popular culture, beyond its ability to channel creative expression and empower artists, is entertainment. We consume the products of popular culture, nucleated as music, dance, theatre, films, TV shows, books, paintings, sculptures and other forms, among other reasons to understand and locate ourselves outside the systems of capitalist production, to identify ourselves as members of communities, groups, cities or whatever by engaging with knowledge, objects – whether a book or the commons – or experiences that we have created, to assert that we are much more than where we work or what we earn.

Without these spaces and unfettered access to them, we become less able to escape the side-effects of neoliberalism: consumerism, hyper-competitiveness, social isolation and depression. I’m not saying you are likelier to feel depressed without Netflix but that Netflix is one of many sources of cultural information, and is therefore an instrument with which people around the world gather in groups based on cultural preferences – forming, in turn, a part of the foundation on which people are inspired to have new ideas, are motivated to act, and upon which they even expand their hopes and ambitions.

Of course, Netflix is itself a product of 21st century capitalism plus the internet. Like iTunes, YouTube, Prime, Disney, etc. Netflix is a corporation that has eased access to many petabytes of entertainment data across the globe but by rendering artists and entertainers even less powerful than they were and reducing their profits (rather, limiting their profits’ growth). The oft-advanced excuse, that the company simply levies a fee in return for easing barriers to discover new audiences, doesn’t always square off properly with the always-increasing labour required to create something new. So simply asking Netflix to not display a warning about the amount of energy required to produce a show may seem like a half-measure designed to fight off all of capitalism’s monsters except one.

We have a responsibility to iteratively replace the most problematic ways in which we profit from labour and generate wealth with practices that improve economic equality, social dignity, and access to education, healthcare and good living conditions. However, how do we balance this responsibility with a million people being able to watch a cautionary documentary about the rise of fascism in 1930s’ Germany, a film about the ills of plastic use or an explainer about the ways in which trees do and don’t fight global warming?

Binge-watching is bad – in terms of consuming enough energy to “power 40,000 average US homes for a year” as well as in other ways – but book-keepers seem content to insulate the act of watching itself from what is being watched, perhaps in an effort to determine the absolute worst case scenario or because it is very hard to understand, leave alone discern or even predict, the causal relationships between how we feel, how we think and how we act. However, this is also what we need: to accommodate, but at the same time without being compelled to quantify, the potential energy that arises from being entertained.