This article will explore the widespread belief that e-books and online content is environmentally more friendly than hard copy paper books. First, however lets take a look at the history of technology.
The invention and adoption of every technology is a response to a problem that existed in the past. Today, we tout the coming age of (clean energy powered) electric or hybrid cars as solution to reducing the fossil fuel consumption, air pollution and CO2 emissions caused by internal combustion engine powered cars. The car however was itself a response to an even earlier environmental problem – the vast amounts of manure on city streets caused by the horse and buggy.
At the time of the invention of the internal combustion engine, no one considered CO2 emissions or climate change to be a problem. This illustrates the law of unintended consequences. We cannot foresee all the environmental impacts of technology, let alone foresee how it will be used. The internet is prime example, invented by the military for fast, secure communications, it has become a worldwide tool for commerce, social interaction and political movements (as well as porn, online gambling and Facebook poking).
The proliferation of this technology has resulted in enormous data centres, communication networks and billions of end user devices (computers, iPads, iPhones) consuming vast amounts of energy. According to Yale, Since 1990, household energy consumption has been rising worldwide at 3.4 percent a year, in large part because of the rapid spread and increasing sophistication of electronic devices. At this rate, household energy consumption doubles every 20 years.
Lets compare the environmental impact of the production, transportation, use and disposal of paper versus electronic content. Remember, all electronic content is stored on and accessed through electronic devices. This is the elephant in the room. Continue reading