The Conversation just published an article that tries to compare the environmental costs of eReaders and shelfs of books. While overall that is a good article, I see no mention in it, or in the comments, of three important facts about reading, readers and ICT.

First, all kinds of information can be digitized, e.g. coded as bits, and all bits are equal. The same USB drive can store books, movies, music and so on, and the same electronic devices can play them all. So we should compare the impact of one ebook or laptop computer, plus a couple of USB drives, versus all our bookshelfs + DVD shelfs + CD shelfs, and of all the related devices.

Second, storage space: even if all paper books were free, they would still take much, much, much more space than their digital versions. In order to afford paper versions of all the titles I want, I should buy a bigger house just for them, and then work more to maintain it. Apart from quality of life, that’s a greater environmental impact, at lots of levels.

The third, and most important, fact, is about obsolescence. One of the reasons why e-books would pollute more than paper ones is that paper can last centuries, whereas you may (have to) replace e-book readers every other year. In my experience, people who make this argument almost always ignore, or forget to mention, what exactly is that can make ebook readers obsolete so quickly.

E-books are just computer files. If they are in open formats, everybody can write software to read them on any device. When that happens, all your e-books remain usable on the new reader you buy when the previous one breaks. And you can keep reading e-books from any source, on any device you may have. Even when the producer of that device goes out of business, or stops producing that model.

The two things that can turn any e-book reader into a slab of polluting garbage most quickly are:

  • publishers selling e-books in proprietary formats, that will only display on some e-readers.

  • manufacturers trying to make you buy devices that will only accept one proprietary file format of their choice

This point, that is file formats, is the most important one. The Conversation article explains well why it is quite difficult to compare the environmental impact of paper and digital books. But if if you care about the environment, or just about not being fooled as a consumer, never accept e-books in closed, proprietary formats.

It is depressing how much environmentalists seem to ignore this fact, or make a mess of it as it happened with the Save as WWF “green” file format. But accepting proprietary formats for e-books would be as stupid as accepting to buy paper books that can only be placed on bookshelves of one particular brand, or read only with glasses of some other brand.