Making the Switch to E-books

The following excerpt comes from Chapter 5 of As the Ocean's Rise. Like many sections of the book, it features an interview with someone who has already adopted a more sustainable practice, in this case, e-reading. It then describes some of the benefits of e-books and suggests how we can hasten the adoption of this alternative to our familiar, but environmentally damaging, practice of cutting down trees to make books, magazines, and newspapers.

Patricia Clark adores the classics. Clark, an avid reader who teaches philosophy, filled her home with so many books that she was running out of room for anything else. All those books not only took up space, they represented dead trees that were no longer removing carbon from the atmosphere. Rather than continue to indulge a book-buying habit that was unsustainable for both her and the planet, Clark purchased a Sony electronic reader.The e-reader, about the size of a paperback and weighing less than a pound, accompanies her on the train each day during her half hour commute to the office.

En route, Clark can choose from a collection of detective novels for light reading, switch to her favorites in English and French literature, or dig into the writings of Plato, Wittgenstein, and the other intellectual heavyweights she reads for work. In all, Clark estimates she spends about 12 hours per week reading books on the $300 device.

Thanks to several ambitious e-book conversion projects, Clark has plenty to read. For over a decade, Project Guttenberg has been scanning books with expired copyrights. The free service now has nearly 20,000 titles.[1] Google is in the midst of an even more ambitious book scanning project that is challenging the limits of copyright in an effort to make the great libraries of the world accessible to everyone. may offer the largest collection of titles for sale, with 80,000 titles for its portable eReader, the Kindle. The Kindle uses the same E-Ink technology as the Sony reader to produce an easy-to-read screen that uses very little energy. The Kindle goes beyond the Sony e-reader by incorporating a wireless connection for limited access to the Internet. Using the wireless connection, Kindle owners can download new e-books instantly, access Wikipedia, and receive electronic delivery of newspapers and magazines. This new feature hints at the potential for e-readers to offer more functionality than their paper-based predecessors. Particularly for books with many links to online resources, reading on a fully Internet-enabled device is a big advantage. In addition to Internet access,
e-readers could also perform many other functions such as playing audio files and serving as full-featured communications devices. Some owners of Palm Pilots and other PDAs are already using the screen on those devices to read books.

“The personal computer has revolutionized the structure of communication, concealing beneath its astonishing versatility and consumer appeal a bold transition to electronic, postmodern culture.” – Richard Lanham

Enthusiastic users have created active online communities including the Yahoo eBooks group and the MobileRead forum.[2] They foresee a not-too-distant future when a convergence of mobile device technologies, plus innovations like flexible screens,[3] give e-readers so many advantages over printed materials that they become the preferred option for most types of reading. To achieve that status, though, e-reading will need to overcome our deeply ingrained habit of reading on paper. It will also need cooperation among publishers and hardware makers to end format incompatibilities and overly restrictive copy-protection schemes. Bill McCoy, Director of Digital Publishing for Adobe, the company that created the ubiquitous PDF format, believes the e-publishing industry will take off “by rallying around open standards. Right now e-books are less than 1% of the book market. When the entire industry uses the same format, sales will skyrocket.”

A few decades ago, almost everyone wrote with a pen and paper. Many declared they would never convert to writing at a computer. And now? Somehow our habits changed and composing at a keyboard became the norm. Given our familiarity with computers and mobile electronic devices, the conversion to e-books may occur much more quickly now that Amazon, Sony, and other mainstream vendors have hopped on the bandwagon.

Awareness of e-reading’s benefits for the climate could accelerate adoption. Although the trees used for making paper are a renewable resource, they’re being consumed more quickly than they’re being replaced. As long as the total demand for all paper products, including the books, newspapers, and magazines that e-readers can eliminate, exceeds the worldwide capacity of sustainable forestry, rainforests and other precious woodlands will continue to vanish. Even though e-readers consume energy and become electronic waste, they take us in the right direction by reducing not only the demand for paper, but also the energy needed to produce and transport printed materials. For Patricia Clark and the other voracious readers among us, those savings can be substantial.



[2] and

[3] "Flexible Screen Technology Ready To Roll," ScienceDaily (Jan. 21, 2004)

As the Oceans Rise: Meeting the Challenges of Global Warming, © 2008