Chris Anderson: Are dead-tree magazines good or bad for the climate?

I’m very glad it’s Chris Anderson who wrote this post today. As it’s from Chris, the author of the Long Tail and executive editor of Wired Magazine, perhaps he won’t be written off as some right-wing wacko for putting forth the radically un-chiche suggestion that print magazines (Wired, at least) may actually have a smaller “carbon footprint” than the magazine’s website. Again, that’s Chris — executive editor of Wired and former holder of lofty editorial positions at The Economist and the journals Science and Nature, and the best selling author of one of the most influential books about economics published in the past decade — who is making this argument. Not me.

I know, I know. What Chris is saying in this post is obviously wrong — I mean it’s obvious that magazines on paper are worse for the climate than the same content distributed via the web, right? Apparently not so obvious.

I hope Chris’ post will serve as launching pad for a big debate. I hope it does because even really smart people who publish print magazines have convinced themselves that magazines in print are green no-nos.

For example, last April, I noted on this blog that in all of the official announcements about the shuttering of the magazine version of InfoWorld, “benefitting the environment” was never mentioned. However, that didn’t stop Ted (who I apologized to later for calling Tom) Samson from writing an editorial on “magazines vs. the environment” (which is, in some ways, a counter argument to Chris’ post) that attempted (in my opinion, at least) to add some after-the-fact green-spin to the IDG decision. (After my post, Ted responded.) In the new book, Print is Dead, a similar argument is made (I’m posting a longer review later). My friend, Steve Rubel, recently posted some pro-digital, anti-print suggestions that take for granted that print is less green than “consuming” the same content using digital devices.

Sure, it seems logical that “dead-tree magazines” have a bigger “carbon footprint” than magazine content distributed via the web, but is it correct?

I’m glad it’s Chris and not me who is stepping forward to provide my answer.

  • http://gfmorris.net/ Geof F. Morris

    I certainly gave him a lot of consideration, but … there seems to be a lot of hand-waving going on there. My engineering background colors these things, but I’d like to see the numbers. [Not because I think he’s wrong but because I think he’s actually right.] Some specifics:

    1. Pulp collection: is that really carbon neutral? You’d have to look into the business practices of the sustainable forestry companies they use. I’d really like to see who they use.

    2. Paper generation: yes, it may be carbon neutral, but are there other environmental issues at stake here [chemical and thermal pollution]? Granted, one has to balance that against what it costs, environmentally, to build a computer [more on that later] capable of reading the Web.

    3. I can’t buy that distribution is only a slight carbon positive. It’s a false assertion to say that “the US Postal Service, which runs the same routes whether they’re carrying our magazines or not” means you can’t take a hit for what you add to the mix. Heck, with more places going to paperless billing [for all the same reasons], magazines and junk mail are 90% of the mail I receive in a year. Take out magazines, and it’s just junk mail … and will that prop up the USPS?

    4. End use is carbon neutral only if it’s recycled, but it’s a fair assumption.

    What’s not mentioned are the end-user’s footprint effects. If I choose not to consume digital media, maybe I don’t have a computer at home. [I mean, who really wants to read work emails and do work at home?] And there’s a separate footprint not only from manufacturing that computer but from operating it, as most electrical power generation in the US is a strong carbon positive.

    But it’s an interesting way to start the debate.

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  • http://compassioninpolitics.wordpress.com Nathan Ketsdever

    I’m not in the printing industry, so I can’t verify the percentage of companies that abide by Andresen’s second premise:

    >>Sustainable forestry companies (the only kind we use) cut down those trees, and plant an equal number to replace them (trees absorb the most carbon in the young, high-growth period of their life. Update: see comments for more on this).

    Additionally, cutting trees down is a rather industrial process and CO2 intensive process.

    Third, I’m very compelled by Geoff’s argument that magazine delivery is carbon intensive (at least enough to offset the carbon footprint of digital distribution and servers)

    >>3. I can’t buy that distribution is only a slight carbon positive. It’s a false assertion to say that “the US Postal Service, which runs the same routes whether they’re carrying our magazines or not” means you can’t take a hit for what you add to the mix. Heck, with more places going to paperless billing [for all the same reasons], magazines and junk mail are 90% of the mail I receive in a year. Take out magazines, and it’s just junk mail … and will that prop up the USPS?

    Finally, there seems to be sufficient difference between the regulatory, cultural, and environmental practices of Sweden and **all the countries in the rest of the world** to sufficiently question the Sweden as the paradigm case of these types of environmental tradeoffs.