Is Digital Media Actually Worse for the Environment Than Paper Based Media?

Don Carli has a provocative article up at the Mediashift site. His basic premise is that "going paperless" may not be as virtuous as we think it is, given the far reaching environmental impacts of digital media;

Public opinion polls show that concern about the environment rises and fallsbased on the state of the economy and other factors, but concern about the negative impacts associated with using paper and printing continues to rise. Nothing captures the essence of these feelings more vividly than the signature line appearing at the foot of more and more emails: "Please consider the environment before printing this email."

This seemingly well-intentioned call to action, as well as others like "Sign up for paperless billing, help the environment and save trees" confront consumers with a false dilemma and present a forced choice that may have unintended consequences. The false dilemma is: "By using paper to print your email or by receiving paper bills you are knowingly degrading the environment, destroying forests and/or killing trees." The forced choice is: "Eliminate your use of paper or feel like a guilty hypocrite..."

He argues that we tend to assume digital media is virtuous because its environmental impacts are hidden, disconnected from the use of our computers or Iphones or massive energy sucking data centers powering our gmail account. He shares the following startling statistics;

America's adoption of networked broadband digital media and "cloud-based" alternatives to print are driving record levels of energy consumption. According to the U.S. Department of Energy, the electricity consumed by data centers in the United States doubled from 2000 to 2006, reaching more than 60 billion kilowatt hours per year, roughly equal to the amount of electricity used by 559,608 homes in one year. According to the EPA that number could double again by 2011.

He links to a site (iLoveMountains.org) that will help concretize the connection between our energy use and mountain top removal coal mining in the Appalachians. I tried my zip code and it found no connection between Spokane's energy use and coal purchased from mountaintop removal operations, probably because of our reliance on power generated by dams. I queried my old zip code and Houston and there is a strong connection there as illustrated by the map below the site generated.

Mountaintopremoval

I agree his premise that the use of paper is not inherently evil from an environmental perspective. I'm sitting across the street from Inland Empire Paper company and I know they have an outstanding record of managing the forests that supply their fiber. I also know that they have made huge investments to reduce emissions into the river.

I think in the digital age we have to be careful of a kind of Gnostic dualism, where we exalt all things digital as if they have no environmental impact and demonize all things material as if they ruin the world. The article is a good reminder of that and worth reading through as a whole.