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The Answer is Ebooks

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One of numerous variables that are often overlooked in calculating the environmental impacts of any product replacement is ecosystem services. It is an exceedingly difficult variable to include as it encompasses additional subvariables, many of which are difficult to fully quantify.

As publishers and authors scramble to figure out which of the quickly-evolving publishing paradigms will take hold, the issue of what product type is greener–ebooks or paper books–keeps coming up. In my mind, there is no longer any debate. The answer is clear. Ebooks are the preferred choice. Here’s why.

Looking Beyond Carbon

My wife (as many of my readers know) is a successful children’s book author primarily writing books about science and nature. Therefore, this issue is very close to our hearts.

Like most paper-based children’s books published these days, most of her books are sent overseas to be printed in Asia. One of our greatest fears about the sourcing of the paper used to print her books was recently confirmed: most of the paper used by Asian printers contains some pulp from virgin Indonesian rainforests.

This is absolutely devastating news to us. As avid naturalists who have literally spent thousands of hours in rainforests around the world, this confirmation of our fears hit us like a nail-riddled two-by-four in the face.

( See the Rainforest Action Network’s recently-released report, Turning the Page
on Rainforest Destruction: Children’s books and the future of Indonesia’s rainforests
)

The e-book versus treeware book calculations do not, in fact cannot, take into account the loss of ecosystem services from the destruction of complex, highly-biodiverse virgin rainforest habitat. Unlike virgin temperate forests that are not as complex or species diverse, tropical forest recovery is a significantly longer process, requiring centuries. In fact, it is not yet fully clear if a destroyed virgin tropical forest can actually recover.

Environmental calculations that simply compare carbon emissions are woefully myopic. Furthermore, the more robust cradle-to-grave analyses (sometimes called life cycle analysis) are inadequate at fully quantifying the scope of ecosystem services. Ecologists are still discovering the immense complexity and real-world economic value provided by intact, virgin rainforest— vital services that are lost (possibly for good) when the land is destroyed.

Suffice it to say that ecosystem services of all forest habitat are numerous. And when comparing temperate to tropical forest ecosystems, those factors are often multiplied many fold. I will not go into the currently-known ecosystem services provided by virgin rainforest habitat. You can read the linked-to report to learn some of these.

Are We Hypocritical?

Of course, April and I did not turn our backs on the fact that books are printed on paper. Even before publishers started sending the majority of their children’s books overseas to be printed in Asia, we knew that forests in Europe and North America were being destroyed to print her books. Most of those forests, however, were non-virgin forests, having long ago been destroyed. We took some solace in the fact that very few virgin acres of temperate forest were being decimated for producing paper.

Yes, there are many environmental impacts of foresting, paper manufacturing, printing, and distribution of which the book publishing industry is complicit, but we rationalized that the environmental benefit of April’s message resulted in a net positive. With this recent revelation, the environmental calculus may have shifted to a net negative.

So the next time you read or hear a debate about the environmental costs of ebooks versus paper-based books, think about what is happening with the production of paper-based children’s books. When it comes to children’s books, we feel that the answer is clear. Paper-based children’s books need to be phased out. Paperless ebooks are the better alternative.*

What are We Doing About this Issue?

As some of you know, my project of the last several years is to build a pioneering ebook venture that will redefine the concept of book publishing and sales in the Web 2.0 / Web 3.0 Internet age.

My resolve has been strengthened many fold with this unfortunate news. I am redoubling my efforts and will be unveiling our new publishing vision later next year.

* It is not currently possible to fully account for the actual environmental costs of producing ebooks and ebook readers. But we feel that once those costs are taken into account (materials mining, solvents used for electronic component manufacturing, energy used in production and distribution, usage patterns, etcetera), the ebook ecconomy will still turn out to be more environmentally friendly than the old-style, habitat-destroying, paper-based publishing. Producing any product–hardcopy or digital–requires resource exploitation. We believe that fewer resources and significantly less sensitive habitat will be destroyed if the publishing economy transitions to being fully-digital based.

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