Save a tree, write on paper

21st-century “common sense” holds that we should do everything on the computer because it, allegedly, saves a tree. The logic goes like this: paper is made from trees. Cutting down trees is bad. Computer screens don’t use paper. Therefore writing on a computer screen is good.

I’m sorry if I’m being offensive here, but I think that this is a pretty dumb way to look at it.

I think we are probably killing more trees than we save — or rather, depleting more resources, affecting the climate, and generating pollution — by putting everything on the internet. I think it’s high time we start considering our “digital footprint” as thoughtfully as we do our physical one. And although we are facing intense environmental challenges today and mastery of new technology will be required to address those challenges, it’s folly to think that “high tech” is always better — or cleaner. It is, after all, modern technology that causes climate change, waste, and pollution.

Before I dig into it, I want to acknowledge that we all know where I tend to stand if we are talking about simple utility of paper vs. doing things digitally: if pencil and paper is feasible option, I’d rather do things that way. But this isn’t a post about my personal preference for analog media. It’s about my opinion that as our preferences shift from analog to digital, we could be doing more environmental harm than good.

At the root of this issue is, in my opinion, an erroneous assumption. I think that a lot of people believe that if something is “digital” it’s not physical, which is incorrect. Using the term “the cloud” is, in many ways, misleading. Clouds are vapor. They float around in the sky all happy-like in a gaseous state. I think this promotes the illusion that the data we put in The Cloud is “made of electricity” or something like that. We don’t perceive it to have a physical form. It’s just kind of out there in the ether. We’ve sent it off to another dimension so that it’s out of the way in our dimension until we need it again.

However, the data we put into The Cloud is very much made of physical matter — in this universe, and (mostly) on this planet. It’s not vapor; it’s composed of material in a solid phase. It’s out of sight and out of mind — but that doesn’t mean that it doesn’t exist, or its storage doesn’t have physical consequences.

A computer is a physical device. It physically stores your data on magnetic or solid-state drives. Every time you type up a note in Word vs. writing it by hand, you’re still manipulating and storing physical matter — just different types of matter and different storage devices. Putting something in The Cloud rather than saving it to your hard drive isn’t a way around this: it’s still stored on a computer, just not your computer. [CC BY-SA 3.0]

The Cloud is actually composed of countless gigantic data centers, each containing countless more computers that store all of the crap we put out there on the internet. These data centers suck down tremendous amounts of electricity — electricity which is likely either generated by fossil fuels, or if not, could be used to power something else that is. Of course they all have a huge array of relatively dirty, inefficient diesel back-up generators because we demand our that internets operate 24/7/365 without interruption.

These data centers are responsible for more greenhouse gas emissions than the entire aviation industry — and they’re growing exponentially.

Believe it or not, I love computers and mobile devices and technology and the cloud and all of that. I mean, you’re reading this on my blog, after all. I realize that the growth of data is a consequence of where we are going as a society and I don’t think it is necessarily a bad thing. However, I do think it would be wise to be mindful of how the data we generate has a real-world environmental impact and, just like we do with more obvious forms of waste, attempt to reduce the amount of “digital waste” we generate.

YouTube is a great example, I think. Anyone — and seemingly everyone — is posting whatever on YouTube. Something like 500 hours of video are uploaded to YouTube every minute. Let’s be honest: a substantial amount of that (probably most of it, I’d guess) is stuff that really doesn’t contribute anything to society and will probably have almost zero views. Regardless, every useless or unseen video requires space on an ever-growing mass of energy-consuming drive arrays. There, it’ll continue consuming resources forever until humanity changes course for one reason or another — whether it be that we develop new technology, go extinct, or just realize that no one wants to watch dashcam footage of us stuck in boring-ass traffic for an hour straight and stop uploading dumb stuff no one needs or wants to see.

Or, let’s get really absurd and talk about BitCoin and other cryptocurrencies. I’m going to be generous here and point out the one “problem” that BitCoin solves, which is to combine the advantages of both cash (anonymity, lack of middle-men, etc.) and cards (long-distance transactions such as on the web). However, I use quotations around the word “problem” because pretty much the only people who are frustrated by this tradeoff are people who want to 1) buy things like drugs or child pornography, or 2) have some sort of tinfoil hat-caliber delusions. So their solution is to put cash into the cloud, so to speak; but in order to make that work they have had to create a system that is intentionally computationally intensive and, therefore, consumes more electricity than some entire countries. If analog money works fine for everyone who’s not a pedophile or is too scared to go buy drugs in real life like a normal person, should we really be destroying the planet to put money in the cloud?

So let’s reign it in here and come back to something more relevant. If you’re making a personal budget, which is more “green”: putting it on Google Sheets where it’ll occupy disk space in a storage center, constantly consuming electricity to maintain until the end of time? Or, writing it down in a notebook that requires no more energy to maintain than simply keeping it dry? When your bank tells you to “save a tree” by storing your statements in PDF form on their website for all eternity, is it really saving a tree when you could get them in paper form, printed once, and then recycle the statement when you’re done with it?

Sure, paper to write on consumes trees; but trees are, after all, a renewable resource. Wood pulp can be obtained from recycled paper and sustainably-harvested timber. I like to tell people (99% tongue-in-cheek) that if not for all the paper I use, the farmed trees it’s made of would never have lived in the first place! Granted, producing paper requires electricity, emits air pollution and generates greenhouse gases, but the impacts of a piece of paper are a one-time deal; The Cloud is forever — or, the impacts of every file created will continue to add up for the foreseeable future, at least. On a long enough timescale, storing that page in PDF format will be worse than just writing on a sheet of paper.

So if you really want to “save a tree”, let’s stop and think. I suggest we all and ask ourselves, “does this really need to be on the internet?” If the answer is no, maybe we would save more trees by just writing it down on a piece of paper instead.


2 thoughts on “Save a tree, write on paper

  1. Adam August 7, 2019 / 5:49 pm

    Very thoughtful and interesting point of view. I appreciate your blog and you taking the time to put these thoughts down! I think people definitely overlook the cost(s) of data centers. Maybe part of the problem is it is hard for people to get their hands around these costs since they’re shared? It would be interesting if Google put along with your % used of Gmail the % used of their DC total resources, and what the eco footprint of that was. May make you delete more stuff.


    • Jesse August 7, 2019 / 5:56 pm

      I totally agree that it’s an awareness issue, and that most people really don’t grasp the concept of the quantities and methods of storing all of this data.

      Another thought that just occurred to me is that with “the cloud” there is an extra degree of separation from the waste: a waste-conscious person who has to throw a paper away might opt not to print it out to begin with. They might also turn off their computer when not using it to save energy. But would they think anything of uploading a document to a computer that will never be turned off?


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s