When we published the Encyclopedia of Sustainability in 2012, a librarian wrote, “That goes against the spirit of sustainability.” I got a similar response this week, so I want to explain why we publish in print and online, and why online is not “green.”

An ebook probably kills more trees through deforestation than an equivalent print book, and it certainly contributes more to climate change.

On the other hand, there’s no doubt that an ebook can distribute valuable information more widely and more conveniently. I do much of my reading and research online and wouldn’t dream of going back to a paper-only world (though there are plenty of dystopian and even utopian sci-fi novels that do just that).

Paper is a convenient culprit. The real problem is the resources needed to maintain our networked lives.

The question isn’t about so much about recycled paper or even the choice between printed books and ebooks, but the cost of having our entire lives online and dependent on chargers and batteries and powerful servers.

Computer networks use as much energy as the global aviation industry and are on a much faster growth trajectory. Keeping anything online makes a continuous contribution to global warming.

Thousands of stored emails, our bank statements, and photos on Facebook: it’s like driving around with everything you own in an RV.

Hosting a mere 10MB of data takes a gallon equivalent of gasoline per annum (producing 2-1/2 kilos of carbon dioxide). Yes, renewable fuels will help. But the world’s data storage industry is not run primarily on renewables. (Want some facts and figures? Here’s an article in Yale e360.)

Another issue is the environmental damage caused by the technologies we have come to depend on. It’s easy to talk about “saving trees” but we ought to be asking about the environmental impact of an iPad. And it’s not just the physical product (packed with rare and toxic metals, and composed in ways that make it impossible to re-manufacture economically). The use of cellphones, personal computers, ebook readers, and iPads worldwide requires some 3 percent of the entire electricity output.

Digital products—no matter how ephemeral and weightless they seem—should not be given a free pass. When I sit on the train reading a book on my Kindle I shouldn’t feel virtuous. In fact, the virtuous person may the one with a print library book—at least for now.

“For now” seems to be the condition of any action we take to reduce our carbon footprint. Tell providers that we need more efficient data centers and better off-line storage.

Finally, a step that demands courage: press the delete key. And press it again. For really important stuff such as legal and financial documents, and items of great personal significance, keep a paper file as well as an off-line digital backup. That paper will be around even if the grid breaks down or we succumb to a zombie apocalypse.

Many colleagues have email signatures that conclude with like this: “Go green. Don’t print this email.” Here’s what I’ve used instead: “Going paperless isn’t necessarily green. Data storage and processing generates CO2. Please consider the environmental impact of forwarding and storing emails and other digital content. Off-line backup requires no addition energy input.”

Now, after that soapbox speech, I can finally tell you where Berkshire titles online! 😉

Click here to order the print edition from Berkshire

You can get individual volumes or the whole set of the first edition of the Encyclopedia of Sustainability from Oxford Reference and Cengage GVRL, and we’ve just made arrangements with ProQuest, eBooks.com, and Gardners, and are also putting the ebooks on iBooks and Google Books.

How about that discount? We are offering a 50% prepaid prepublication discount on the 2nd edition, and naturally we’ve received requests for similar discounts on the digital edition. Unfortunately, this is something we have to try to arrange with a partner company since we do not yet have a library platform of our own. If you plan to order the encyclopedia when it’s available online and want to know about any possible discount, please drop a line to Kara Lozier.