While the debate rages on about whether the Earth is actually heating or cooling, there is hard evidence that global carbon dioxide levels have been increasing. Many blame the increasing use of motor fuel in an increasing global fleet of vehicles for the rise in carbon dioxide. Others point to the increasing use of coal and natural gas to generate electricity. I propose a different explanation. I blame paper recycling, the Internet, and Digital Media.
The Carbon Sequestration Cycle
To understand the issue, one must understand the Carbon Sequestration Cycle. Trees pull carbon dioxide out of air, turning it to wood. The wood in the trees sequesters (that is, captures) the carbon. As long as the wood isn’t burned, the carbon (and carbon dioxide) stay locked up forever.
There is no doubt that mankind has steadily been increasing the use of fossil fuels throughout the twentieth and early twenty-first centuries. This increase in the use of fossil fuels had an associated increase in carbon dioxide production. Fortunately the increase in carbon dioxide was mostly offset by the publishing and newspaper industries. Millions of trees were cut down in support of the paper industry. The paper made from these trees was used for books, magazines, and newspapers. These books, magazines, and newspapers effectively sequestered the carbon dioxide pulled out of the air. New trees were planted to replace the trees cut down. These trees grew, pulling carbon dioxide out of the air and were eventually cut down to make more paper.
In the mid-twentieth century, newspaper readership was high. Trees pulled carbon dioxide out of the air. They were cut down to make paper. This paper was used for newspapers that were read once and then buried in landfills, safely locking away the carbon and carbon dioxide. Books were also very popular. People bought books for their libraries. Parents bought encyclopedias for their children. People safely held the carbon in their homes for years. When they grew tired of the books, off to the landfills went the books. Magazines followed the same path as newspapers, read once and off to the landfills, with a few exceptions. Many magazines found their way to doctor’s office waiting rooms where they safely sequestered carbon and carbon dioxide for decades. One magazine was particularly successful at carbon sequestration, National Geographic. Although it was considered technically legal to throw away a copy of National Geographic, no one ever did. National Geographics piled up in bathrooms, attics, basements, spare bedrooms, and in extreme cases living rooms, kitchens, and master bedrooms. Any carbon that made it into a National Geographic was guaranteed to be permanently sequestered.
This happy process continued until the 1980s, when a bunch of whiney liberals convinced everyone that we were running out of landfills and killing too many trees. Boo hoo. The idea of paper recycling was born. Soon schools, neighborhoods, churches, scout troops, and everyone else was recycling and having paper drives. Every year fewer trees were cut down. Every year less paper went to the landfills. Trees grew old and died without being cut down. Dead trees caught fire releasing deadly carbon dioxide back into the atmosphere.
Following close on the heals of paper recycling, comes the Internet. Once people get Internet access they inevitably stop buying and reading newspapers and get all of their news from the web. Not only does Internet access result in reduced carbon sequestration, but studies show that the typical Google search on a desktop computer produces about 7g of carbon dioxide (source US physicist Alex Wissner-Gross). Google disputes these figures, but of course they would, wouldn’t they.
Not only does the Internet reduce the amount of carbon sequestration due to reduced paper in landfills, but millions of people making millions of Google, Bing, and Yahoo queries use enough fossil fuel to put millions of grams of carbon dioxide into the air every minute.
The final nail in the natural carbon sequestration process is Digital Media. The rise in popularity of eBooks, online magazines and newspapers is the death knell for carbon sequestration. Toddlers can be seen with iPads, Kindles, and Nooks instead of the carbon capturing books of their grandparents. No longer do we find dictionaries and encyclopedias sitting on shelves safely locking up deadly carbon dioxide. Even National Geographic, that bastion of carbon sequestration has gone digital.
The latest fad is the paperless office. With digital documents and PDFs, even the office printer has been thwarted in its noble role of producing carbon capturing printouts destined for the landfill.
What can I do?
All is not lost. By following some simple steps you can do your part to save the Earth from the evil poison that is carbon dioxide.
Remember, only you can prevent forest fires. Old trees burn. Young ones don’t. The next time you get a PDF, don’t read it on the screen. Print it out, single-sided and say “Make mine in triplicate!”