Tuesday, November 16, 2010

The Story of Electronics: best known cure for the annoying 'green paper fetish'

There is a lot wrong in the world.  Hunger, massive corruption, ecological destruction, brutal oppression of many kinds--these things inspire emotions like outrage or even despair. But there are plenty of things out there that are just plain annoying.  Like 'greenwash' or the term 'brand ambassador' --or the 'world class toilets' being built in a city where millions of people lack clean water and basic sanitation facilities.

Today, let me add one more thing to my long list of pet peeves.  I'll call this one the green paper fetish.

The green paper fetish actually a sub-class of greenwash. It afflicts those people who believe that being 'green' means the exact same thing as 'saving paper at all costs.' This fetish lacks both the prurient charm and the kitsch potential of the foot fetish or the restrictive clothing fetish; it is simply and solely annoying and stupid.

First, let me be clear: I do not advocate wasting paper. Although paper is recyclable, it takes a lot of energy both to make and to remake. And of course, new paper requires harvesting trees or other types of plant life. A few months back, I looked at the environmental costs and benefits of both electronic and paper reading here. It's a lot more complicated an equation than you might think, because most alternatives to paper consume a lot of electricity and because the electronics we read on--like the computer you are looking at right now--come with high environmental costs.

Of course many people who admonish us to use less paper at the office are actually not interested in saving the earth--they are interested in saving money. There's nothing wrong with saving money, but let's not pretend our primary reason for printing or copying less is to save the earth, unless our office is also considering how to cut systematically cut our collective use of big things like power and unsustainable forms of transportation. Are the people in charge willing to come to work by public transportation? Are they willing to do more than just use more efficient light bulbs; will they turn down the AC to the point where they might actually break a sweat from time to time?

I'm going to say this one more time: nobody should be wasting paper.  We just shouldn't pretend that we work for green organisations just because someone comes around and collects the recycling or because we print on both sides of the page from time to time. 

And when people say the answer to our environmental problems is to trade paper for laptop computers, we need to explain the high costs of the electronics that more and more of us are becoming dependent on. Nobody does this as simply or as convincingly as Annie Leonard. Her Story of Electronics is the best thing she's done since The Story of Stuff. Not only does she explain why electronics are so toxic, but she suggests ways in which we could vastly reduce their toxic affects.  


Take a few minutes and watch in now.  Then send it to your coworkers--especially those with a green paper fetish!



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