Greedy Businessman Does More For Environment Than Environmentalists

Over at Forbes.com, Reihan Salam had something rather unexpected but very welcome to say about the CEO of a major corporation:

That the success of the Kindle is good news for Amazon should go without saying. But it represents a remarkable environmental advance as well. The publishing industry in the U.S. felled roughly 125 million trees and generated vast amounts of wastewater. And, of course, physical books have to be transported by trucks, which generate carbon emissions, exacerbate congestion, increase traffic fatalities and cause wear-and-tear on already overburdened roads. One assumes that Bezos didn’t have the environment foremost in mind when he pushed the Kindle concept forward, yet he’s arguably done more to fight climate change by threatening hardcovers and paperbacks with extinction than any number of environmental activists.

Salam goes on to argue that Amazon will ‘win the internet’ through the Kindle and its rapidly growing ebook sales. I don’t know about that. What does it mean to ‘win the internet’? He only considers Facebook as a rival. What about Google? Android and ChromeOS are poised to dominate the mobile phone and tablet pc markets, putting Google into direct competition with the Kindle. Then there’s Google Search, Books, Voice, Gmail, Docs, Maps, Chrome browser, TV, and so on and so forth.

But bravo to Salam for daring to recognize in public the (probably unintended) positive environmental externalities of business decisions and technological innovation driven by profit-seeking amidst market competition — indeed, for daring to rank them on par with or above that of ‘altruistic’ environmental activists.

Cross-posted at Is-Ought GAP.

4 comments… add one

  • On an episode of Penn and Teller’s BS, they claimed that the trees cut down to make paper for books are explicitly grown for that purpose, and wouldn’t even exist if there was no need for them. In essence, they are suggesting that even if we all switched to Kindles, there would be no more trees than there are today, in fact there may be fewer, because we wouldn’t need them.

    As for the energy costs in the manufacture and transportation of books, there is also an energy cost in powering the Kindles, and powering the servers that host the books for downloads.

    I’m not saying that Kindle has no environmental advantage over books, I’m just saying that it’s not as straightforward or obvious as Salam suggests.

    Reply
    • On an episode of Penn and Teller’s BS, they claimed that the trees cut down to make paper for books are explicitly grown for that purpose, and wouldn’t even exist if there was no need for them. In essence, they are suggesting that even if we all switched to Kindles, there would be no more trees than there are today, in fact there may be fewer, because we wouldn’t need them.

      I don’t know about that. I’ll have to look it up. It mainly just gets at the deforestation issue though. Environmentalists are also concerned with the wastewater and energy involved in turning trees into paper products, and the accompanying pollution.

      As for the energy costs in the manufacture and transportation of books, there is also an energy cost in powering the Kindles, and powering the servers that host the books for downloads.

      Again, it’s not just a matter of energy cost, though I suspect it probably costs less energy to power Kindles and host books on servers for downloading. There are also the effects on human and natural environments to consider: traffic congestion, wear on roads, other physical infrastructure that would no longer be needed or needed as much; pollution and carbon emissions from transporting paper to book printers, books to bookstores, returning unsold books to their publishers, customers driving to and from bookstores to buy books, energy costs for all this; paper waste in landfills; space taken up in homes and offices by books; the transportation of wood for bookcases. And so on.

      I’m not saying that Kindle has no environmental advantage over books, I’m just saying that it’s not as straightforward or obvious as Salam suggests.

      I don’t know. I don’t have any hard data on hand to back it up, but it seems pretty intuitive to me. And as I pointed out, environmentalists are concerned with more than just deforestation and energy costs. There’s the quality of the human environment to consider too (e.g., traffic congestion).

      Reply
      • Thanks for the reply . Oddly enough, I feel like you expressed my point even better than I did.

        I was attempting to make the point that environmentally the issue is more complex than Salam was suggesting, and you are basically saying that it’s even more complex than even I was suggesting.

        Either way you slice it, even if his over-all conclusions turn out to be valid, Salam is clearly oversimplifying the environmental impacts of books vs Kindles.

        Reply
        • I think I was just elaborating on what he wrote, not undermining it. He doesn’t just mention deforestation and energy costs, as you did at first; he mentions wastewater, traffic congestion, wear-and-tear on roads, traffic fatalities, carbon emissions. Elaborating on this complicates things but only in favor of a greater environmental impact for paper books. The question that I think you’re looking for that complicates the issue in terms of throwing doubt on Salam’s claim is whether the energy and environmental costs from the creation, use of, and delivering books to ereaders is greater than that of paper books. My intuition is that the answer is no.

          Reply

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