The Price of the Paperless Revolution

The Virginia Quarterly Review, Fall 2010 | Go to article overview

The Price of the Paperless Revolution


We hiked along a twisting, curse-worthy trail down the craggy face of Browns - berg plateau, hacking our way toward Witi Creek. I had been told by the administrators of the Central Suriname Nature Reserve that many of the waterways that snaked through the country's only national park on the northern edge of the Amazon were dotted with illegal gold mines, but I wanted to see for myself. The miners - still known as pork-knockers from the era when they survived in the bush on salt pork and scrabbled cutbanks with pickaxes and pans - now worked with bulldozers and backhoes, hydro cannons and towering sluices, and employed a mercury separation process that was steadily poisoning the tributaries of the Suriname River. I followed my guide, crisscrossing the creek, ducking under downed limbs and fording at shallows, until we came to a sudden shaft of sunlight. We stepped from the trees onto the lip of a road ripped through the forest and picked our way up the muddy ruts to an open expanse the size of a football stadium. Gravel piles, some more than ten feet high, were heaped all around. We scrambled up one to see giant pools filled with stagnant water turned emerald by contaminants. The Surinamese government estimates that more than one hundred fifty square miles of its virgin rainforest have been leveled and more than threequarters of the native fish species extirpated by such mining - and for what?

The answer surprised me. Though a high percentage of illegally mined gold still goes toward making jewelry, the real growth market is in the manufacture of modern electronics - computer CPUs, card edge connectors, USB cables. And it's not just gold. There's lead and tin in circuit boards and solder, copper in wiring and integrated circuits, lithium in rechargeable batteries, and nickel and iron in the structural components and bodies of most computers, televisions, and cell phones. Such demand for these metals naturally drives their rapid extraction - often in economically depressed countries where miners work under dangerous conditions, use environmentally devastating methods, and toil for the benefit of dictators and military strongmen. These facts are especially troubling as we hurtle toward the new age of paperless publication and the swift rise of the electronic reader.

In July, Amazon.com revealed that sales of e-books were now outstripping the sales of hardcover books, with the possibility that their sales will double that of hardcovers by the end of the year. With the appearance of Apple's iPad in April - and its stunning sales of four million units in its first four months - Barnes & Noble dropped the price of its Nook e-reader and Amazon announced the release of a cheaper version of its Kindle in July. Each of these companies is expected to unveil souped-up and cheaper e-readers in time for Christmas. AU of which has media gurus heralding this as the year that publishing will finally go paperless - and trumpeting that change as the latest step in the greening up of American consumerism.

But the New York Times recently calculated that the environmental impact of a single e-reader - factoring in the use of minerals, water, and fossil fuels along the manufacturing process - is roughly the same as fifty books. At first that sounds encouraging; after all, even the smallest personal library contains fifty volumes. But the real problems come in lifespan. At present, the average e-reader is used less than two years before it is replaced. That means that the nearly ten million e -readers expected to be in use by next year would have to supplant the sales of 250 million new books - not used or rare editions, 250 million new books - each year just to come out footprint-neutral. …

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