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Valentine's Day, computers vs. paper & why I don't like the Internet

Happy Valentine's Day! May you enjoy a simple, resourceful and non-wasteful day of celebrating love and apprectiation for others. Pesticide-free flowers, organic free trade chocolate, soy candles and organic dinner? I would hope! We're going to my grandparent's house this evening to celebrate with them and my aunt and uncle. Not sure that every one of those ingredients will be involved in our Valentine's Day celebrations tonight, but at least my sister and I made recycled Valentine's Day cards with old magazines, tattered books and scratch paper :-)

On an entirely different note, I've been thinking lately about the greenwashing that's made its way into our minds to think that using the computer is a green alternative to using paper. In some ways, it can be. For large corporations and companies who use up so much paper in documents and reports, using the computer for emails and virtual files rather than printing everything is "greener" than using and later recycling thousands of pounds of paper. But there's a trade off: energy is used whenever a computer is in use. Does the preservation of trees and the energy saved that would have been required to recycle the paper offset the negative effects of using electricity sources like coal, natural gas and oil? I don't really know.

What about school assignments where teachers have us email them the assignment and there's no paper involved? Does that really save any energy? Does it cost more energy to do it that way? Everything we do on a computer requires energy. Every Google search. Every time we click on a new link. Every word we type is taking up energy. And a lot of time it's coal energy or some other form of energy that is not sustainable that's been used to power our Facebook chatter and blog posting.

A computer, when awake, uses about 120 watts of energy per hour. A computer monitor uses around 60 per hour. A laptop uses 15-45 watts per hour. These numbers are obviously going to depend on your specific computer model. (More information.) How much carbon dioxide or other emissions are released per wattage of energy used? I couldn't find that statistic online, so if anyone knows, please let me know.

I can't say for certain which is greener: sending your paper by email or printing it out. I'm not great with numbers, so I will just say what seems to me would be the better option...

Computers are made of non-biodegradable materials. There are always new models to buy, so you recycle your old one and upgrade. Recycling those materials takes energy. It takes energy to create a computer, far more energy than to make paper. Computers are highly complex devices, requiring so many different resources. There are so many ways a computer can have an error. You cannot build a computer from natural resources without turning them into other physical capital. You or I could not go into the woods, collect some resources and create a computer from scratch. We depend on industry for our computers.

Paper has been around for a long, long time. It comes from trees, a natural resource, and it's biodegradable. You can conserve the amount of paper you use by being smart about how you use it (especially for school). There are no upgrades in paper. It's always just paper. Paper is a pretty simple concept. Yes, quality paper production isn't something everyone can do, so there is a level of dependence on industry for our paper. You can make paper at home to some extent. And paper is so ubiquitous you could avoid purchasing new paper for a long time before you'd run out if you conserved it carefully and didn't print long articles and reports.

Isn't one major aspect of conservation to simplify our lives? For those of us who conserve because we have a respect for nature (this should always be the purpose, but for many their purpose is to appease others who care or to fit in with the times or some other disillusioned purpose), simplification is a way for us to get closer to the natural processes of things. Paper is a lot closer to the natural world than a computer. Here's an article that has some more information on the matter.

While I love blogging and think Facebook is a great resource for staying connected to old friends, I think the computer is often used in a way that damages us. We lose ourselves in the Internet, we are sucked in and become addicted to checking email or playing computer games or chatting with people we see everyday. I was saying yesterday that certain movies (but also other things like books and stories from my parents and grandparents) upset me because it reminds me of how lost we have become in this world of technology. We feel we have to connect at all times to the entire world via the computer or television or our iPod or iPhone. We have to buy that new shiny gadget. We have to buy, buy, buy. We depend on others for our clothes and we fragment our thoughts by searching endlessly on the Internet and reading a thousand articles in rapid succession. We have seven conversations at once on Facebook and we think that makes us good multitaskers. We listen to music while we read and think that means we're skilled at reading. We divide our attention and never really give any attention to anything. I'm generalizing our population, but for many this is true and they don't even realize they're doing it. I know I'm going off on a tangent, but I think about this often.

Many days I want to just delete my Facebook and stop using the computer. But I myself am so trapped within the web of social networking that I have responsibilites involving Facebook. For the four clubs I run, I'm in charge of publicizing. Nowadays, publicizing means Facebook and emailing. I can't stop reading other people's statuses and conversations on Facebook because I don't want to miss something socially important. I look at other people's pictures and comment on their links. The network that's been created by Facebook is incredible and has such an interesting societal aspect: connecting to others, bringing things together and learning and interacting. But it doesn't make me feel good about myself to spend an hour on Facebook.

At least with blogging, I'm expressing some thoughts that may not have been expressed otherwise. But at the same time, I wish I could be true to myself and write this down in a notebook, rather than post it here hoping someone will read it. On Facebook I feel like I'm seeking attention when I post a status or a picture or a note. Isn't that the same thing I'm doing here? But no, I post things here because I want to remind others or teach others. It's the one place where I can talk about something and others will actually respond. My school population isn't really environmentally-inclined. There isn't much discussion there about this stuff, except for every other Friday at Environmental Club. But even then, I feel like I say a lot and it's absorbed by the club, but that we aren't really changing anything for our school. So to try and reach out to something, I blog about my observations and experiences and often people do read what I have to say.

But then I look outside and see the sun and my life that isn't being fully explored and realize how disconnected I really am from the world when I'm here posting something. In all honesty, I hate the Internet. It's a great resource and I enjoy utilizing it, but at the same time I hate it for what it's done to my generation and to myself.

Sorry to end on a rather pessimistic note, but I have to go outside and read now.

Green Gal


  1. You make so many great observations in this post. So much of life is navigating a fine line between often opposing elements of what it means to be human. Is progress really progress, or is it needless use of resources? Can we stay connected closely with others but also use our precious time to quietly reflect in solitude? When we buy new gadgets, we transfer some of our wealth to people who make those goods, and that helps our global economy, but at the same time what is the cost to natural resources? And couldn't we use our money for more meaningful purposes?

    As humans, we consume. We can't help it. We consume air, water, food--and especially energy. We have to to survive. But we can also make choices to consume in environmentally conscious ways. We can use energy from renewable sources. We can eat organically grown foods. And we can vote with our dollars when we purchase goods and services.

    As a species we have conquered nature. Just 200-300 years ago this would have been considered a noble achievement by many. It's difficult to shift our approach in just a few generations. Our economy and institutions are built on conquering, or, perhaps to be more fair, on converting nature's resources into goods that improve our lives.

    Today, we are fortunate to live in a world where we can be connected on the Internet to everything in seconds, to vaste knowledge that only a few years ago was often remote or difficult to come by. So in this way we have to cheer the advent of the Internet.

    But like every human invention, there are downsides, and you've done a nice job illuminating these when it comes to being online.

    Walking that fine line means maintaining a balance, keeping moderation in perspective, and doing our best to make the best choices we can. But in the end, we're humans, and we will consume.


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