Hey Mr. Green,
How come your book is only available in paper? Isn’t it a little hypocritical to help people learn how to better live green when you don’t even offer your book in eBook format (all top selling eReaders can view the epub format)? Or perhaps the carbon footprint of manufacturing eReaders is worse than printing books on paper. I really would like to know the answer because I’ve had a hard time giving up the tactile experience of reading a book. —Cyndi, in Chicago
Well, the short answer is that my book first appeared before e-readers really took off. Maybe the time is at hand for an e-version. But I’m not convinced that e-readers are environmentally superior to old-fashioned books. To see why, go to “Pixels or Print,” http://sierraclub.typepad.com/mrgreen/2010/08/paper-or-pixels-.html, which shows how making and using one e-reader can have a carbon footprint as big as that of at least 20 books.
But if the dread of the carbon footprint of your books is ruining your reading, you can actually pay to plant trees, at a dollar a tree, to offset the books’ carbon emissions, thanks to Eco-Libris, http://www.ecolibris.net/sales.asp?trees=10&x=38&y=12 a publishers’ group that works to reduce its carbon footprint.
Since traditional books and e-books involve such radically different technologies, and there are so many variables, comparing them is quite dicey. One study of Amazon’s Kindle by Cleantech reported that Kindle’s footprint equals that of 22.5 books. This seems to be in the ballpark, because a comparison Apple’s estimate of the carbon footprint for its iPad to a study done for the book industry shows that the iPad’s carbon footprint is as big as that of 14 to 26 books. But keep in mind that if a paper book is read multiple times, its footprint just keeps on a-shrinkin’. This shrink, however, could be partly reversed because of the carbon footprint of artificial lighting when you read at night. A comprehensive analysis has to include such factors. Those blasted variables.
This observation about multiple readings speaks directly to the nature of my book, which, as I boldly declare in the introduction, I hope will take its rightful place on “every toilet tank in America.” In a bathroom, a book’s possibilities of achieving the virtues of multiple readership are indeed greatly enhanced. It’s difficult, however, to imagine an e-reader serving the same function, especially if the device is hooked to a charger and vulnerable to a fizzing burnout in a sink or toilet bowl.
So, be not ashamed of your fondness for “the tactile experience of reading a book.” A book experience is obviously different from an e-reader experience, because a book has a tactile and visual presence that puts it more in the category of an art work than a mere data-carrying gadget. A book can call to us from an airport kiosk, a library shelf, a coffee table, or the hands of a commuter reading on a train, just like a dog-eared old issue of Sierra in a dentist’s office can beckon us to environmental wisdom. I do not believe we need to become so environmentally puritanical that we surrender all such small pleasures and serendipitous delights.
Considering the vast amount of paper we waste, concern about books may be a bit fussy in any case. Books account for less than 2.5 percent of the total volume of paper and paperboard produced each year in the United States. Strange coincidence: the 1.65 million tons of paper used to manufacture books is about equal to the weight of electronic gear that gets dumped each year, according to EPA data.
It might even be possible to play Devil’s advocate for the sensible use of paper, challenging the widely held papyrophobic doctrine of the moral superiority of a paperless universe. After all, paper is derived mostly from a renewable resource obtained near the source of its manufacture, made relatively close to home, can last 500 years, and is easily recycled. By contrast, e-readers (and computers in general) are built from non-renewable resources and may contain toxic substances gathered from Lord knows where, often made at a great distance from home, doomed to a short lifespan, and difficult to recycle. Over 60 percent of paper gets recycled, compared to 20 percent of electronic devices. Also, 50 to 75 percent of the energy used to make paper is obtained as a byproduct of processing pulp, therefore much of the carbon emitted by papermaking is reabsorbed by the forest from whence it came, in contrast to the fossil fuel energy consumed by e-reader manufacture and use.
Because paper has an obvious physical presence that can be messy (or even distressing, as in my office), we believe that avoiding it automatically makes for a cleaner environment. By contrast, we view computers and their function as neat, almost immaterial, angelic presences. Consider terms like “The Cloud,” “wireless, “network,” “cyberspace,” not to mention “Web” itself, a transparent gossamer. “Hardware” is about as close as we come to materiality in cyberspeak, but it’s usually less prominent than the “software” and “memory” that comprise the soul of that small plastic body. (And our technological genius keeps making that body itself smaller, lighter, and, well, less material.)
This is emphatically not a Luddite knock on e-books and computers, but a plea to recognize their sheer materiality and to do something about it, instead of deluding ourselves about their true impact. We’ve made some progress in safer processing of their toxic guts, in that 16 states now have electronics recycling laws, but far more needs to be done in this area. We also need to face the materiality of computer energy use. Servers alone now take about 3 percent of the total electricity in the United States, according to EPA projections. Quite the cloud—of carbon dioxide. Many more tons of the stuff are added to that cloud by people who simply neglect to turn off their devices when not in use, or who don’t bother to set a quick sleep mode. The increased use of appliances and electronic devices is beginning to offset big gains in energy conservation such as improved insulation and more efficient heating and cooling. The International Energy Agency indicates that unless we demand much greater efficiency and more prudent use of electronic devices, their share of energy consumption will grow to the point where they equal major energy uses such as water heating and refrigeration.