AS YOU MIGHT KNOW, I AM NOT exactly big on Anthropogenic Global Warming (AGW), not because it isn’t true, but because it smacks of politics and doesn’t address the real problems: overpopulation and stupidity. But this doesn’t mean I am not an environmentalist. I am. It’s a mess out there.
There are innumerable ways to save energy and thus reduce CO2. LEDs are a huge improvement in lighting efficiency. If you are concerned with global warming, or even spending money, change all your lighting to LEDs as soon as practical.
But environmentalism includes all sort of phenomena which one frequently overlooks, viz., the Internet itself. EBay and all its copycat sales and auction sites provide a valuable marketplace where things don’t have to be thrown away, but instead get a second or third, etc., life. Hundreds of other sites make environmentalism easier.
The Internet itself, and especially email, make e-commerce so easy to conduct that it conserves resources. Need a bag of special bolts for a great price? EBay will sell them to you. Sometimes these lots are newly created specifically for sales, but other times (pertinent here) these lots would have been tossed into the landfill. Big companies used to find that disposing of small lots of excess inventory was too expensive, but now many companies have a department which handles this task; alternatively they can donate inventory to organizations that use e-commerce to recycle it. All this is environmentally friendly.
Government Liquidations is an Internet site that gets rid of whatever Uncle Sam needs to dispose of. This site is filled with amusements such as “Deuce-and-a-Half Truck, Slightly Radioactive,” or “18 pcs. Missouri Class Battleship 16” Steel Gun Barrels. Must be made demilitarized.” Many people make a good living keeping this stuff out of landfills. Frequently the material is “Fired Brass Cartridges” ... and there’s a lot of that stuff to clean up. This was always a business for a few, now it is easy to get involved.
The efficiency that the Internet brings to commerce is brilliant. The last car I bought with a buy-it-now click on eBay. I got a great deal. Somehow I avoided the mountain of paperwork buying a car usually entails, and I didn’t have to talk to some manager, salesperson, or closer.
Years ago semiconductor manufacturers published enormous quantities of detailed application and design guide books for their products. These were substantial works. They had warehouses full of these books, and a whole network of shipping and packaging evolved to handle their distribution. The expense was enormous. They published in a dozen languages. Revisions were common. Then one day it became apparent that the whole mess could be put online. Voilà ... what this single transition did for the global environment can only be surmised.
Roughly the same thing happened to dictionaries and encyclopedias. Groaning shelves filled with massive volumes of knowledge soon disappeared. In March 2012, after years of struggle and a precipitous decline in sales (and one suspects, a truly colossal change in corporate perspective) it was announced that the Encyclopedia Britannica Company would cease printing paper after the 15th edition, 2010, 32 volume, 32,640 page encyclopedia, and that it would only produce its online version henceforth. The entire enterprise seem to be drifting towards the Wikipedia model where the public can edit and contribute to the knowledge base, albeit with more controls. Currently the Encyclopedia Britannica has the narrow edge of accuracy in its articles, but Wiki gets better all the time and historically has been more up-to-date. Also the Encyclopedia Britannica is published in English only, except for one Chinese-English version. Wikipedia currently publishes in 284 different (active) language editions.
You can buy the last paper edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica for about $400 on eBay, and earlier editions for practically the cost to ship them.
But this editorial is about the environmental considerations. Almost every encyclopedia and book ever made is headed to the landfill or shredder. The transition to electronic delivery is a massive improvement to our environment. But the ease with which books can be printed and sold has improved dramatically. Worldwide there are 2,200,000 new books or re-editions published per year. No figures exist on the total printed, but a reasonable estimate is 2,000 (paper) books per title or 4.4 billion books per year.
So why hasn’t all this gone electronic, perhaps flexible OLED? Something about the possession of paper books still seems overwhelmingly popular. Electronic books like Kindle started as a niche market and stayed that way. Retailers say they barely sell any Kindles anymore. Sometimes “print on demand” books fill the gap between paper and electronic displays. But it is still hard to see a time when paper books will disappear.
But with the online sales of books, print-on-demand, Amazon’s used book sales, and the electronics delivery of print, how can libraries survive?
Well, I predict that they can’t, despite valiant efforts to reinvent themselves. Some libraries have computers, 3D printers, classes, art exhibits, coffee bars and generally don’t resemble what used to be—card catalogs that indexed the locations “in the stacks” to the globe’s printed knowledge. And that copy of the book “might be loaned out.” They struggle to find some purpose. But as time goes on, they will become social gathering places rather than educational-resource archives. Decades from now, people will ask: “Why are they called libraries?”
Among the big contributors to environmental trash are phone books. These truly massive volumes were printed every year for every place. For commercial uses we had yellow pages and for residential uses, white pages. They contributed billions of tons of paper to landfills. For many years nobody even opened them, preferring to use the Internet. Major city libraries had all major white and yellow pages from other cities ... always kept up to date.
Of course there are still some people who use paper phone books, especially in the Midwest and rural areas, mostly the elderly who haven’t transitioned to computers. But at least the impact on the environment is surely declining.
It certainly seems that the Internet is saving gobs of energy in every conceivable form. But many smart people claim that it might be overstated. Even though shopping is made more efficient, the result could be that there is a whole lot more shopping. True, I buy gifts for family on the Internet. But I probably buy more stuff and do more business. The world’s standard of living, and countries’ attendant consumption has skyrocketed. Furthermore, people haven’t lost their desire to print computer output on paper.
My entire college education probably didn’t use up more than several reams of paper (not counting textbooks). Now I am using about 25 reams per year. Every sheet of which has passed through my printer. At least I am making some progress on not printing off a copy of everything I find interesting online. But some people can’t resist.
Since the Internet was created, and most likely because of it, a billion more people have been raised out of poverty, and given computers. Surprisingly, almost one third of the population of the world now uses the Internet in its many forms. On average, each desktop computer uses 250 kWh per annum. So in total 2.4 billion people use 600 billion kWatt-hours. On Facebook ...
Recently, technical publications have been all atwitter over the Internet of Things (IoT). This is where virtually all electrical appliances are connected, so that the last piece of toast might automatically order a new loaf of bread. This is viewed as a major boost in efficiency. Others point out that the connected appliance needs to be turned on continuously to monitor all this interconnectivity.
While it is certainly beneficial to tie some appliances to the Internet, the possibilities of malware hijacking appliances increases too. Already there have been massive botnet attacks composed primarily of IoT devices. Very small IoT devices will be everywhere. A secure “security” means for these has not yet been invented.
Want to turn on every IoT stove in the world? It could be done.
Eric M. Jones