At Illogicon over the weekend I was on a panel discussing the likely date when books printed on paper would shift from the most common way to distribute long narrative prose to just another object of interest to collectors. I have no doubts books will be printed a century from now. Vinyl records are still being made, and there are still people who manufacture saddles a century after the automobile pushed horses from the roads. But, the lower cost, ease of purchase, and vast possibilities of choice all but guarantee that e-books are going to be what people mean when they say “book” a few decades from now.
One benefit mentioned on the panel was the notion that e-books are better for the environment. One of the panelists, Tony Daniels, scoffed at this notion and said that all the energy needed to store and distribute e-books had an environmental cost. I was incredulous that he believed that that cost was greater than the cost of manufacturing and distributing books. But, the more I’ve thought about the matter, the more I suspect he might be right.
First, the costs of paper books: It takes energy to produce and distribute them. Shipping cases of books around the country (and even internationally) uses up a lot of fuel. Storing the books in climate controlled warehouses also burns up energy. Since I work in the printing industry, I can assure you that printing them requires equipment that sucks down electricity, and the main component of books, paper, is also rough on the environment, as anyone who has ever lived near a paper mill will attest.
Compare this to the tiny bits of electricity need to send an e-book across a network to your Nook, and it’s hard to think that an e-book isn’t better for the environment.
And, for the short term, it might be. But, what about the cost over decades, or even centuries? One nice thing about books is that, with care, they can last a very long time. A book printed today can sit on your library shelf for twenty years and then be read without adding anything to that book’s environmental cost. Lots of books do just this… sit around on shelves. They aren’t often simply thrown away. As a commodity, they are heavily recycled, passing from user to user, and when they do finally hit the end of their useful lives, they can be pulped to make more paper.
Your e-books, on the other hand, are read on electronic devices that are designed to be obsolete after two years. Suppose you have a book you read all the time—let’s just use the Bible as an example. A printed Bible can last a person many years. Let’s say that one has a useful life of twenty years of frequent use before it falls completely apart. An e-book version of the Bible over that same twenty years is going to probably live on a dozen different electronic devices. Every time you want to read it, it will drain a bit of power from your battery, power that will have to be replaced from the electrical grid. All the dead and obsolete electronic devices discarded over that twenty year span are going to have batteries made of toxic metals that are terrible things to put into landfills. The environmental cost of the total waste generated by obsolete electronic devices over the course of a decade is almost certainly greater than the environmental cost of obsolete books.
Finally, if you are worried about CO2 in the atmosphere, most paper is made from trees grown especially for pulp. This means that these trees suck CO2 out of the air, where it gets locked into paper and removed from the atmosphere for many, many years.
Someone a bit more dedicated to doing the actual data gathering on the environmental costs might come to a different conclusion, but, I think Tony Daniels was right. E-books aren’t better for the environment, especially over a long span of time. If you want to save the world run out and buy all the physical books you can get your hands on. I don’t have the hard evidence to prove it, but I think that books with dragons on the cover are especially good to purchase if you care about the planet.