A recent Wall Street Journal opinion article, “Save a Forest: Print Your Emails,” has received a lot of attention lately. Its writer makes the point that in spite of the familiar “do not print this email” request, it is perfectly fine to print your emails given the fact that paper is “renewable, recyclable, and sustainable.” Those with differing opinions are, of course, flabbergasted at what they claim is a gross oversimplification and point to the amount of paper sent to landfills, our ongoing need to reduce carbon emissions by keeping trees standing, and the critical need to protect the biodiversity that exists in the world’s forests. Both sides make valid points. But who’s right?
Separate from any technical analysis, the first question that comes to my mind is, “who the heck prints their email?” My guess is that the motivation behind the “don’t print this email” campaign likely stems from the early days of email and the internet, and the attention given to it today has probably eclipsed its initial suspected cause.
I think most of us can grasp the intentions behind “don’t print this email.” If I were to print my email, it would be wasteful because I should be able to read it on my computer. And if I don’t print my email, I’m being mindful of a precious natural resource. There are likely people out there who still do print their email, but are these print-happy maniacs major contributors to worldwide forest loss?
In fact, the main causes of forest loss worldwide are, by a majority, agriculture and urban sprawl. For example, 70% of formerly forested land in the Amazon, and 91% of land deforested since 1970, is used for livestock pasture.
Many are surprised to learn that it’s not just the rainforests of South America and Southeast Asia that are under threat. The United States’ demand for meat, more living space, and energy means that forest owners are selling their land to the highest bidders, namely the developers in these industries. Previously managed or protected forestland is being permanently converted to other uses, leading to deforestation and forest fragmentation. The result in the United States is harsh consequences on the environment including poorer water and air quality, biodiversity and species loss, and degradation of natural landscapes.
If there’s a lesson in the “don’t print this email” debate, it’s that we should be suspicious of any dialogue that suggests complicated environmental problems can be reduced to simple actions. Environmental challenges are real, they’re complex, and we need to be diligent about using facts to lead us to solutions even when there is a strong emotional component.
No matter how you look at it – emails, sloppy joes, or golf courses – the cause of deforestation is us. Let’s get better at recycling paper and not be wasteful when we use it. But let’s also broaden the discussion and accept that while recycling is important, it is only one part of the solution to protecting forests in the U.S. and around the world. We need to move the discussion forward and talk about how our impacts on the forest go beyond merely what we print or don’t print. Forests are severely impacted by our diet, living preferences, energy sources, and what we choose to buy and sell. You might choose to not print out this blog entry, but you might think about skipping that T-Bone every now and again as well.