The Impact of Dead-Tree Magazines on the Environment

Chris Anderson, editor at Wired, posted a blog entry claiming the following:

So by this analysis dead-tree magazines have a smaller net carbon footprint than web media. We cut down trees and put them in the ground. From a climate change perspective, this is a good thing.

I can’t help but read his conclusion and his post as a self-serving rationalization to a) deflect the criticism raised against paper-based publishing and b) keep the status quo in place. In other words, the message is “publishers (and magazines such as Wired) are not doing something environmentally detrimental by relying on print-media.” There are several flaws in his logic. I’m going to concentrate on only a few of them here:

  • Most of what he puts up is conjecture and a lot of it is based on vague scenarios. Some of the guesses are clearly overoptimistic. It is true that the USPS would not disappear if print magazines did not exist but he sees the impact of print media on the USPS as essentially non-existent: “we print and bind that paper into magazines, which are delivered mostly by the US Postal Service, which runs the same routes whether they’re carrying our magazines or not.” Yes, but print magazines have to be sorted and carried by the mail trucks and mail workers. I can’t believe that if magazines were eliminated the USPS would use exactly the same resources they are using now.
  • The carbon footprint is not the only environmental impact of print publishing. He focuses on the carbon footprint because he wants to talk about the climactic impact but I think this is misleading. Other forms of pollution must also be taken into account. I doubt that print comes out ahead when the entire environmental impact is considered.
  • He points out that “trees take carbon out of the air”. But then he associates that benefit with the print industry only. Somehow, cutting down a tree and then planting another one, which is what the forestry companies should ideally do, is better than not cutting down a tree in the first place.
  • Even if the claim that “print publishing is carbon neutral whereas web publishing is detrimental” were true, the reality is that magazines like Wired and publishers are not currently doing one or the other. They are already doing both. What must be demonstrated is not that print publishing in the abstract is environmentally equal or better than web publishing in the abstract but that engaging in both print publishing and web publishing at the same time is environmentally equal or better than web publishing alone. To take one element of the production line as example, the comparison is not between printing presses on one hand and web servers on the other but between printing presses and web servers on one hand and only web servers on the other.

Then he takes a study of the Royal Institute of Technology, Stockholm as confirmation that his guesses were right. But there are problems here too:

  • Anderson says:

    [The study] compared printed newspapers to people reading those newspapers on the web, and concluded that for the same time reading (30 minutes) the printed newspaper has a lower carbon footprint.

    However, he conveniently fails to mention that only in the European scenario was web reading for 30 minutes better than print. The researchers also crunched the numbers for a Swedish scenario and found that print was worse than everything else.

  • This difference between the European and Swedish scenarios brings to mind a problem with the study. There is no formal discussion of error. It seems to me that whatever estimates the researchers came up with should have had some percentage of error associated with them. There is presently no formal way to know how reliable their numbers are. They do not formally explain how the dependent variables would be affected by variations in independent variables that they used in their study. If they had over or under estimated the energy consumption of web servers by 1%, how would this affect the results? What about all the other variables that are part of this study? This is not insignificant because some models are very susceptible to show large variations in output even for small changes in the input values. In other words, it is possible that if their guesses are a off even by a little, the results could be dramatically different. The difference between the European and Swedish scenarios suggests to me that their model is indeed fragile.
  • How does this apply to the US situation? Given the difference between the European and Swedish scenarios, I’m not keen of extrapolating the results to the US scenario.
  • Because publishers are not about to turn back the clock and go print-only, the question for me is “is it environmentally detrimental for a publisher who publishes electronically to maintain its print publishing operations in addition to the electronic operations?” I think the answer is yes. Anderson’s musings do not convince me to think otherwise.

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