Award-Winning Editor of Clarkesworld Magazine, Forever Magazine, The Best Science Fiction of the Year, and More

Which is More Green?

Today at Philcon, they had the following panel:

Can giving away free electronic fiction really be good for science fiction?
James Patrick Kelly, Gordon Van Gelder, Eric Flint

In a side-topic during the panel, Eric made the statement that he believed online publishing to be more green than print. Gordon took the opposite side. The conversation was short (since it was off-topic) but it did get me thinking…


Online Magazines


Being a Free Online Magazine


  1. Tough call. Computers are full of toxic waste, but on the other hand I send roughly a grocery sack full of paper to the recycling bin every week.

    • Yeah, I’m a bit surprised by the results so far. I expected some support for paper since it is at least natural, biodegradable and often recyclable. Building a computer results in a lot of toxic substances and they don’t recycle well. It also requires electricity.

      On the other hand, a huge amount of paper is produced in the lifetime of one computer. It’s also likely that you’d have the computer anyway, so going paper doesn’t really cut back on computers.

      • It’s also likely that you’d have the computer anyway, so going paper doesn’t really cut back on computers.

        That was pretty much my rationale for voting – I have a computer (ok, two) and wouldn’t get another just to read an electronic pub, so the evironmental cost is more about the electricity used while I read the publication, and the impact of the servers hosting it.

        • Even if an e-reader takes off, it will eventually include an mp3 player and a host of other functions that have nothing to do with books.

      • Yeah, I’m a bit surprised by the results so far.

        Well, except you’re taking this poll on the internet. All the people who prefer paper are off somewhere with their paper magazines or their books. The audience and the medium of distribution here are going to skew results, at least a little.

        • But it isn’t really a matter of preference, is it? One has to be more environmentally friendly than the other. Whether or not you like reading that way should be irrelevant.

          • Sure, one has to be more environmentally friendly. But people are making that judgment based on existing preferences and prejudices instead of facts. For example, that’s the comparable energy usage to produce and distribute paper magazines/number of readers vs. production time for an electronic magazine plus the cost of keeping the computer running times length of time spent reading times readers? I have no idea. I do know that it’s impossible to answer this question without doing the math to figure stuff like that out.

            I suspect that people’s existing preferences and prejudices, expressed in response to this poll, are correct in this case: that’s certainly my gut reaction to the question. But I acknowledge that my reaction is based on my prejudice and not on facts. Someone with a different set of prejudices is going to assume a different set of facts to be true as well. That was my point.

          • I guess I’m just more optimistic. I would hate to think that people say electronic is more green just because they like to read that way. By this point in the poll, I’d expect some measure of support for paper since I know a number of the readers here prefer it over electronic.

            Personally, I’m torn. I find it hard to fall into either camp because a print magazine is very easily given an ecological footprint. Online magazines are much more difficult since the computers and servers in place are not dedicated to this service. If I pulled down Clarkesworld tonight, the server I use would still use the same amount of energy it did last week. But still… is has to fit in somehow.

            So, yes, I guess it does come down to some assumptions, but as I see it, the assumptions are totally on how one would calculate the ecological footprint on an online publication. I suppose it falls somewhere between a conservative and extreme estimate, which might be a starting point for comparison. I wish I had the resources to find out.

  2. Electronic publication FTW. Not every town has a recycling program and not every town with a recycling program recycles paper, plus recycling programs create toxins of their own that have to way outweigh the carbon footprint of computer making. Also, many recycling programs do not take glossy magazines or mags with color ink, and while that wouldn’t affect the recycling of FSF (just rip the cover off), it would for other magazines in particular stuff like People and TV Guide. Why did GVG say print pubs were greener?

    And as for whether e-pubs are good for science fiction, I ONLY read e-pubs, and know quite a few others for whom it is the same. Not only is the quality of the fiction generally higher (not suckin’ up, it’s just true!) but it’s super convenient to read at work or surfing at home. When I read print things I generally want to read books not magazines. I don’t read non-fiction magazines either. Just my .02c. 🙂

    • He didn’t get to say much before the topic changed, but essentially pointed to the equipment as being less green in manufacturing, usage, and at the end of their life cycle. Personally, I would have loved to have heard more.

  3. I think in a few more generations people are going to think it was bizarre that we ever chopped down trees and used their pulp (after bleaching it and putting it through other environmentally-unfriendly processes) to make something like paper. E-pubs all the way, and I’m not just saying that because I edit one. 😉

    • I agree with this, not because I think e-pubs are necessarily environmentally friendlier (I lack sufficient data to make the call), but because all the trends I’m familiar with are tending that way. (For instance, a study I read last summer on scholarly publication figures that it’ll all be digitally native by 2025, if memory serves.)

      There’s also the convenience factor. Every time my library switches a subscription to online, usage goes up. Online discovery tools have gotten good enough to really enable this, and people can read their articles without going to the effort of finding them on the shelves. Click-and-done. (Admittedly, I mostly work with faculty and students in the sciences, business, and healthcare, fields which have a known preference for electronic format. In the humanities the situation is a bit less clear.)

      • Having worked in education for the last 18 years, I’ve certainly noticed a shift in the comfort levels of people reading electronic fiction and non-fiction. In oversimplified terms, it’s still very much a generational issue.

        What is still lacking is a book reader in the form factor of a mass market paperback with the readability of paper. We’re not that far off. However, there isn’t a significant demand for the technology at this time. Let’s just hope they’re learning why DRM is bad from the mistakes of the music industry.

  4. I just want good fiction, whether it’s on dead trees or microfilm or the intartubes. I do my bit to recycle and minimize waste, but I think the green quotient of SF publications is beyond small peanuts when set beside the ecological costs of one month’s print run of People vs. a month’s subscription to World of Warcraft. An interesting exercise to figure out what’s actually the case, but the answer would not affect my reading habits.

  5. Perhaps a bit too broad a question — it all depends on how many times a publication is going to be read or re-read. The more times it’s read, the “greener” it becomes. If it’s destined for a landfill immediately, it’s not very green.

  6. You were at Philcon? Damn. Sorry I missed you.

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