The Ecological Footprint of Information

Easter Island status symbol

Declaring e-books to be the future of publishing may be a bit premature.

What are the energy requirements of a paper book? They probably aren’t that much. Medieval monks and Gutenberg churned them out, at a much slower rate, long before the industrial revolution.

The energy requirements of an e-book are likely analogous to the energy requirements of computer equipment. Computers are extremely energy-intensive. The electricity to run the computer is fairly minor; about 81% of all the energy used by computers is expended in the process of manufacturing the computer. The typical household computer actually consumes 1.3 times more energy than a refrigerator.

For an e-book, much of the energy required is the upfront cost to get the reader; each additional book you read doesn’t add that much to the energy. If you get an e-book reader just to read one book, it’s clearly a waste of energy; though at some number of books it is likely more efficient to use the e-book reader. I don’t have any precise calculations, but I suspect that to make an e-book reader worthwhile from an energy point of view, you’d have to do a lot of reading.

Each additional e-book you get for your e-book reader doesn’t require that much additional energy, a distinct advantage over paper books, where each additional paper book has a fixed additional energy cost.  On the other hand, you don’t have to purchase additional paper books to read them, either — consider your friendly local public library.

What about the materials cost involved? For a paper book, there are the trees, of course, then the ink, and then the equipment required to process paper and print the physical book. Trees are theoretically renewable. But trees are spared altogether by using the e-book reader.

Computers also require materials; among other things, supplies of cadmium, lead, and mercury. Not only are these highly toxic, but they are increasingly rare. Allowing a very modest 2% growth rate in production and known reserves, we have 20 years of cadmium left, 24 years of mercury, and 19 years of lead. (Taking out the 2% growth extends the life of these reserves 4 to 6 years.) In the past we’ve been able to expand our metal reserves by using cheap energy to blast our way through lower-quality ores. But now our energy supplies themselves are depleting.

I’ve still got an open mind on this subject.  It may be that we could devise e-book readers that don’t require all the heavy metals and energy-intensive manufacturing.  But I don’t think that anyone has really thought out the environmental implications of e-book readers.

I suspect that e-book readers will become one of many energy-intensive complicated gadgets that aren’t going to make the cut in the coming energy descent.  E-book readers will become, at best, a tool for busy researchers and a toy for the rich. At worst, they will remind us of the giant stone statues on Easter Island — a relic to the failure of our civilization to think ahead.

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