Update Dec 7th, 2010: after reading this page, please also read Don’t Save As WWF. This is the really green format! for alternatives to .WWF

Update Jan 14th, 2011: No peace for the SaveAsWWF campagin

On November 30, 2010, the German section of the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), in order to raise awareness about a real, serious threat to the environment, has proposed a really dumb solution that I urge everybody to avoid, for at least two reasons.

We all know that forests are essential fo the good health of our planet. That is a real, urgent and serious issue of the first order. As the WWF itself says, “about 13 million hectares of forest disappear each year, an area the size of Greece”. However, in order to at least reduce the size of this problem, WWF Germany invites everybody (the bold is mine) “to stop unnecessary printing and to encourage a new awareness about the use of paper, we’ve developed a new, green file format: WWF. A format that can’t be printed out. A simple idea that saves trees”.

So from now on if we care about forests our slogan should become “Save as WWF, save a tree”. Before explaining why this particular solution is really dumb, let me make one thing clear: the problem that WWF is talking about is a real and serious one. I’ve known myself secretaries that, instead of just writing “you’re all invited to the All Staff Meeting that will be held next thursday at 10:00am” would write the same words in one PowerPoint color slide and send it to the whole company. And I’ve even known the top managers that would regularly print such slides to read them… so yes, the problem is real. Let’s now look at why this solution is wrong.

File formats are alphabets

Everybody that uses computers should really know by now that file formats are exactly like alphabets. One of the main reasons why we can communicate among ourselves or with past and future generations is exactly that alphabets:

  • have no secrets

  • everybody can use them to create any kind of document, with any kind of pen or software

  • are in the smallest possible number and remain almost unchanged across the centuries

Imagine the mess if any generation created a new shape for all the letters of each alphabet and all existing documents had to be rewritten using the new alphabet and you’ll start seeing why creating new alphabets “just because I can”, is a dumb idea. If instead of traditional alphabets you mess with file formats is the same problem, just immensely bigger, considering how many files our civilization creates each year. If you don’t believe it, stop whatever you’re doing and read how file formats can be used to favor (or hamper) innovation, active citizenship and really free markets. Alternatively, search online for “digital dark age” and then ask WWF Germany how many guarantees there are that this “format” of theirs will still be readable in 10, 20 or 50 years from now.

Certain file formats hurt the environment

There’s another reason why nobody should “Save as WWF” and it’s even more relevant for environmentalists. Everybody who cares about the environment cannot ignore anymore that digital technology has a huge carbon footprint and that most of that damage is done before one even starts using it, in the manufacturing phase. Consequently, one of the best ways to reduce pollution when (as in this case) personal computers are involved is to extend as much as possible their useful life.

However, for several reasons explained in the links below, supporting only proprietary operating systems makes the problem worse. Such systems change every few years. For purely commercial reason they are made in many ways, including the creation of new but unnecessary file formats, incompatible both with previous versions of the same products and with older computers. The end result is that many people, in order to keep using their own files, are forced to dump computers that are still perfectly working, yet highly polluting. In other words, proprietary software pollutes a lot!.

The unnecessary printing that WWF (and I!) want to fight is caused by the huge diffusion of computers in home and offices. This is a fact, not an invitation to give up computers! We all wasted much less paper when it was harder to create documents.

However, the best, if not the only way to seriously reduce the size of computer-generated environmental damage is to promote large scale adoption of Free Software and to encourage trashware, that is refurbishing old computers with Free Software to keep them useful and away from the landfills. But this is possible only if people, starting from environmental activists, stop now to generate file in any format that is not usable with Free Software.

In spite of all this, as of December 3rd, 2010, the official “Save as WWF, Save a Tree” website says that this “green” format…is only usable with some version of Mac OS, will soon be usable with some versions of Windows… but no mention of Linux, which is the most environmentally conscious operating system around.

Until this changes, I will refuse to use any .WWF file I get, exactly because I care for the environment and this forces me to not use formats that aren’t usable on all computers, especially old ones. If and when .WWF will become usable on Linux, I will continue to refuse it because file formats are like alphabets. There are already too many file formats in the computing world and I really see no reason for another one… like this. WWF and anybody else concerned about the environment should fight unnecessary printing, but also dump .WWF and promote in its place the OpenDocument format. That is a much more friendlier with the environment, because it can keep away from the landfills on computers so old to have 128 MB of RAM.

Update 2010/12/04 18:30: as it was 100% obvious from the moment of the initial announcement, the WWF “unprintable” format is very easily printable. It is still a format to refuse period, for all the reasons explained here.

Update 2010/12/09: My suggestion is that WWF simply drops the software/file format of all this campaign entirely, and leaves/recycles the icon and logo as something that everybody puts in their files to mean “please save trees, don’t print”, in whatever formats they use.