Internet and the environment

Luís Ángel Fernández Hermana - @luisangelfh
24 July, 2016
Editorial: 16
Fecha de publicación original: 23 abril, 1996

Date of publication: 23/04/1996. Editorial 016.

From Little Acorns, Mighty Oaks Do Grow

The fields of cyberspace are built on forests that can remain standing. Although we are still a long way from having a gadget which enables us to read information in any situation and with the flexibility required, the fact is bits carry in their genetic code the possibility of leaving trees standing just where they are. Of course we will still need paper, but not in the vast quantities in which it is consumed at the moment. Without the introduction of bits and if present trends continue, the demand for wood pulp is bound to increase considerably in the near future. In principle, systems of information distribution via the networks will be able to ameliorate this situation, in an increasingly more literate world that satisfies its thirst for information and knowledge fundamentally through its use of paper.

Recent crises in the cost of paper point in one inevitable direction: the price of paper will continue to rise. And this cost already represents, on average, more than 20% of the expense of the written media. This ever-upward spiral is due to many different factors. But a few of them are of particular interest when considering the polarisation which is taking place between information broadcast via atoms or alternatively by way of bits. Every day, the number of people worldwide who can read increases. Developing countries correctly associate the distribution of information with a rise in their populations’ cultural standards, essential for facing the challenges demanded by world markets. In rich countries, much the same is happening, both in terms of quantity as in density. Information on paper is being distributed via a vast range of publications which specialise in a huge array of subjects. The rise in the consumption of paper is therefore guaranteed on this front for many years to come, with the consequent effect on raw materials – the world’s forests.

And this is where a vision of the future begins to take shape, one where the information society will be faced with a decision. On the one hand, there is not enough wood to satisfy demand. The forestry industry is basically in the hands of the rich countries’ own paper companies; an industrial relationship which may change in the next few years with the appearance of new centres of production in other, less well-developed countries. But the cutting down of trees for paper production and the industrial process of manufacturing it, both raise environmental issues which are notorious and have predictable consequences. It wouldn’t be surprising if in the near future the following scenario emerged – the environmental effect of deforestation and the difficulty of maintaining the rate of reforestation at the level required by the demand for paper will make its price surpass limits acceptable to the media companies. Also public opinion might “punish” the over-use of printed paper and its inevitable environmental consequences.

Deforestation and industrial pollution will become thorny issues in the coming century as society sees itself forced to pay the price of climate change and global pollution. Under these circumstances, part of this bill could lead to a general withdrawal by the public from media that distribute information through an increasingly rare and expensive means –paper– linked directly as it is to environmental problems.

Once this crossroads has been reached, the shape of the future slips into the land of speculation and fortune-telling. But we cannot ignore the competition which electronic communications systems distributing information in an increasingly cheap way through the networks will represent, using equipment which will be both user- and environmentally-friendly. Meanwhile, newspapers printed on paper will tend to go up in price, be forced to cut down on the number of pages produced and will have no other choice than to offer a much more selective and sanitised information service than they offer at present. Their privileged professional experience will be concentrated on feeding the public with what they have so often promised and so rarely come up with – a diet based on the analysis and interpretation of daily news events. In other words, they will become luxury consumer items.

The question is whether they will reach this change in time and restructure their products in a way which will interact successfully with those which have already moved to the forefront on the Internet. The media of the atomic age are right, of course, when they defend the viability of a paper supply for many years to come. But this supply will not reach us in the same quantity and quality as it does now. And, if this is the case, the question does not lie in knowing whether paper will last for ever, but rather in whether companies which have been built on the cutting down of trees can survive when the chainsaws are silenced. Environmental factors may leave many of them abandoned by the wayside.

Translation: Bridget King.