As a bookseller and a lifetime lover of the printed word who also takes earth stewardship seriously, I have thought and read a great deal on the subject of the environmental impacts of books in various formats. Sadly, most of what I read fails to present a full consideration of the relative costs of print versus electronic books. The scant half-page in the Winter 2013 issue of ForeWord magazine is, I’m sorry to say, hardly an exception to the usual run of superficial and incomplete additions to this vitally important discussion. I’ve written about this before, but the topic doesn’t go away, so here is a more current response to the specific recent article.
Aimee Jodoin’s “How Green Is Your Library?” gives a few figures for the carbon costs of printing books on paper. None are given for e-books (one is simply asked to assume that they are less), and there is no consideration of how long printed books last, let alone any acknowledgement whatsoever that books can be printed on anything other than paper. Anyone serious about this question cannot ignore William McDonough and Michael Braungart’s Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things. McDonough and Braungart’s thesis is that products can and should be designed for the life of their component materials, and physical copies of their book exemplify the feasibility of their thesis. Failure to take account of this way out of the dilemma presented so glibly in the popular press, when put forward in a magazine dedicated to books, is indefensible.
Jodoin states that “carbon emissions from both the production and use” of e-readers versus books makes the electronic devices “the more environmentally friendly choice for those who read more than 23 books per year.” This claim (others I’ve read put the figure at 100 books per year) is made despite “the typical lifespan of a year and a half” for an e-reader. I doubt very much that the skewed comparison takes the reading of used print books into account, but the omissions do not end there. No consideration is given to (a) the lifespan of a printed, bound book; (b) the number of readers any single printed book may serve in its lifetime; (c) rare minerals needed to produce electronic devices, along with political and working conditions in countries where these minerals must be obtained; or (d) the mountains of electronic waste generated by devices with a “typical lifespan of a year and a half,” to mention only obvious questions that come to mind without painstaking research. Signal towers? Privacy? Make up your own list of concerns and see how long it gets.
Yes, I am a retail bookseller, but I chose my work much more out of love and on principle than from any dream of riches. If I were ever to retire someday from bookselling, the future I see for myself as far as books is concerned is that of continuing to buy, borrow, and share printed books, both new ones and those that have been around the block a few times or have been loved and shared for a hundred years. If any of my paper books fall irretrievably to pieces, I’ll either keep the pieces for what they contain or tear up the pages to add to my compost pile.
An entire paper could be written on any of the points I raise here. Nevertheless, I hope I have made clear that I find the environmental case against print books inconclusive at best. At worse? Downright specious.
Okay, one last word here. Wouldn’t it be great if we human beings, the current dominant species on earth, could all work to keep our planet livable and beautiful without looking down on and dissing each other all the time? I confess that I was instantly put off simply by the title of the magazine article I’ve criticized here. You think you lead a green life? It seemed to sneer at me. You’re an old fogey, polluting the planet with your business and personal life full of old-fashioned books! So yes, I was instantly on the defensive.
And yes, I realize that newspapers and magazines—themselves print media, let us not forget; pot calling kettle black?—face tremendous fiscal challenges these days. Getting in readers’ faces and being controversial sells copies. In the war for readers, and in a time when reader attention span is diminishing (some say because more and more readers are scanning screens instead of taking in pages), an attention-getting headline is probably much more important than depth of treatment. I get all that.
I realize, too, that I am, in a sense, biting the hand that has fed me a few snacks, if not meals, because I’ve written a handful of paid reviews for the magazine in question. The publisher and editor are intelligent, hard-working, and charming people, women I call friends. I like and admire them very much, so make of that what you will. They have gone public with their point of view, and I am simply doing the same with mine. We’ve got a disagreement here, and intelligent people can disagree.
At the end of the day, after all, how any of us feels about anything is beside the point, because the degree of harm done to the earth we leave behind for succeeding generations will come not from how we felt, but from our actions and the consequences of those actions. So all greener-than-thou, one-upsmanship aside (here I picture the Paleolitic diet folks and the vegans carrying big signs, wearing printed t-shirts, and yelling at each other), what are the facts? It’s a serious question that deserves more than a few glib paragraphs.