Saturday, April 09, 2011

Paperless Cuts

Ted Genoways:

In July, Amazon.com revealed that sales of e-books were now outstripping the sales of hardcover books, with the possibility that their sales will double that of hardcovers by the end of the year. With the appearance of Apple’s iPad in April—and its stunning sales of four million units in its first four months—Barnes & Noble dropped the price of its Nook e-reader and Amazon announced the release of a cheaper version of its Kindle in July. Each of these companies is expected to unveil souped-up and cheaper e-readers in time for Christmas. All of which has media gurus heralding this as the year that publishing will finally go paperless—and trumpeting that change as the latest step in the greening up of American consumerism.

But the New York Times recently calculated that the environmental impact of a single e-reader—factoring in the use of minerals, water, and fossil fuels along the manufacturing process—is roughly the same as fifty books. At first that sounds encouraging; after all, even the smallest personal library contains fifty volumes. But the real problems come in lifespan. At present, the average e-reader is used less than two years before it is replaced. That means that the nearly ten million e-readers expected to be in use by next year would have to supplant the sales of 250 million new books—not used or rare editions, 250 million new books—each year just to come out footprint-neutral. Considering the fact that the Association of American Publishers estimates that the combined sales of all books in America (adult books, children’s books, textbooks, and religious works) amounted to fewer than 25 million copies last year, we have already increased the environmental impact of reading by tenfold. Moreover, it takes almost exactly fifty times as much fossil fuel production to power an iPad for the hours it takes to read a book as it would take to read the same book on paper by electric light.

By some estimates, small electronics already account for more global carbon emissions than the airline industry, and the wave of new handheld and portable devices—from smartphones to laptops to e-readers—stand poised to wreak untold havoc, much of it in developing nations.

...Taken together, these essays reveal the hidden price of the paperless revolution. Every MacBook and iPad, every Kindle and Droid contains the labor of hundreds of invisible workers, uncounted lives foreshortened by poisoned water and air, and a landscape permanently scarred by our voracious scavenging. No matter how sleek and earth-friendly these devices may appear, they rise from the dirt and are mined with sweat and with blood. This is not to say that our information age is inherently bad. The protests after last year’s elections in Iran were largely organized over Twitter and documented via YouTube. Across Africa, farmers are using smartphones to access daily market prices via the Internet, assuring fairer compensation for their crops. This summer our government used Facebook to enlist and organize volunteers for the cleanup of the Gulf oil spill. But in our rush to embrace the new—the smaller, the faster, the more powerful—we must not confuse revolutionary products with revolutions in production. We must not forget that even in this age of enlightenment, much of the world remains stooped in black tunnels, tracing veins deeper into darkness.

I know a couple gadget-junkies to whom I'm going to enjoy returning their smugness over my extensive book-buying habits. And at least we're not waging imperial occupations over the trees necessary to produce my books.