The End of Paper?


E-Books are all the rage these days. It seems that folks are predicting the end of paper. “It’s finally in sight!” They say, “The end of paper! Life for millions of trees!” It’s kind of ridiculous really. I finished my first e-book the other day, I read _A Tale of Two Cities_ on my iPhone. It was quite an accomplishment I thought. The size of the screen at first deterred me a bit, but finally, as I started reading, as long as I had my reading glasses on, and sometimes without, it became quite comfortable. The fact that the pages were about 1/5 the content of a normal page didn’t bother me after a bit either. I settled in using Stanza (a free e-book reader application) and found it quite comfortable.

Does this really mean the end of paper? Hardly. Folks predicted that paper was dead when computers became big in the 1970’s, and then again in the 1980’s when “Personal” computers took the stage. What happened? We used even MORE paper than we did before. Folks became obsessed with printing anything and everything. We printed paper for telling us where to go, we printed paper to tell us what to do, we printed paper to tell us what we did, and we made ZILLIONS of copies because at the same time printing became so easy with a printer connected to every computer, copiers became the BIG thing too.

I’ve been an environmentally minded person my entire life. I’m not a die hard tree hugger, but I care about the environment. I don’t believe for a minute that paper is dead, nor is it going away in a hurry. We are seeing less paper used in certain places that’s all. We are reading fewer newspapers, we are printing less airline tickets. I get solicited for magazine subscriptions regularly enough to know that we’re probably reading as many or more magazines than we used to though. Publishers are scrambling to sell the darn things, advertisers are eager to sign up and sell anything and everything they can these days with “targeted” advertising. I get as much junk mail as I used to, but I get fewer bills in the mail. I get most of my bills electronically these days. And, I’m probably pretty typical, at least in my generation and folks younger than me.

I stopped reading the newspapers about 15 years ago. I only read them now when I travel, and then not so much either. I can get just as good a news summary on my iPhone, or better on my computer, and quicker, and those come with higher quality photos and video, and I don’t get newspaper ink all over my hands. So what is it about me that even though I’m an environmentalist that I don’t see the end of paper? Well, for one, I’m a cheapskate. I won’t pay for an e-book. If I pay for something, I want it in my hands. I prefer to goto the Thrift stores and get used books for a dollar or two and read them the old fashioned way. That’s for the most part anyhow. As I said, I only finished my first e-book the other day, and I’ve read probably 25 books this year so far. I read all the time.

I wish we were finally going to stop killing trees for the sake of stuff that mostly ends up in our landfills, however. I think I’ll do a study to figure out how much paper we’ve cut back in the past few years. I do think that PDA’s and “smart” phones are going to have more impact on paper use reduction than e-book readers will. There are at least 100M “smart” phones out there in use, and far fewer (say 1M tops) e-book readers at this point, and since smart phones are getting “smarter” I think they’ll have the edge over e-book readers. Face it, most folks are like me, cheapskates who need a device to do more than one thing, and then like me also, they enjoy reading “free” books downloaded from The Gutenberg Project instead of paying a ripoff price for a “new” release. Or, they still like reading “cheap” books from wherever.

Everyone’s all thrilled with the “latest” e-book readers. I just don’t see them surviving the technology revolution for any length of time. Not until I can pay for an e-book and resell it, or just “rent” it, or get new releases from libraries for free. I have heard that libraries are doing something with e-books these days, that’s another new technology that warrants investigation. Maybe I’ll write a followup to this article.

One last point: In this country and Canada over the past 150 or so years, an entire industry has grown up around forestry and making pulp and paper products, and there will be some shift in that business. I have proposed the idea, and continue proposing that we shift some of those paper mills that might be shutting down (invariably there are some that are victims of reduced paper demand) over to Cellulosic Ethanol production. It could be easily done, for a modest investment. Most of the industrial facilities are already in place for large scale production of wood pulp, and, if you can make pulp, then you can make cellulosic ethanol. That’s just a thought, a way to not lose all that investment we poured into those paper mills at some point in the past (the average mill costs about $600M in today’s dollars).

I for one, would like to see us kill less trees, but it probably ain’t gonna happen. Our forests for the most part are “monoforests” planted as crops essentially. They are not healthy and nor do they have long-term viability. They cannot be turned into “old growth” forests. Rrather we’ll see whats happening here in Colorado: We have a Pine Beetle infestation here that has killed probably half a billion trees, and it’s not over yet. This is a serious national disaster that far outstrips any other environmental issue here in Colorado, yet I’ve heard nothing about it from the Forest Service. I wonder why? Nobody likes to rock the boat, eh?

Anyhow, paper is far from dead and we should probably find other ways to utilize the forests that used to become paper in this country. That is an idea for you all to think about.

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