Publishing Ethics: Environmental Impact of Digital Media

Written by Joseph Koivisto


Back for the third and final installment of my write-up for the George Washington University Ethics & Publishing Conference. If I might take a minute, I must say that this has been an interesting little task, this writing up of a single day’s worth of speakers and presenters. At times, I’ve felt like I’ve been prattling on a bit much (come on, the masses have groaned, why does it need THREE posts!?), but I do think that it has been useful to reflect on what was discussed and the unique perspectives offered by the speakers. I hope you’ve enjoyed reading it as much as I’ve enjoyed writing it.

I probably won’t do be as in-depth for my write-ups on larger conferences, but hey, who knows.

Welcome to our final write up: Just what is your carbon footprint?

When it comes to digital media, it seems that people don’t spend too much time discussing the environmental impact of ebooks and MP3s and the like. However, two speakers at the GW conference made me sit up and consider the what we may be doing to the planet in the name of digital data.

The first speaker was Michael Jon Jensen, a publishing consultant who has taught at George Washington University, worked for the National Academies and National Academies Press, and is a cofounder of the grimly comical ApocaDocs (I personally enjoy the PaniCloud of Very Scary Tags). The majority of Jensen’s presentation “Ethics, Publishing, and Planning for the Future: Framing Choices with Eyes Open” addressed the ever-worsening state of our environmental well-being, bringing up horrifying observations about ice cap melt, environmental pollutants, and species decline.

But, instead of merely peppering the audience with “We’re Doomed” sentiments, Jensen framed these observations in the context of a larger question: what role do publishers play in the prevention of environmental catastrophe? For one, he observed that publishers can take an earnest stance on these issues and dare to publish information that does not necessarily support a mistaken status quo of “everything’s fine.” Additionally, publishers stand in a unique position to help facilitate scholarly discourse on these issues by publishing articles and studies that seek to break new ground on environmental sustainability and preservation.

As librarians, archivists, and other cultural heritage professionals, we can ask ourselves the same things. What could our potential role be in the furthering of environmental protection? Can we help to enact institutional changes that are more environmentally friendly? Can we help to facilitate access of resources and data on environmental impact of human behaviors?

But the conversation didn’t stop there. Shortly after Jensen’s presentation, Dennis Johnson, Melville House co-publisher and founder of MobyLives, offered a quick response to Jensen’s observations. While many technophiles deride the printed volume as a dinosaur and an outmoded means of communication that uses up precious natural resources, Johnson observed that digital data, too, uses up natural resources. Not only do pieces of digital media use up electricity as they are stored in server farms, their use requires technological devices (which also run on electricity) that are obsolete and disposed of in a matter of years. By contrast, he observed that he can go to a library and find the oldest book available and “it still works.” (Johnson’s presentation was not on the environmental impact of publishing, but his observations were nonetheless poignant).

What is so interesting about this observation is the fact that we frequently do not consider the environmental impact of electronic media. Certainly, as disembodied bits of code that are magically transmuted into human-readable output, digital media defies the easy association of information with some form of physical instantiation. And it does require a bit of mental abstraction to associate digital media with a constituent resource as it doesn’t necessarily follow the the source–>process–>product chain through which we understand resource usage. Trees are cut down to make paper to make books. What about an ebook?

In an extremely interesting article about energy waste at data farms from 2012, James Glanz wrote that servers for large sites (think Facebook, think Amazon, think Elsevier) waste up to 90% of their energy usage due to capacity maintenance. Additionally, their back-up procedures (diesel engine generators) produce harmful exhaust. According to the article, some companies in Silicon Valley have even been cited as some of the worst air pollution offenders.

While we constantly champion the virtues of digital data (accessibility, sharing, collaboration, innovative data usage, &c.), perhaps we should take a minute to pause our praise and think about the environmental costs associated with these new and fascinating types of data. As more and more journals are switching to digital subscription services, we may be cutting down less trees, but how much harmful carbon-ladened exhaust are we pumping into the atmosphere?  How can libraries and publishers work to help stem this negative trend in energy and resource waste?

So, just because that ebook didn’t kill any trees, don’t think that it doesn’t come with an environmental price-tag attached.