With a population of 7 billion and rising, scarce resources becoming scarcer, and the colonisation of outer space still a distant dream, the human species is in big trouble. Not all our problems are insolvable though, let’s look at one tiny aspect of them: trees. Well, maybe this is not such a tiny aspect. Trees have been used since time immemorial for everything from cooking and heating our homes to making weapons, ornaments and furniture. They are also used to make paper, and as civilisation has expanded, so has the use of paper.
At one time, books were a rarity, now they outnumber us! At the time of writing, the British Library has over 625 kilometres of shelves, and is growing by 12 kilometres a year.
Every business in the modern world, every organisation, uses paper documents for record keeping and numerous other things, none more so than governments national and local, whose penchant for paper records is legendary. Most of the resulting documents end up being thrown away, but all local governments have their own storage. In the UK, central government has its own repository at Kew called the National Archives (formerly the Public Record Office). Currently this has around 100 shelf miles, and is growing at around 1 shelf mile a year. The records held here are open to the public.
That though is only half the story; the British Government also uses a massive storage facility in Cheshire to hold records that are not open to the public because they are either in use, confidential or of no interest to historians and other researchers. Operated by a private company, this repository is based deep underground in the county’s ancient salt mines. Other companies offer low cost document storage to the private sector.
This is only one relatively small country. Now extend it to the whole world: the United States with a population of over 315 million and a similar penchant for records to the UK, or China, with a population of over 1.3 billion, and a government that obsessively tracks the movements of its citizens. How much paper do they all use, and waste? More to the point, can we find an alternative before the world drowns in paper or more importantly before the last tree is chopped down? We haven’t mentioned yet daily newspapers, magazines, and much more.
Back in the 1970s when computers were just beginning to impact on our personal lives there was much talk about the paperless office of the future. Instead of this we have seen a plethora of computer and software manuals, computer magazines, and a literal explosion of publishing thanks to the new low cost technology. The question remains though, can we harness the Internet to save the world’s rainforests, from the paper industry if not from others?
Although there is as yet no conscious effort to do so, there are signs that this is indeed happening. In the UK in particular, local newspapers have been folding because nowadays people find their local news on-line. Some national newspapers worldwide have installed paywalls on their sites, and sales of hard copies are falling. This may be a problem for the newspapers, but it need not be. How about if instead of creating all that money out of thin air and giving it to the banks for free, the Federal Reserve were to give it to the people who run the Internet, who are providing a service for which they should be paid? That would include newspapers and other publishing outfits.
While people still read hard copy books, there is absolutely no reason we should not attempt to boost the distribution of ebooks at the expense of traditional books. This is something that probably needs to be done on at least government level, not necessarily through legislation but by incentives, the carrot and stick approach.
Substantially reducing the use of paper is one thing, but what about all that wood that is still being used to manufacture furniture and the like? Here there is another creative solution, the new technology of 3-D printing.
At the moment, this is being used mainly to produce small objects such as jewellery, plates and so on, but bigger and greater things have been promised for it. Last year, a student in Texas created a 3-D printed gun. This year a company in Cambridge, England produced a 3-D printed raspberry. How about printing bigger objects though, like chairs, or even entire houses? If you think that sounds too much to credit, architects in Amsterdam have been working on a house printing project for some time.
Using modern, low cost, fire-resistant materials that can be moulded at will, houses complete with furniture could be assembled in a few hours, days at most, and transported short distances or even built on site, something that would be extremely useful in the aftermath of natural disasters. Furthermore, all this new technology can be shared on-line at nominal cost or even no cost at all. Projects like Mozilla, Wiki and most recently Reprap are used by people all over the world to benefit all Mankind by developing new technologies and giving universal access to knowledge. When you think of an ebook or a 3-D printer, you will probably not associate them immediately with halting the despoliation of the Amazon or saving the orangutan from extinction, but this is what they have the power to do if only we have the will to apply them.