Paperless Publishing Last year, Dallas Kachan published a new taxonomy of clean technology industries. I scrolled through it recently, looking for a particular industry that I believe is going to be more important for the husbandry of resources and environmental protection than it’s often given credit for. As expected, I didn’t find it mentioned. In fairness, it wasn’t excluded, either; I can fit it in under “Clean Industry,” subcategory “Production,” and beneath that either “Resource utilization” or “Process efficiency.”
But I believe it deserves mention for its own sake, due to the sheer importance – and thus the potential environmental impact – of information in the economy of the future. I’m referring to the emergence of paperless publishing, of which this blog itself is an example.
Publishing online, blogs, social media, e-books, all of these constitute paperless publishing. Whenever written content or photos is made available to the public without any printing being involved, that’s paperless publishing. It takes forms radically more diverse than the printed publishing forms of the past – not only books, newspapers and magazine articles, but many forms of interactive and user-defined publication as well. It has exploded in sheer volume compared to traditional publication constrained by the economic limits that apply to printing.
The economy of the future will see an increasing share of wealth, and an even more rapidly increasing share of employment, in activities relating to the production and distribution of information. While the development of poor countries, together with the growing global population until it stabilizes, will also increase the demand for agricultural and manufacturing outputs, growth in the advanced economies will disproportionately be in the information sector.
The total energy use of the Internet, including the energy required to manufacture computers and other components together with the electricity consumption of using them, was estimated in a study published this year in Contraposition to be between 1 and 2 percent of global energy use. While that is not a negligible amount of energy consumption, it is tiny compared to what is used in transportation, manufacturing, or the heating or cooling of our homes and businesses. A person who makes his living in one aspect or another of paperless publishing has a far smaller professional environmental footprint than someone who works in manufacturing or agriculture, or even most services.
In one sense It’s not a realistic question to ask how much more in the way of energy and natural resources generally would be consumed if all Internet publication were to be attempted using traditional methods (that would simply be impossible). But to the extent that paperless publication replaces traditional publication, to the extent on-line publication replaces newspapers and magazines, or e-books replace printed books, the question does become reasonable. We may also ask how much can be saved if teleconferencing replaces business travel, solar panel kits replace coal plants, and email replaces traditional letters, both of which are already happening and both of which save transportation energy as well as publication energy per se.