Content-type: text/html ~ Stephen's Web ~ The Environment and eBook Readers

Stephen Downes

Knowledge, Learning, Community

Jun 06, 2010

Originally posted on Half an Hour, June 6, 2010.

Responding to Greg Breining: Going green? Good luck .. in the Minneapolic Star-Tribune, which was cited by Doug Johnson in an article in Blue Skunk Blog.

Articles such of this one in the Star-Tribune should be widely discredited, not recycled as 'fact'.

The whole "use of water" statistic is misleading. Water that is "used" is not always destroyed; in fact, in usually isn't. Take coffee, for example. A good percentage of the water "used" is water that goes into washing the beans. The water may go down the drain and into the sea, but it isn't destroyed.

This is also the case with e-readers. The water "used" doesn't actually end up inside the e-reader. Otherwise, the reader would be mostly water. Rather, it is water that is used for cleaning, cooling, and other ancillary operations. Sometimes it just drains off; other times it is emitted as steam (whereupon it becomes rain again almost immediately). Or this example, also from the article: "The water used in making a single pair of leather shoes: 4,400 gallons, writes Kostigen." Obviously, shoes do not contain 4,400 gallons of water. Obviously the water is used in washing (and maybe feeding cows and leather plant workers?) and other non-consumptive processes.

Sometimes the advice is ridiculous. "Kostigen also suggested that we each have an obligation to save water because water shortages are common elsewhere." Think about that for a second. How would saving water in Minneapolis - or Ontario - help someone in the Sahara or Australia? It won't, not a whit. Water is so heavy it is almost never transported any great distance; that's why water shortages exist. Water shortages are local conditions, and can only be addressed by saving and production locally. Saving water if you live in a rainforest won't do a thing to help people living in a desert.

Of more concern are the materials used to create ebooks, and in particular, the minerals and the energy. Once again, the figures are misleading. Of the 33 pounds of materials, very few are actually used; the remainder is typically the rock based from which the mineral was extracted. Other materials are catalysts, and may be transformed, but don't cease to exist. Very little actual silicon, aluminum, copper or lithium actually goes into the devices.

(That said, we are almost at 'peak lithium' - but the greater culprit here will be, as usual, cars. As well, the plastics and synthetics used in the devices are often oil-based, but again, the consumption is a small fraction of that consumed in the manufacture and driving of cars).

And while some of these materials are "exotic metals from oppressed and war-torn countries" the problem here is not the ebook readers themselves but rather the conditions under which we extract the materials. Over time, the number of oppressed nations has decreased, which is good. And a great many of these materials are extracted from nations like Canada and Russia, hardly the definition of oppressed and war-torn.

The energy required is probably the most significant. And it's important to notice how the author evades stating the exact truth with phrasing like "an equivalent [of] 100 kilowatt hours of fossil fuel and produces 66 pounds of carbon dioxide."

In fact, very little of the electricity used to produce ebook readers comes from fossil fuel sources. It's too expensive! It costs twice as much for electricity produced using oil and coal plants as it does electricity produced using hydro plants. Hydro plants are clean and use a renewable fuel - the energy of water as it flows from mountains to the see (the water is not "used" - it is still perfectly good after powering the turbines).

To day, less and less electricity is produced using fossil fuels. Most nations are using a combination of hydro, wind and nuclear power. Operations that require a lot of power and water - the extraction of aluminum from bauxite, for example - are located near remote rivers and hydro dams - places like Shawinigan or Kitimat, for example - and don't use any fossil fuels at all and produce only a small fraction of the carbon dioxide suggested by the author.

Finally, let's consider the economics of ebook readers. "An e-reader, said the Times, doesn't break even until it has replaced the production of 40 to 100 books." It is interesting that this quote comes from a newspaper, which produces the equivalent of at least a book every day. If - generously - we equate one newspaper to one book, we reach the break even point in about four months of use. That's assuming the only use was to read one newspaper each day, and nothing else. If fact, with actual use, the break-even point is more like a couple of weeks.

A lot of work goes into minimizing or discrediting the efforts of environmentalists. Articles like this try to p;lay on their purported misconceptions. They are usually arguments created by and for energy end environment wasting industries like newspapers and newsprint. They are afraid of newsprint readers because they reduce demand for what is actually a very expensive product, and provide access to content that now can be distributed around the world almost for free. But what they are really trading on - and perpetuating - is their own readers' lack of knowledge.

Another example in the same article, for example, says: "Near Leamington, Ontario, 1,600 acres -- more than two square miles -- is under glass. Folks nearby can say goodbye to far-off, hard-as-rock California tomatoes in favor of plump local tomatoes all winter long. But the fuel saved in transportation doesn't compare with the energy consumed in lighting the greenhouses in the dark of winter and heating them with propane."

I've been to Leamington and can attest to the scale of the greenhouse operations. But the article misrepresents what is happening. You can't grow enough tomatos for 16 million people in two square kilometers (even though that's an awful lot of tomatos). And, fortunately, the "dark of winter" is very brief, very mild, and very light in southern Ontario (which is at the same latitude as northern California). The greenhouses are used only part of the time. Each greenhouse is surrounded by square kilometers of field. Drive through there in the summer or fall and you'll see field after field of tomato growing outdoors. They have been nurtured from seedlings indoors, but not grown indoors.

And, in fact, it's not clear that even running a local greenhouse full time is more expensive than trucking produce from California. Perhaps while gas and diesel are at their current, artificially low, pump prices, it appears more economical. But realizing, again, that most Ontario power is produced by hydro power (not a small bit is coming from the nearby Niagara Falls) the cost is actually a lot less than the writer might suspect.

It's disappointing and sometimes even dispiriting to see such rubbish printed in what should be a credible source. It's a reminder that we cannot depend on traditional media and traditional sources (such as Discover magazine) for our education. We are well and truly on our own, as most of our established media are now doing more harm than good through their ongoing and pernicious political activism.

Stephen Downes Stephen Downes, Casselman, Canada

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