Monday, April 4, 2011

Nancy Lord: The conservationist’s dilemma: books vs. the thing with a screen

Thanks to Nancy Lord for this 49 Writers guest post.  If you'd like to write a guest post for us, email

It seems that my household now possesses an i-Pad, and that one member is tap-tap-tapping on it at all hours. When I wake at night I’m in its glow. My own new book is available in an e-version on Kindle; I’ve seen it there, brought to life (or image) on a friend’s device.

I love books—the real things made from paper and glue, that we must now learn to call print books to distinguish them from the other kind—but I seem to be sliding into the new world regardless. I haven’t yet bought an e-book or used the available i-Pad, but I suspect it’s only a matter of time. E-book sales were 9 percent of the market in 2010, and the forecast is 15 percent for this year.

I try to walk lightly on the Earth and to make consumer choices that will do less, rather than more, harm to our increasingly ravaged environment. My new book, after all, is about climate change—about how northern people are coping and adapting—but underlying that, it’s a plea, really, to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. How can I feel good about being responsible for a hardcover book that’s one more thing that contributes to global warming?

Would it not be better for the planet if we stop cutting down all those trees to make paper, and to stop the energy use involved in shipping heavy books around the world? But what about all those metals and the petroleum-based plastic used in electronic devices? And the electricity to run them? This is a debate that’s been going on since the advent of e-books, similar to the debate about whether it’s better to buy a new Prius or continue driving the old Subaru. I knew the issues were complicated. I didn’t know which facts, never mind opinions, I should consider.

I finally did a little research (on my laptop computer.)

According to the Mr. Green columnist in Sierra magazine, you would need to read between 20 and 60 books on a single e-reader to offset just the global-warming emissions created by making and using the device.

Some actual numbers are that a print book—including production, transportation, and disposal—results (on average) in 7.5 kilograms of carbon dioxide equivalent (that’s greenhouse gases converted into carbon dioxide effect), and an i-Pad (as one example) generates 130 kilograms of carbon dioxide equivalent during its lifetime. In this calculation, you need to read 18 books on an i-Pad to be ahead in your carbon footprint. (Other analyses differ—one finding that the “break-even point” is not reached until 32 e-books have been read. And other manufacturers have been less forthcoming than Apple with information about the components and environmental impact of their devices, making comparisons difficult.)

Neither e-reader nor book, however, is all that bad compared to other energy uses, according to Mr. Green in Sierra. If you drive five miles to a bookstore, you will have used more energy than what it takes to make a book. Reading on an i-Pad uses less electricity than a lightbulb (and if you use it in the dark you don’t need another light source.)

The New York Times reported that a 2009 study by an organization called Cleantech Group “. . . finds that e-readers could have a major impact on improving the sustainability and environmental impact on the publishing industry, one of the world’s most polluting sectors. In 2008, the U.S. book and newspaper industries combined resulted in the harvesting of 125 million trees, not to mention wastewater that was produced or its massive carbon footprint.” (The Cleantech report, now somewhat dated, can be found at )

A little more internet browsing found that the debate is still all over the place, with electronics makers championing “green” e-readers and the book printing people doing the same for renewable-resource books. An individual needs to consider how long (s)he might use an e-reader before replacing it, and whether its parts will eventually be recycled. (40 million tons of e-waste are produced globally each year. In the U.S. only 18 percent of end-of-life electronics were recycled in 2007.) Will books take up space that could be better used? How do you value the fact that a book on a shelf may be used for a very long time, even hundreds of years, and by many people? (Or that it may just sit there, taking up space.) How do you value notes made in the margins and the (literally) bookmarked pages that a reader might return to? What if an e-reader’s made in Chinese sweatshops by children, with coal-fired power, from metals ripped out of environmentally destructive mines? Will you use your i-Pad for more than just reading books, perhaps replacing a larger computer?

Then there’s about water to consider. The production of a print book uses (on average) seven gallons of water. The production of an e-reader uses 79 gallons.

No easy answers.

If you want to know more and try to sort it out for yourself, here’s a good site I found, with a lot of links: (Disclosure: Eco-Libris is a company that plants trees to offset paper consumed by the publishing industry and to support “green” books—it’s “pro-book.”) A second good site is that of the Green Press Initiative, a program that works with the publishing industry to increase the use of recycled and certified (for forest sustainability) paper—and to otherwise “green” the industry. Look there on the sidebar for their “synthesis of various reports on the environmental impact of e-readers.”

It’s clear enough from checking any of these sites that the print book industry can go a long way to making environmental improvements—though whether e-book competition will help or hinder this is another open question. Deforestation globally is responsible for 25 percent of human-caused CO2 emissions. In the U. S., paper manufacture is the fourth largest industrial source of greenhouse gases. Currently U.S. publishers use less than 10 percent recycled fiber in their books.

And the typical bookstore returns 25-36 percent (yikes!) of its books to publishers, adding to transportation costs, and publishers then mostly incinerate, pulp, or throw those copies away.

The one thing that everyone should agree on is that the “greenest” way to read is to borrow library books or books from friends, to buy used books, and to share your own books with others and donate or sell those you’re through with. Libraries are a fabulous example of “reduce—reuse—recycle.” But even libraries are changing, adding e-books to their “collections” and delivering them to patrons at home, saving a trip to the building. Most Alaska libraries now participate in something called ListenAlaska, which provides e-books as well as downloadable audio books and music.

It’s a new world for readers and writers. Now, if I can only find someone to explain to me what it means for me to receive a royalty on my electronic sales of “25 percent of Net Receipts.” I know what a “ten percent royalty rate based on retail price” means, but I can’t seem to find out what electronic sales might amount to except that, according to my agent, “25 percent of Net Receipts” is “industry standard.”

Nancy Lord, a former Alaska Writer Laureate, is author most recently of
Early Warming: Crisis and Response in the Climate-Changed North.


Anonymous said...

Thanks for this post, Nancy, and the research behind it. Despite the way we often think we can quantify our choices by numbers, I can't help but think that the biggest loss in going to the e-book is the far less tangible reward of being able to pass along a physical object from person to person. The love--of both a book and a friend--conveyed by handing someone your worn copy of a favorite and saying, "Oh, read this, I loved it, and when you give it back, we can talk about it," just does not seem possible to me in the sharing of a data file. Not to mention the feel of reading a book from someone else--how it smells like his home, how the inscription teaches you her father's name, how what she underlined changes what you read. I don't think it's just nostalgia. The ways we can connect physical objects to intellectual or emotional experiences are increasingly limited when most of life happens on a screen. To me, that's the real loss.

Nancy Lord said...

Thanks, Anonymous. That's so beautifully stated--and so true. There's much to say about this issue. I tried to limit myself to the environmental part of the question, but I'd love to hear more from others.

Andromeda Romano-Lax said...

I wrote a long comment that just lost -- which tells us something right there about e vs. real books!

Briefly, again -- my point was about notations. I did an e-book experiment in January, reading a wonderful book by Nicholson Baker (The Anthologist). I forced myself to make an e-footnote wherever I would have scribbled a word or left a code or asterisk. It was a chore. Nothing is as easy as making quick marks with a pencil. The impact on writers rather than regular readers: less interactivity with the text-- at least at this point, unless e-reader designs are improved (and of course, they may be). It's my strong belief that developing one's own habits for systematically reading/annotating/ logging what one reads is an essential part of a writer's ongoing self-education.

Teresa said...

This is a great opportunity for both the print and ebook industries to find ways to lessen their impact. But all those numbers make my head spin!
It seems like comparing ebooks to print books is a lot like comparing a hand written letter to an email. They are two different things that seemingly serve one purpose, but do they really? To me a good book is more than just words on a page, it’s an experience, much like sitting down with a cup of tea to read a hand-written letter from a friend. I flip pages. I read and re-read. I underline and I share. For that reason, some books will only work for me in print. Other books however, the ones I’m only vaguely interested in or ones that serve more of a business-like purpose for me, are just fine on my Kindle. So I guess I’m not choosing between the two as much as I’m using them for different purposes.

Vivian said...

Nancy, thanks for the insight. As of this past Christmas, I now curl up in my bed at night in the soft glow of my Kindle. My husband rests beside me with his musty library book and book light. Though recently, after not reading my Kindle for a week, I literally tried to crack it open like a book as I once used to turn pages with a real book. Crack! yeah, that was the sound. It now looks like it's bent and doesn't close right. And my husband says that in order to take the cover off, one needs to read a manual (He had to put it together for me for my Christmas present). Evidently there's a manual explaining how to put the thing inside a special cover which makes it look like a book; actually, like a small Bible. Well, I bent the Kindle's binding, tying to open it the wrong way. I guess my hands must retain some form of "book memory" and refuse to let it go. Maybe I should go back to reading "real" books. By the way, once I get the kinks out of my Kindle, I'm buying your latest book electronically. I promise.

Heather Lende said...

The worry I have about ebooks and to some extent libraries- (and I'm a board member!) is what happens if no one buys what we write, in any form, but instead downloads or loans/borrows copies for free. How will writers support ourselves? Musicians have faced this, and they perform more. Will writers become traveling speakers? As you say, Nancy, no easy answers, just food for thought.