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Wired, Backstories and the Winnowing of Green Media
Alex Steffen, 11 Jan 08

Chris Anderson, of Wired, made some bold claims the other day. He looked at Wired's activities, and claimed that it was more sustainable to publish on paper than on the web, and that, in effect, paper publication was a carbon sequestration project. Here's his argument:

1. Trees take carbon out the air. Carbon negative

2. Sustainable forestry companies (the only kind we use) cut down those trees, and plant an equal number to replace them (trees absorb the most carbon in the young, high-growth period of their life. Update: see comments for more on this). Carbon neutral

3. The cut trees are turned into pulp and then paper in a decarbonized process. Mills are generally on rivers and the pulp process is driven by hydro-generated electric power. Additional power is generated by burning bark, and the carbon from that is usually captured and sequestered. Carbon neutral

4. We print and bind that paper into magazines, which are delivered mostly by the US Postal Service, which runs the same routes whether they're carrying our magazines or not. Since the printing plants tend to be away from urban areas and near rail distribution, they tend to be pretty efficient from an energy perspective. Slight carbon positive

5. ... Since our readers tend to be upper middle-class urban and suburban dwellers, they're almost certainly either recycling the paper or it's being properly landfilled. In either case, the carbon is sequestered, which is to say it doesn't get back in the atmosphere. Carbon neutral.

Now, I know and like Chris, and I've written for Wired, but the problems with this argument, as I'm sure Worldchanging readers will recognize, are many, ranging from the fact that no one currently practices truly sustainable forestry on an industrial level to some creative energy accounting -- accounting which leads to conclusions completely opposite to those reached by InfoWorld when they studied the issue in depth:

According to a 2002 study by the Energy Information Administration, a division of the U.S. Department of Energy, the paper industry emits the fourth highest level of carbon dioxide among manufacturers, after the chemical, petroleum and coal products, and primary metals industries.

Moreover... Time magazine found that an average issue was responsible for creating about a quarter pound of greenhouse gas emissions. Compounding the damage, weekly magazine subscriptions generate an average of 90 pieces of mail in the form of renewal notices, premiums, and the like, according to the U.S. Postal Service. Yet paper usage is just the tip of the waste-berg. Delivering tens of thousands of magazines from the publisher to subscribers’ mailboxes means adding more weight to the post office’s fuel-burning planes and trucks.

The debate in the comments on Chris' post is vigorous and worth reading through. Though (given what I understand about publishing) I think Chris is wrong, that's not what really left me questioning the exercise. What gave me pause was: Why doesn't Wired know it's own backstory?

This is Wired Magazine, after all, which markets itself as the house organ of the technological future, and the future these days (as Wired icon and Worldchanging ally #1 Bruce Sterling noted) is all bright green.

What's more, the tools of backstory discovery fit well in the hands of alpha geeks: they involve wonky data-crunching moves like footprinting and life-cycle analysis, information design-fu like eco-labeling, and the kind of behind-the-scenes technological revelations that literary geeks love to unveil in publications like Make. Wired, if it really still knows its territory, ought to intellectually own this stuff.

But Chris doesn't: he's clearly guessing, or at least arguing without real data. And that's weird for another reason as well. While assessing the footprint of many complex commercial activities is still not easy, publishing is, at least in comparison, an ecologically pretty straight-forward business. There just aren't all that many moving parts.

Nor is Wired a small company. It's part of Conde Nast, which in turn is owned by Advance Publications, one of the largest media conglomerates in the U.S. These are the kind of companies that certainly have the money to pay to document and understand the backstories of their products.

And backstories, though complex, are not rocket science. Based on my own conversations with both leaders within large companies and with the accountability activists watching them from the outside, if large businesses want to know the impacts they're creating, it's mostly possible to find out. For many processes, complexities still abound; some basic science remains to be done; and for some goods and services, the backstory is so damn Byzantine that dissertating PhD students could wander into them and never be heard from again -- but in most cases, I'm told, management-supported exploration into lifecycles and impacts, clear transparency standards and a little muscle can at a minimum bring to light the general outline.

And people want to know. Consumers want to know. Watchdog activists and certification organizations want to know. Regulators increasingly want to know (and given what we're coming to understand about the urgency of the moment, they're going to want to know a lot more in the very near future). Investors are beginning to understand that if they don't know, they're not investing, they're gambling. Smart companies should be in open communication with all of these groups.

This is not only good corporate politics, it's risk reduction and brand management. Learning the backstory can help a big organization figure out what it's doing that might soon get it in trouble, and thus avoid that trouble. And showing that you know what sustainability and responsibility mean and are willing to acknowledge where you fall short (and share a plan for getting there) can win you brand trust on the issue.

For the last two years, green has been the new black: style, some buzzwords and good intentions were qualification enough to declare yourself green. But we're about to see a green shake-out. We're moving into a time when it's not enough to call yourself green,or profess green or do little things that are perceived to be green. Instead, you're going to have to show that what you're doing is better, much better, better enough to make a radical difference, and documentable. A very large portion of what now markets itself as green isn't going to make that cut. It's going to be very ugly when the compost hits the fan.

This is particularly true in green media, where there's already something of a population overshoot, and where a great many new publications have very, very little real in-house sustainability expertise. (Combine that with the emerging backlash against lifestyle environmentalism, and I think we're going to see a real winnowing process over the next year, with the publications that can keep up with the pace of innovation doing very well, and many others which have relied on the same narrow pool of small steps and shopping ads going out of business.)

So, Chris, here's my challenge to you: Somebody's going to invent backstory journalism. If it isn't Wired, does Wired have any claim to being on the technological cutting edge any more?

Leapfrog Wired back towards the forefront. Get corporate to commission a major backstory effort, and tell the story of the magazine as an object. If it is the journalist's first obligation to education his- or herself in public, use the technical exploration of the myriad real-world unseen impacts of producing a magazine as fodder for a journalistic study of the meaning of those impacts, and of sustainability in the 21st century, and how Wired can be a 21st century publication. Announce your plan to make Wired the world's leading bright green magazine within five years and make reporting your progress a major feature in every issue and on the site for the next few years.

Show us that Wired still's got the vision to see the future.

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Comments

Alex,

Only one problem with your post: you completely ducked the argument.

The study Infoworld cited didn’t discuss the carbon sequestration element, which is the CORE of my case.

You can do better than that.


Posted by: Chris Anderson on 11 Jan 08

Chris, according to Alex's pull from Wired, you say:
"Additional power is generated by burning bark, and the carbon from that is usually captured and sequestered. Carbon neutral"
This seems to be the basis of your CORE point. Can you document it, with an example from a paper mill whose stock ends up between the covers of Wired? That would be a step toward making this conversation a learning exchange. Thanks.


Posted by: Ted on 11 Jan 08

Ted:

Please READ my post. The core argument is that the magazine industry takes carbon out of the air and puts it into landfills (by cutting down tress and turning them into magazines, which are eventually thrown away). I know cutting down trees doesn't sound very green, but from a carbon sequestration perspective, it makes a surprising amount of sense.

Here's a handy link: http://www.longtail.com/the_long_tail/2007/12/are-dead-tree-m.html

Hey Alex, you might want to do the same thing! Get the argument straight before you dismiss it.


Posted by: Chris Anderson on 11 Jan 08

I didn't duck the argument at all, Chris, I simply cut to the chase of my main point. But since you ask, here are just a few of the reasons I suspect you're wrong:

1) Forests don't absorb as much CO2 as we might like to imagine, certainly not enough to make up for a massive industry's carbon footprint:

http://www.sightline.org/daily_score/archive/2006/07/27/sinks-a-lot

2) Completely leaving aside the other ways in which most logging is unsustainable (e.g. impacts on biodiversity, soil erosion, invasive species), I've been told repeatedly that most forestry (as done now) adds CO2 to the mix. Lots of CO2 to power machines, lots of CO2 from burning and rotting slash piles, lots of CO2 from soil disturbance... and only slow (and perhaps slowing) CO2 absorption.

3) The InfoWorld study seems to contradict your claim that pulp mills are carbon neutral; some credible folks, at least, believe paper production to be a massive contributor to climate change (again, completely leaving aside the question of other impacts like toxic waste)

http://chrislang.org/2007/12/20/the-paper-industry-and-the-business-of-climate-change/

3a) hydro is certainly better than many options, but has many ecological impacts and is not climate neutral, having many indirect impacts and producing lots of methane (which we're still trying to figure out how to deal with):

http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/science/nature/6638705.stm

4) The other quote above speaks to this.

5) Recycling is not a perfect process, energy wise. Landfills are themselves environmentally problematic, and there may be less perfect sequestration there than you argue. In both cases, I'll bet you money that it's far less of a closed-loop free lunch than you seem to imply.

I could go on. But really, my point here is something different, which is that YOU GUYS SHOULD KNOW THE NUMBERS HERE!

You should be making not a seemingly questionable argument, but reporting a backstory and explaining it.


Posted by: Alex Steffen on 11 Jan 08

Furthermore, Chris, I think you've succumbed to what Alex likes to call carbon blindness. Even if the numbers added up in your favor, claiming that the trees-to-landfill process of magazines is carbon negative says nothing about how sustainable that process is.

Most landfills do not decompose in any meaningful human timeframe due to their anaerobic environment. This means that their mass accumulates indefinitely - hardly a sustainable means of sequestration. The result is that we have to ship our trash farther and farther away to bury it, resulting in carbon emissions, or else incinerate it... resulting in carbon emissions. Recycling is hardly any better: it tends to be energy-intensive, polluting, and conducted in China.


Posted by: Adam Brock on 12 Jan 08

As I wrote on Chris's article, I commend him for even thinking about Wired's carbon footprint. But we can debate all we want on this topic, we'll never know for sure about which method of publishing emits less carbon unless we analyze them and get hard numbers.

I have offered our company's services to Chris & Wired Magazine to perform a Carbon and Ecological Footprint on their publishing methods. To show their dedication to their readers and the environment, they should perform a baseline environmental assessment. Our Company, Environmental Performance Group, would love the opportunity to help them do this.

Alex is absolutely right that companies must know their numbers. You cannot manage what you don't measure.


Posted by: Bridgette Steffen on 13 Jan 08

Chris Anderson's article draws attention to the need for publishers of print AND digital media publications to identify, quantify, and report on the climate change impacts associated with their supply chain practices.

It is no longer enough for publishers to write about the greening of business without addressing the environmental impacts associated with their own supply chains.

Neither print nor digital media, as currently produced and managed, are sustainable... but they can be if advertisers, publishers and their supply chain partners work together.

Collaboration is essential because print media manufacturing and transportation supply chains are complex, highly fragmented, waste-intensive systems that employ vast quantities of paper, fossil fuel energy and petrochemical products.

Chris, there are far more efficient and environmentally beneficial ways to sequester carbon than burying magazines in landfills. Alex makes a valid point about your having failed to dig for the details specific to the lifecycle of Wired.

Magazine publishing does have the potential to be socially beneficial, environmentally restorative and carbon positive, but to do so will require publishers and advertisers to engage in radical transformation of media supply chains... and editors may have to risk being bitten by the hands that feed them in asking pointed questions about the sourcing, production, distribution and waste that make up their backstory.


Posted by: Don Carli on 13 Jan 08

I can't believe anyone ever advocated trees for use for paper at all.

Read up on your history - hemp was outlawed so a very few people could make money using tree pulp for paper (because they had the required chemical patents to convert the pulp) instead of fast growing plants like hemp for fibre.
There's even paper made out of elephant dung.

Isn't it often said that your Consitution is on hemp paper. And the money notes used to be.

It's always good to have more forests and woodlands; it's never good seeing what's left when they are cut down, and it's never good having to hear that being done either. There's even places here where if you go out for wilderness walks you can give up on it being a pleasant experience entirely because there's a sawmill nearby. I'm sure that's a problem elsewhere also.
Are there any statistics on people moving to what they think are going to be quiet places that then turn out to be as insufferable as an industrial area.


Posted by: zupakomputer on 14 Jan 08

The least Green part of Wired, on paper, or online, is the advertising. The relentless selling of products is far more harmful to the environment than the paper. Wired kicked the gadget craze off way back in volume 1. I quit reading during volume 2, because all the tech rah-rah and gadgets got old.


Posted by: johnk on 14 Jan 08

Bah. All this means is we have to develop organic, living structures and devices. And consolidate systems functions so that we don't need several devices to do several things. And spend more time fucking off vs working. Follow nature, you know. As it is, this current 'stage' is probly potentially en route to this. We'll see.


Posted by: steph on 16 Jan 08

Chris Anderson wrote:

"The core argument is that the magazine industry takes carbon out of the air and puts it into landfills (by cutting down tress and turning them into magazines, which are eventually thrown away)."

There's a serious flaw with this argument. When paper is dumped in landfills, it rots and produces methane. Methane is more than twenty times as powerful a greenhouse gas as carbon dioxide. In a comment to his article, Chris says that Wired bys its paper from mills in Canada. In 2005, methane emissions from forest products in landfills in Canada accounted for 46% of the Canadian forest product industry's greenhouse gas emissions.

While the Canadian pulp and paper industry claims that it will be "carbon neutral" by 2015, at the moment its emissions are increasing. In 1990, the industry was responsible for 49.7 million tonnes CO2 equivalent. By 2005 this figure had increased to 53.3 million tonnes CO2 equivalent.

Chris says that Canadian paper production "tends to be more hydro-powered and thus more carbon neutral". True, but the Canadian forest sector (including forestry and logging, pulp and paper manufacturing, and wood products manufacturing) "is the largest single industrial energy user in Canada and has significant GHG emissions". (See my article linked above for sources for the last two paragraphs.)

Chris claims that Wired's paper suppliers only use timber from "sustainable forestry companies". But there's a lot more to sustainable forestry than replanting trees. Cutting down old-growth forest and replacing it with a monoculture tree plantation is not sustainable. I'd like more details about these "sustainable forestry companies".


Posted by: Chris Lang on 17 Jan 08



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