Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Unintended consequences: paper, print and the price of oil

Stephen Bayley makes some nice points about The Book in an article on the BBC website (ironically enough), although as Dan Worth notes, many of the arguments are similar to those applied to print newspapers and magazines.

This does not make any of them untrue: print on paper will be with us for a long time. It is a well established system of production and consumption and there are some unique advantages to a print-on-paper product.

However, it does rely on a ready and relatively cheap supply of paper. Paper is made from trees, specially grown as a renewable crop. Businesses have made huge investments in these crops and they need a return – the highest possible return – on their investment. At the moment that is paper, which is still consumed in enormous quantities by the print industry, but what if the demand for paper continues to fall?

At the same time, what if the price of oil – a non-renewable resource – continues to rise?

Three words: biomass + fuel pellets.

You can make the equation for yourself. Instead of being a cheap(ish) source of paper pulp, the plantations of Finland and Canada and wherever else is big in paper making become valuable sources of heating fuel. In the UK, the National Trust has pledged to convert all its properties to biomass heating; in Wales permission has just been granted to build a massive new biomass-fuelled power station. I am sure that this is happening elsewhere and will only increase.

So, friends, just as capitalism contains the seeds of its own destruction (even the Daily Telegraph has acknowledged that Marx was right about this), so it also contains the seeds of the destruction of print on paper. The source material will simply become too valuable to waste on newspapers, magazines and books.

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