On a mid-monsoon morning, with the drizzling sound of rain drops gently touching the earth and the fresh smell of soil, one would like to curl up with a seeping hot cup of cha in one hand and a book in the other. That is how many book lovers would love to spend their ideal holidays. However, it is high time that we think about the ethical and environmental implications of the ways in which we read and reflect on sustainable alternatives. In this age of a growing climate crisis, and Bangladesh being one of the countries most vulnerable to climate change given its geographical location, it is high time that readers think about a more sustainable alternative: e-books.
One might now question: what is sustainability? Sustainability focuses on meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their needs. The concept of sustainability is composed of three pillars: economic, environmental, and social—also known informally as profits, planet, and people. (Investopedia, 2021) It is crucial, as citizens of a country very vulnerable to global warming, that we understand the meaning of sustainability—of environmental sustainability, to be precise, which is the responsibility to conserve natural resources and protect global ecosystems to support health and wellbeing, now and in the future.
When we first discussed the writing of this article, my instinctive response as an environmentalist was that Bangladesh should switch to e-readers. When we publish more books, the increased use of reading materials, regardless of their format, results in heightened demand for the materials required to manufacture, transport, and store them. With great sales revenue comes great questions—namely, what are the environmental and social consequences of all this literary consumption? When it comes to determining whether e-readers or books are more environmentally friendly, there is a long (and we mean long) list of factors to be taken into consideration. When we choose to read the electronic version of a book, paper is saved which, needless to mention, comes from trees. On environmental grounds, it reduces deforestation to some extent, reduces waste and other relevant pollution caused by paper, and it minimises transportation related costs and emissions. In addition to these factors, e-books also occupy very little space both in terms of physical size and storage capacity, since an electronic reader can contain thousands of books. An 8 GB Amazon Kindle, for instance, can store up to 6,000 books. With proper IT infrastructure, they can allow access to a vast number of literature from online repositories.
Of course, there's a reason why paper holds a special place in its own right. Reading books has come to involve emotional investment and we grew up gaining perspectives of the world through books. As a child, I never thought that I could read my favourite book on a technological device, let alone carry thousands of books along with me everywhere I go. Reading a physical book is a lovely feeling, something that requires our sensory systems like touch, smell and vision, and it creates a memory of the experience of reading which can only be accessed through these senses. The smell of fresh ink, of turning the crisp pages and holding the book in one's hand has a sense of comfort and excitement associated with it.
Books also have an irreplaceable historic value: whatever is being documented today will be recorded as the pages of history in the future. It is an important part of education. We cannot effectively shift to e-books when it comes to textbooks. If anything, today's children need to disconnect from their Wi-Fis and let their imagination flow along with the pages of their books. And just like children, adults, too, need to let their imagination run wild.
And yet, today, as many as one in four adults in the West owns an e-reader or tablet. By 2025, e-readers are projected to make up approximately 75 percent of the total market. (E-Readers Vs. Print Books, 2015)
Meanwhile, at present, there are about 100 private paper mills in Bangladesh, with production capacity of 1.5 million (15 lakh) metric tons a year on average. There are three state-owned paper mills. The per capita paper and board consumption in Bangladesh is about 3.5–4 kg, while that in advanced countries is more than 300 kg and the world average is around 50 kg. The per capita paper consumption as well as total paper consumption are increasing across developing countries and, also, in Bangladesh. It will increase further in the future. (Quader, 2011)
While the paper industry might want to expand, the government also needs to investigate the matter of pollution and ensure that the expansion does not harm the environment. Thus, a water treatment plant is mandatory to reduce water consumption. Paper mills usually consume a huge amount of water. The production of one ton of paper consumes 90 tons of water. To reduce water usage and protect nature, every paper mill should have a proper effluent treatment plant (ETP). They need to have qualified engineers to monitor the ETPs regularly and use up-to-date machinery in the mills. Keeping these things in mind, I would encourage both private and public paper mills to create more environmentally friendly recycled paper products when thinking of expansion. For that, the government can subsidise imported machineries that make better quality recycled paper.
In the Education Watch Report 2020-22, a report was released by Campaign for Popular Education (CAMPE), which revealed that since the prolonged closure during the COVID-19 pandemic from March of last year, about 69.5 percent of students did not participate in distance learning and 57.9 percent of them said they could not join classes due to a lack of devices. About 69 percent of the students in rural areas could not take part in the classes due to not having devices, as they did not have access to laptops, computers, TVs, and smartphones. Expecting these individuals in the rural pockets of Bangladesh to shift from physical books to sustainable and digitised e-books, while it may sound like a better idea, is simply not feasible right now for a developing nation such as ours.
Another reason the transition might be difficult is the issue of cyber security. It would need to be strengthened so that piracy is avoided, ensuring that writers and publishers make money out of their hard work. One also needs to look at the printing industry and its craftsmen, like binders and printers, who would be put out of business. In the most rural parts of our country there is already a shortage of basic telecommunication infrastructure. People in the rural areas would also need the access to internet connection to access e-books.
What we can suggest for Bangladesh, instead, is that readers shift to sustainable forms of living. Readers socioeconomically solvent enough can choose to shift to digitised versions. Publishers—and newspapers—can decide to publish content online, which we have seen to take a positive turn when circulation of print newspapers declined due to the COVID-19 pandemic. On a national level, government circulation of printed material containing one time news, whose value ceases to exist after the news has been published, can be digitised, and disseminated online. Such sustainable practices can be adopted by the government and corporate offices to reduce unnecessary usage of paper.
Some may argue that using a laptop, phone, tablet, and e-reader does not give them the same kind of excitement or satisfaction as reading a physical book. However, if the environment demands this shift, especially if we can afford the luxury to shift, we should happily do so as our concerns about saving the world from global warming and other hazardous climate changes should outweigh our love for traditional forms of reading, which aspires to be an intellectually and socially conscientious endeavour in itself. There are much bigger issues at hand—global warming, rising sea levels, and the subsequent creation of climate refugees, unpredictable cyclone patterns, salinity intrusion, and drought—which need our urgent and holistic attention. Small steps like shifting to e-books can add towards shifting to a sustainable future. On this World Environment Day, I would like to encourage people into making that behavioural change, into understanding what sustainability is.
With this article, I have tried to offer a perspective on the good and bad sides of the options at our disposal. Now it falls on you, dear reader, to make a conscious choice on which option sounds better, keeping in mind the environmental consequences such a choice can have. The time to change our perspectives on sustainability is now. Being a country vulnerable to climate changes makes this an especially pressing matter. And while Bangladesh contributes a negligible fraction to the global emission of greenhouse gases, it is usually developing countries like ours who are at the greatest risk of suffering the consequences.
Sharazad Hassan is a graduate-to-be from the University of Nottingham, UK. She specialises in climate change and aspires to be an environmentalist who can bring about sustainable behavioral change.