Friday, June 27, 2014

Carbon footprints in the sand: the environmental impact of pixel vs print

The twenty-four hour news cycle and the web have their unintentioned benefits (the specter of Ann Coulter commenting on the un-American nature of soccer can be out of one's consciousness within 24 hours, thank goodness.) The permanence of the printed word, too, itself continues to inspire hope in some unusual corners -- the information on the web can't be piled up for later reading-and-tossing quite like newsprint: you have to go look for what you want on the web. but on the other hand, the jury's still out on the environmental impact of pixel vs. newsprint.

The New York Times  ran an article in its Paper Cuts blog about the ongoing question of the web's environmental impact versus newspapers' "dead-tree existence" -- Nicholson Baker finds that electronic server farms may have a broader ecological impact than the processing of ink and newsprint -- and existing research figures suggest a somewhat-frustrating draw about the relative impact of each.

Until the web can be piled up like the Sunday paper in black, smudgy drifts next to the Barcalounger, it seems like newsprint will survive in some form far more messy than Kindle, and more reliably necessary than cable news. Here's an excerpt from the Jennifer Schuessler article, which can be read in full at The New York Times.

Dave Eggers, the fledgling press baron behind The San Francisco Panorama, the much-ballyhooed (and drop-dead gorgeous) newspaper released in December by the McSweeney’s gang, has been making the rounds with his full-throated argument that the future of the news business can be written not just in pixels but with old-fashioned paper and ink.

“There are a lot of things that newsprint can do uniquely well that the Web cannot,” Eggers recently told The Chicago Tribune. “The two forms could coexist, instead of the zero-sum situation that we seem stuck in.”

As it happens, The Panorama includes an apologia for its own glorious dead-tree existence, in the form of an essay by the novelist Nicholson Baker considering “the strange possibility that the transferring of information digitally is more environmentally destructive than printing it.” (Alas, and perhaps to the point, Baker’s article, along with most of The Panorama, is not available online.)

Baker, who is on record as loving Wikipedia and Google but not the Kindle, visits the Otis paper mill in Jay, ME., which was once the world’s largest but was shut down forever last spring. The shuttering of Otis may seem like good news for trees. But the biggest threat to the Maine woods, Baker suggests, isn’t logging. It’s the kind of low-density development that comes when the logging stops.

As Don Carli, a research fellow at the Institute for Sustainable Communication, put it to Baker, “Hamburgers and condos kill more trees than printed objects ever will.”

As Baker reports, some 18 paper mills closed in the United States in 2009, with more than 34 paper machines permanently shuttered. Meanwhile, the growth rate of the huge server farms needed to fuel the Internet and related gadgets is “metastasizing,” as Carli puts it to Baker.

The carbon footprint of data center server farms — roughly equal to that of paper mills today — is set to double in the next five years. And those server farms are often powered by coal, which tends to be harvested in far less sustainable ways than wood pulp. ...

Right now, there are no good accountings of the environmental impact of pixels versus paper. Until we have a better understanding, Carli said, let’s stop green-bashing the print media.

“It may provide more benefit to the environment and society than you realize,” he said. “Print itself doesn’t have a larger footprint than digital.” Without better measurements, “you can’t really make a case either way.” ...

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