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Logging Trees

Image: Mussi Katz, Flickr (CC PDM 1.0)

There is nothing quite like a book. The feel and weight, loaded with meaning and possibility, and the smell, that musty compression of grass and vanilla, laced with memory and history—it’s enough to ignite a sense of the sacred in almost any reader. This is true to the point that such sensory experiences can be as much a part of a book as its contents. And like wine—or more aptly, wood—the older the better, right? Inherited volumes. Dusty discoveries. Library loans. These, without disregarding the rich variety of acidic notes that new books offer, are the essences of a life spent reading.

As a writer, I am afraid even to entertain the notion that books are in fact inanimate objects. This patently true assertion feels false and, more importantly, wrong. And yet, the emotionality of the modern book as a cultural object clearly belies its materiality as a bound codex of dried and bleached wood pulp.

So cherished is the book—lining our living rooms, towering beside us at night—that we rarely spare a moment to consider its transience, its temporary state, not only in the vast calendar of planetary history, but also the shorter-lived paper life-cycle too. The story, as it were, begins and ends on the page. But the truth is that literature is a cultural form heavily reliant on material extraction. Where other narrative arts, such as film, television, comics and video games, have transitioned to digital methods of dissemination, the aesthetic handwringing over ebooks has been a more fraught discussion, mired in technological panic and ‘death of the novel’ discourse. Yes, these other media (ebooks included) come with their own share of carbon-intensive concerns: electronics are made with rare-earth metals, and even video game planes emit real carbon. But the crucial difference with printed literature—indeed, the global paper industry more generally—is that forests, the carbon-sequestering realm from which books conventionally derive, are critical to mitigating anthropogenic climate change. As David Attenborough puts it in A Life on Our Planet: ‘Forests are a fundamental component of our planet’s recovery. They are the best technology nature has for locking away carbon… We must immediately halt deforestation everywhere.’

But not books, though, right? Surely, that would be a step too far.

The story begins and ends on the page. But the truth is that literature is a cultural form heavily reliant on material extraction.

As someone who reads ebooks only rarely (and usually out of necessity) I instinctively agree. But it’s been a strange time. In Melbourne, we’ve been wearing masks for months, first through horrific bushfire and then the pandemic. Now, amid another nervous summer, it’s difficult not to feel a sense of dread, particularly in view of the Bureau of Meteorology’s recent State of the Climate 2020 report. The world is changing rapidly and, while it might be difficult to imagine how a small piece of the puzzle like literature connects to climate, the long-term viability of both publishing and reading might depend on doing so. Looking closer, and taking into consideration the IPCC’s recent Special Report on Climate Change and Land, a future in which there will be a means to produce books reliably, never mind sustainably, is becoming less certain, under threat of water scarcity and, somewhat ironically, deforestation itself.

The carbon footprint of wood products is complicated, the paper trail far from transparent. There is consensus among atmospheric scientists that deforestation hovers somewhere just above 10 per cent of all man-made climate emissions, which is comparable to the combined emissions of cars and trucks. Yet, the details are particularly difficult to tease out when you consider the chain of impacts of logging, from transport and extensive industrial reliance on fossil fuels and unsustainable biomasses, to soil emissions and loss of critical carbon storage and biodiversity. And this is all before you zoom out and factor in that the production of paper then involves further packaging and transportation, manufacturing, warehouse, retail and library storage, all of which require water and energy.

It might be difficult, perhaps even unreasonable, to conceive of books in a strictly material manner, as dead trees. They are more than that—no one is cancelling books. And so, we might reasonably ask, Sir David, do we have any other options?

The short answer is yes—the future of reading might just look different, made of diverse practices. Renewably powered ereading, libraries and book sharing would be key, as would the rights and revenues of authors, whose works currently can be remaindered and pulped if they are unsold after a certain amount of time (often a year). Perhaps more critically, alongside advances in digital paper and e-ink technology, the production of paper itself would need to change, relying on recycling, longer-lasting and alternative raw materials and fibres, such as wheat straw, cotton or bamboo (which admittedly won’t smell the same). As with most emissions-reducing social and cultural transformations, this shift isn’t as impossible as it appears, but rather stems from a lack of will on the part of richer nations. As John Vidal observes in The Guardian:

The science and economics needed to stem deforestation are in place, but…countries with tropical forests are some of the poorest in the world… Their pledges to stop or reduce deforestation are mostly conditional on rich countries financially and technically helping them achieve this.

When you then consider the local impacts that the construction of pulp mills has on communities in predominantly poorer nations, it situates reading as a privilege fed by global inequality.

It might be difficult, perhaps even unreasonable, to conceive of books in a strictly material manner, as dead trees. They are more than that.

To the credit of many publishers, these issues have been on their radar since the early part of this century. Penguin Random House, for example, announced in 2016 that it aimed to source 100 per cent of its paper from mills certified by either the Sustainable Forestry Initiative (SFI) of the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) by 2020, a goal it appears to have achieved. Still, it should be noted that various studies have identified how SFI and FSC programs—particularly the former—contribute to impacts on local communities and loss of biodiversity. For as Attenborough (whose publisher happens to be Penguin) explains, ‘the wilder and more diverse forests are, the more effective they are at absorbing carbon from the atmosphere.’ That is to say, there’s no replacing a tree, nor a forest. Tree replacement and forest management programs, while noble in cause, won’t suffice because they still result in a loss of carbon absorption capacity, along with significant greenhouse gas emissions, such as carbon dioxide and methane, released in the process of logging. When you piece together a picture of increasing annual emissions (the trash fire of 2020 excluded) alongside global canopy loss, it points only to a high carbon pathway into the future. And while the paper industry plays a small part in this, and trade publishing an even smaller one, it is worth considering that they are still part of commodity-driven deforestation, which, alongside agriculture, is one of the major drivers of global forest loss. Now, with growing awareness about the ‘mind-blowing potential’ of trees to capture carbon dioxide, it is clear that rewilding the planet—not market-based stewardship or management—is one of our highest-probability pathways to a more stable climate.

Where books—lovely, gorgeous books—fit into this is difficult to tell. But it is not difficult to see how a future in which global forests are growing might accommodate some printed book production. At this stage, however, an open dialogue around climate responsibility in publishing is necessary, one that is resilient and continues to address how literature can adapt to the changes set to unfold this century and beyond. The future of printed books depends on our doing so. This, of course, does not mean that we should stop buying books—publishers will not be able to make transitions to less carbon-intensive practices without the support of readers. But we might reduce the distance in our minds (sometimes referred to as psychological distance) between the labour and material sources that go into making books.

For many, books were a great comfort in 2020, helping us through the trials of lockdown and taking us to faraway places. The pandemic reading lists to be found throughout Twitter are testament to this. But if the madness of the past year has given us anything, it is a dawning collective sense that something is amiss in the world, that our planetary and political systems are ​buckling. One way or another, the coming decades will usher in significant change, perhaps even large-scale social transformations. It should come as no shock that books will be subject to the same material limits and conditions. But literature will adapt and evolve, as it always has, and it is comforting to know that regardless of the form books might take in the future, written stories will endure.