Robert P. Marzec

Associate Editor, Modern Fiction Studies

Associate Professor

Department of English

Purdue University


“Sustainable Publishing: the Dead-End of the Print/Digital Binary”


            Environmental activists are a dime a dozen today. This might be taken as a promising sign, but in most cases it’s extremely unproductive. For instance: the axiom that digital printing is more environmentally friendly than print is a common myth spread by both pop environmental activists and those who do not believe in such a thing as global warming. The logic informing this paper/electronic debate operates by generating a reified linear history, an enclosed field imaginary that, by confirming its object and target of a critical, ethical investigation—paper as the master signifier for the destruction of forests—banishes on principle the very history of its endorsed alternative. One side of the equation is made visible as a critical target of investigation, while the other rises to the benign position of what early poststructuralists once referred to as the transcendental signified, floating metaphysically above, beyond, and outside any critical attention. The concept of sustainability requires that the scholar have access to a critical, ecological history. We have this history for the paper side of the equation, but the history of electronic publishing has yet to be written. I’ll begin to sketch out some of that history here, giving first some factual informing before suggesting how we might proceed theoretically.

Digital print, as everyone knows—too routinely, in fact—exists in the world of the virtual. This tends to mystify its direct relation to fossil fuels. Imagine, for instance, a series of Google searches performed by the average user, on an average morning. The various types of information coveted by the consumer are stored by Google on massive amounts of redundant, multiple servers that function by competing against one another (this is the infrastructure that enable’s Google to generate information for the consumer as fast as possible). These searches consume specific amounts of fossil fuels—the oil and gas used to generate electricity. Millions of people surf the web every hour, and we can mark that carbon footprint concretely at 2% of international emissions each year. Viewing a simple webpage generates approximately .02grams of CO2 per second; ten times this is required to view a complex website with multiple images; a running PC generates 40 to 80grams of CO2 per hour; a fifteen-minute Google search, 7-10 grams. All of this activity adds up. Those maintaining characters in online virtual reality games, for instance, consume 1,752 kilowatt hours of electricity per year—approximately the same amount of electricity consumed by the average Brazilian per year. According to the American research firm Gartner, the carbon footprint of information and communication technology exceeded that of the global aviation industry for the first time in 2007. Digitial media’s production of Greenhouse gases now exceeds the greenhouse gases produced by the world’s airplanes. We will soon need to add to this footprint the emissions figure generated by the numbers of those coming on line in the Global South and East.

The questionable connection of sustainability to the consumer use of software must also be thought in relation to the hardware side of the equation. For instance, one of the key elements used in the production of internal electronic components is an ore commonly known as Coltan. Coltan’s exceptional heating properties make it a useful element in the fabrication of capacitors for mobile phones, e-readers, iPads, DVD players, game consoles, and computers. The demand for this ore has skyrocketed since 1998 (with the production of Playstation Two, which appeared in 2000). The majority if the Coltan used in electronic devices—64%—comes from the mines of the Democratic Republic of Congo. Coltan is one of the greatest sources of revenues for militias in the DRC and neighboring Rwanda, and has directly supported the region’s civil wars (resulting the deaths of over 5 million people in the last dozen or so years).[1] A recent UN report on child labor stated that 30 percent of school-aged children from east Congo are forced to work in Coltan mines. The release of Playstation Two in 2000, greatly increased the demand for capacitors using Coltan, and raised its world market price from $49 per pound to $275. This greatly accelerated the mining enterprise, which in turn generated even greater revenue for the purchase of weapons. The effects of this year’s production of Amazon’s Kindle, Sony’s Reader, and the iPad on this activity have yet to be charted.

In addition to the occlusion of the environmental and human rights impact of what we might call e-History, we can add the concept of e-Geography. According to the United Nations, discarded computers (rapidly increasing yearly) are polluting environments at an alarming rate. This e-Waste is classified at 30 to 100 times more toxic than that of general consumer waste. The toxins found in computers, known as “heavy metals,” include fireproofing (antimony trioxide), arsenic, barium, cadmium, chromium, lead, mercury, selenium, and silver. Fifty-four percent of e-Waste ends up in toxic dumps in impoverished geographical locations outside the West each year. This directly affects both regional ecosystems and populations. Local populations, lacking access to safe recycling and electronic harvesting tools, burn off the plastic of electronic carcasses in large fires that are kept going hours each day; people mine copper, gold, and other metals out of computers through the use  of acid dips, which in most cases results in scarred hands and arms.[2] As is typical in our postcolonial world, this impact on non-Western geographies does little to change Western production and consumption.

Even less recognized is the impact that e-Waste has on Western geographies. Heavy metals cause brain damage and severe developmental problems; they have been linked to the autism epidemic that, according to the medical industry, has only appeared as an epidemic in the last 50 years. A provisional study by the Albert Einstein medical school of over 600,000 children with severe developmental disabilities concluded that these disabilities were likely the result of e-Waste heavy metals. In 2010 study of the United States Geological Survey found mercury, one of the most toxic of these heavy metals, in every fish in every stream they tested.[3]

To this we can add the resources necessarily consumed in the production process of electronic devices. The average desktop monitor, for example, requires 10 times its weight in fossil fuels and chemicals to manufacture (to give you some perspective on this, automobiles and refrigerators require 1-2 times their weight in fossil fuels): “manufacturing one desktop computer and a 17-inch CRT monitor uses at least 240kg of fossil fuels, 22kg of chemicals and 1500 kg of water—a total of 1.8 tons of materials” (Update.UNU, Issue 31).

The environmental impact of print media, however, is decreasing, since that side of the equation has been the one to be heavily criticized. Compared to digital production, an estimated 3 kg of carbon emissions are generated in the production of a single book.[4] Moreover, ecologists have presented sound plans for implementing environmentally sustainable print programs (which not only involves the use of recycled paper, but also vegetable print, waterless paper processing, equipment energy reduction, new forms of ink, etc.). David Shorto, (paper and print buyer for Friends of the Earth and Greenpeace) argues that if such programs were to be fully instituted, paper production would pose no harm to any forest. The pulp that can be generated by paper remainders can easily be recycled. The same cannot be said of electronic remainders, which we do not typically think of as being remainders. To give just one example, it has been estimated that in 2010 alone, over 100 million phones and 300 million computers will have been thrown away.[5]  In point of fact, the effect of print on the environment is decreasing, whereas the environmental impact of digital media is not.

We need to theorize the complex ontological ground plan that supports this separation of e-History from the well-documented history of paper, and the separation of toxic non-Western and Western e-Geography from the disinterested conception of traditional, non-virtual geography. Part of this ontology has to do with the logical economy of the “search.” The “search,” far from signifying an increase in the general population’s demand for knowledge, let alone critical scholarship, is symptomatic of a direct relationship to “information.” The search—one of the primary modes of human action in the information age—is governed by speed, not by sustainability. Here, it seems to me, that the work of someone like Paul Virilio would be highly instructive. I do not have time here today to go into this in detail, but a particular aspect of his work on speed—called the “accidental thesis,” which I develop elsewhere as “the Accidental,” in connection with Kant’s concept of “the Transcendental”—is especially instructive for revealing the toxic nature of our passionate attachment to the electronic regime. Fundamentally, a particular form of speed rules human desire in the information age. Faster computers, faster targeting programs and apparatuses (both military and civilian), faster transportation devices (both physical and virtual), have as their goal the erasure of not only time, but space, in terms of geographical distances. (The consumer, and the scholar, for that matter, do not have to travel to instantaneously acquire images and information about the best vacation spot in Italy, or the latest tweet from Sarah Palin, or the latest set of images from the struggles of the Dalit movement in India…) One theoretical point to make here is that the essence of geography changes with this particular form of speed: it becomes an obstacle for technology to overcome in favor of “speed” and “immediacy.” (If I had time I would discuss how this discontent with geographical distances is related not only economically to the rise of capitalism, but ontologically as well, to transformations peculiar to the modern era, specifically to the change in land and geographical relations known as the enclosure movement and the rise of colonial empires.) Speed transforms knowledge into information. It is symptomatic of a form of mastery that seeks to constitute a network that banishes any element that might slow down its peculiar targeting framework. As such it is governed by a drive to overdevelop and overexpose its own lines of communication and interaction to the exclusion of all else. To ensure that it maintains its speed it must constitute an overexposed environment which in turn ensures the total discoverability necessary for instantaneous and total access to information. It thus produces a tightly enclosed totality, a foreclosed system in order that the manipulability of the system be as thorough and as complete as possible. This drive to “overexpose” for purposes of total control, technological manipulation, and economic development (typified by the high-yield and high-speed demand of economic liberalization) creates a world of increasingly dangerous and globally-consequential accidents: from flight disasters to Chernobyl to the unexpected outcomes of the genetic manipulation of crops. The production of faster electronic devises leads to the “accident” of toxins in an ecosystem’s streams, which in turn enters human and animal blood-streams. The development of faster search engines produces the accident of the immediately outdated, useless computer, and the accident of electronic waste dumps in India, Ghana, China, and elsewhere. The creation of the iPad leads to the creation of the accidental consumer thinking her or his Kindle Reader is now substandard, outdated and thus useless. The demand for more efficient capacitors necessary for the development of smaller devices that save us from carrying around so many books produces the accident of child labor in the Congo. In other words, the electronic device has system failure built directly into it. It should be obvious that the production of these accidents is radically different from saying, for instance, that discovery and advancement in general necessarily involve risk.

            Academic journals—even if they are still print journals—are now firmly connected to this questionable connection of digital publishing to sustainability. Modern Fiction Studies, for instance, makes almost all of its revenue from digital access. In its print heyday of the 70s, we had well over 2000 individual subscriptions (a total of over 4500 if you include institutions). Today we have 76 individual print subscribers, and the numbers continue to drop. We do a print run of 2500, and sell less than 2000 to the national and international institutions that continue to stock hard copies in their libraries. Access on Project Muse, on the other hand, continues to rise (Johns Hopkins’s 2007 rankings of Mfs with other journals places it at number 4 in hits, with The Journal of Democracy, Human Rights Quarterly and World Politics recording more usage; the total number of 2009 hits to MFS was 256,942; 6133 of those hits were from the four 2009 issues).

This increase in the number of accidents defines human culture and its environment at the level of its being in our current historical occasion and plays a role in the way our minds constitute environments—both domestic and foreign—as objects of investigation and use. The foreclosure of encounters with anti-systemic phenomena brought about by the occasion of “overexposure” for purposes of speed and immediacy repositions the appearance of the unexpected from the exterior to the interior. The unexpected begins to appear as an internalized accident, displacing the radically different, the radically other. In the context of sustainable publishing we no longer face the colonization of the other, or even the exoticization of the other that marked the logical economy of the colonial era. Because of the metaphysical, historyless and geographyless nature of the digital realm, the other never comes to presence. The “accident” is a phenomenon that replaces this event of the other, who formerly had the potential to disrupt the ideological apparatus. The accident in fact replaces the event; and the Accidental replaces the Transcendental. In this sense, the foreclosed system puts people on the alert for accidents, terrorizing them to become panoptic machines living in a state of hyperactive awareness and consumption. The accident is paradoxically surprising but also expected. It is expected that the Kindle reader will soon accidentally crash when newly formatted book documents arrive. It is expected that we will discard it in favor of the iPad. It is expected that we will discard our current laptops for lighter laptops. It is expected that we discard our iPads for the iPad Two, the iPad Three, and the iPad four. Can we say the same for the book?

 Thus a peculiar ontological understanding of the world rules relations between humanity and the environment today—made manifest by this glut of symbolic investiture in popularized eco-political polemics. The Accidental is the name for a specific status of humans and the environment.[6] It is the nature of the Accidental, to co-opt both the life struggles of poor communities and threatened habitats. It is highly mobile and freefloating. A certain form of political conservatism still operates within this liberal structure, but this mainly functions in order to manipulate public opinion by directing it toward the next impending accident: it is a form of terrorism directed at all. Despite this, recognizing the accidental enables us to theorize the logical economy informing the reified conditions constituting the status—and playing field—of the Sustainable. The question is what will be “sustained” in the move to a digital environment, (or the refusal to make this move, for that matter)? In other words, it is a concern of the particular ontological and epistemological character of the conditions determining the horizon of sustainable practices and the grounds for discussing “the sustainable” as a category of inquiry, and the limitations put on sustainability in terms of its political dispersal (and without this dispersal, sustainability would not be on the table as an issue). “Sustainable publishing,” if it is to bring about a renewal or a rejuvenation or a continuation of intellectual life (assuming this as a principle reason for debating the issue), must unbind itself from the dead end either/or framework of the print/digital binary and think instead the potentials and connections currently forbidden to intellectual publishing by the real actors (economic and neopolitical)[7] that are controlling this game known as “the death of print culture.”




[1] Dylan Welch. “Bought from the barel of a gun.” Brisbane Times. November 27, 2010. Accessed December 19, 2010. See also Brian Fung. “The Geopolitics of the iPhone.” Foreign Policy. June 28, 2010. Accessed December 20, 2010.

[2] Toby Sells. “Electronics vs Paper: Who’s the Greenest of All?” The Commercial Appeal. Accessed December 20, 2010.

[3] “The Urgent Problem of eWaste Poisons.” Accessed December 20, 2010.  USGS. “Mercury in Stream Ecosystems.” August 14, 2009. Accessed December 21, 2010.

[4]  Green Living. October 4, 2010. Accessed December 19, 2010.

[5] Yo Takatsuki. “Dealing with Toxic Computer Waste.” BBC News. 27 December, 2006. Accessed December 20, 2010.

[6]  For the relationship on speed and space, see Paul Virilio, Popular Defense and Ecological Struggles. Trans. By Mark Polizzotti. (New York: Semiotext(e), 1990 [1978]), 28-36.

[7] I use the term “neopolitical” (rather than, say, Zizek’s “postpolitical”) to name the severely attenuated potential of action in a political realm that predetermines the parts political actors can play.