April 1, 2010

Digital or Print? The Environment and our "False Dilemma"


“If you thought you were saving forests and protecting the environment by going paperless…think again.”

Over at PBS Mediashift, Don Carli covers the ever-persistent concern of using digital media to “help” or “save” the environment. But Carli isn’t promoting that you add “please consider the environment before printing this email” to the bottom of your digital correspondence, or recommending that you pay your bills online. He’s not arguing against it either, but rather argues that this choice between digital or print is a “false dilemma” — one that makes us feel guilty about using paper products and eliminates any sort of concern for the environmental impact of the digital sphere and the internet. But really, we should at this point be more concerned about the latter. All of our use of digital media, the internet, cell phones, iPads, etc. is the cause of record-breaking global energy use. And that record-breaking energy use is becoming worse for the environment than paper use. We’ve just yet to realize the consequences.

The difficult part in recognizing the environmental hazards of digital media is the fact that the energy use and backend are unseen. When we search the internet, we don’t think of Google and Yahoo‘s massive server farms all over the world, or the fact that a $20 uptick in our monthly utility bills is causing enormous increases in Appalachian coal strip-mining and deforestation. To us, it seems cheap and harmless. And because we can see the waste that book production produces, by lessening that waste, it makes us think that not only is digital media harmless, but it is helpful. Unfortunately, that is a misperception. (See this earlier MobyLives report, “How Green is Your Ebook?”.)

So when claiming that book production is killing the planet and reading on Kindles/iPads/etc. will save the environment, think again. The digital revolution might actually be hastening global warming, deforestation, and the release of poisonous emissions into the atmosphere. I can’t recommend Carli’s piece more strongly: read it here.