Starve a Bookworm, Save a Tree: The Pros and Cons of Going Paperless

One of the great benefits of technology nowadays is the ability to do many, many things electronically. With a decent connection (even dial-up, used by poor stone-age folks like me), a willingness to trust sensitive data to cyberspace, and companies offering e-services, you can do everything from pay your bills to read the newspaper online. And, of course, you can e-communicate, too: Why write a crotchety old letter when you could e-mail, IM, blog, teleconference…?

Besides the general convenience and speed that going paperless provides, managing your life electronically also can help out the Earth. When you go paperless you require less paper, ergo you reduce the number of trees that have to be cut down, ground up into pulp, and then magically transformed into yet another bill, catalogue, or credit card offer.

The number of trees saved when you do it the e-way is pretty significant. Paxton Ramsdell at The Nature Conservancy shares these numbers:

If only one in five households switched to electronic bills, statements and payments, the collective impact would save 151 million pounds of paper, avoid filling 8.6 million garbage bags and eliminate 2 million tons of greenhouse gas emissions.1

Since our friends the trees do so much for us, from sequestering carbon to producing oxygen to inspiring our wonder and our fear, you can feel great about going paperless in every way. Yes, sometimes being an environmentalist has its benefits–in this case convenience cum sustainability. So why not go e-green?

Well, here is one possibly good reason to be wary of going paperless in toto. At least I think it is a good one.

Long before I was a conscientious environmentalist, I was…a bookworm. And more than that, I was…a bibliophile…a book addict with a serious craving. I have an affinity for old books in particular. The ones that make you sneeze with dust when you open them. The ones that require tweezers and padded cushions even to be read. The ones that cannot even be looked at too hard or too long lest you damage them. The ones that require climate-controlled basement rooms without windows kept precisely at specific temperatures and humidity levels.

My point? In the push to go paperless, for whatever reason, books and other printed reading materials are joining in…or being pushed in, that is. Nowadays, you can do all of your reading electronically–magazines and newspapers and blogs, of course, but even full books…and even the “classics” of literature and human culture from ancient to modern times. E-books and other e-texts are widely available, easy to access, and fairly reliable representations of the original printed documents–unless the original itself is electronically produced, as is often the case.

This death (or at least endangerment) of the dusty old book really bothers me for a number of reasons. When it comes to reading something for any extended period of time, I just cannot do it on a screen. It seems my attention span shrinks to that of a hyperactive gnat. On a screen, the otherwise lovely characters turn into strange hieroglyphs and alien symbols. Maybe the screen refresh is throwing off my mental comprehension processes? Maybe the electromagnetic waves are distorting my aura? Who knows!

Whatever the case, I just do not like to read electronic texts. Period. I confess it, and I have no plans to reform or to kick my print habit. When I want to read, I turn off my computer and plop a lovely old book in my lap. I am a bookworm, not an e-bookworm; I squirm my way through pages of paper, not wires and liquid crystal diodes and circuit boards. When it comes time to get my reading fix, I plug my brain in to the printed page and unplug my internet connection…and the phone, too, lest I be disturbed!

I will say in my own defense, though, that I do take advantage of e-bills and any other paperless life management that does not clash with my needs as a bookworm. So I am not completely renouncing e-documents or e-communication. In fact, I strongly support going paperless!

But I know there are other bookworms and bibliophiles just like me out there who have nightmares of libraries turned into cybercafés, of books old and new turned into pulp for junk mail. As unrealistic as either of these scenarios are, the underlying issue is definitely real and legitimate.

Books have been and always will be an integral part of human culture. But in the race to reduce humanity’s impact on the Earth by reducing our consumption of resources, books and other printed documents are in very definite danger–even if not of total extinction.

Among the many hard choices that we environmentalists often must make, then, is this decision to starve a bookworm or save a tree. I guess the best I can do as a bookworm is to try and be a green bookworm. I can try to regulate my diet and not turn into a fat little grub, to get some e-exercise by going online as regularly as possible, and to get my fix with old books instead of new ones (i.e., using a library–which is free, too!) in order to avoid requiring more trees to perish.

Boy, sustainability sure is not easy sometimes!

Image credit: United States Federal Government, via Wikimedia Commons.
1. Ramsdell, Paxton. “Everyday Environmentalist: Go Paperless.” Nature.org. The Nature Conservancy. 2008. 29 July 2008 <http://www.nature.org/activities/art25356.html>.

What are your thoughts on going paperless–as a step towards sustainability and as a potential “threat” to books? Do you like/prefer to read on the screen or in print? And what are some of your other “guilty pleasures” in terms of sustainability?

  1. Sash

    I am a huge bookworm, too. I think that’s one of the requirements to be a librarian. Reading e-books on a computer screen kills my eyes over time and I usually try to avoid it. One of my friends recently bought one of those e-book readers with the electronic paper display and that is much easier to read. The reader itself is the same size and weight of a typical hardback. I might have to buy one eventually. Most likely, I’ll only buy e-books that are my favorites and stick to the library/Bookcrossing/garage sales for others.

  2. Justin Van Kleeck

    Good compromise! I have thought about those e-Readers, too, but even those things are just too much of a bother for a bookworm like me. And they require batteries! At least the old-school books, after the paper issue, do not have that other “green” problem and environmental hazard.

  3. Stephanie - Green SAHM

    A fellow bibliophile here! Bookstores are a huge danger to my finances, used bookstores even more so! People who come to my house are amazed by how little space we have for pictures and other wall decor because it’s mostly books.

    On the plus side, they’re read as regularly as one can manage with a large collection. My husband and I have similar tastes in books, so it’s quite the collection.

  4. John

    I agree paper being wasted is a problem, but is using paper and then recycling it a problem? Trees are re-grown to make paper tomorrow. Renewable resources are meant to be used, and renewed, right?

    Companies hosting larger and larger online services to give you e-bills and whatnot… conceivably could cause expansion of their power usage. If they are powered by coal, isn’t that worse?

    I think it’s really easy to say you’re killing a tree by printing paper, but it’s not all black and white.

  5. Claire

    what you didn’t put into mind is that computers take up energy too. So downloading ebooks won’t help the environment really. You can just borrow book from a local library instead of buying them though. However, I think that getting useless junk mail is a waste of paper, even if you do recycle it. Because it takes energy to make the catalog, etc.

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