A theory of publishing: epilogue — book publishing and natural capital

In my previous post (‘A theory of book publishing, Act V: publishing as a capitalist pursuit‘) I analysed book publishing in relation to five types of capital requirement:

  1. financial capital
  2. technological capital
  3. human capital
  4. social capital
  5. cultural capital

Here I consider a sixth type of capital, namely natural capital.

There’s been much research on the impact of book publishing on the environment. Much of this has centred on the impact of (a) the paper industry and, to a lesser extent, (b) printing.

A particular focus has been the comparative impacts of print and ebooks.

Research to date has undoubtedly proved informative. It has, for example, helped to draw attention to the fact that the environmental impact of the paper industry concerns not only the quantity of forests but also their ecological diversity: extensive monoculture can destroy ecosystems. It has emphasised how environmental impact cannot be reduced to a simple matter of carbon emissions (a reductivism that equates to a monoculture of the mind) — there are such matters as biodiversity and conservation to consider.

Yet the research, and the impact that it has had on debate, has limitations. In particular, there has been some tendency to:

  1. treat certification of paper (for example, by the Forest Stewardship Council) rather uncritically. Though such certification is helpful, some critics have argued that certification is only as rigorous as the procedures that, in reality, govern it. Some heavily forested parts of the world are not widely regarded as free from crime or corruption;
  2. present ebooks over-positively: though they may avoid some of the negative impacts of paper and printing, they are not without environmental costs themselves. Think power, servers, and  lithium batteries. In addition, the fast rate of technical innovation has led to a high turnover of devices.
  3. look for technical absolutes (are ebooks better than print books and, if so, by how much?) rather than present environmental impact as relative to producers’ and users’ behaviour.

For example, the environmental impact of print books depends on where they are printed relative to the customer (if there is demand in Australia for a title published in the UK, does the publisher ship copies from the UK or print locally?).

Similarly, we need to examine the extent to which readers recycle their copies, for example through lending or trading through the secondhand market. And by how many people are library copies read?

There’s also been a tendency to ignore certain types of environmental cost. For example, there is the impact of commuting (of publishing stuff, book-buyers, and library users), business travel (transatlantic flights of editors to conferences, for example), and impacts embodied in capital goods such as printing presses.

The ideal would be the provision of a tool to enable each publishing house has to assess its environmental impact. There’s still a way to go.

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