Anni Kytömäki: An Author’s Responsibility for the Environment
An author works in a field that has long been dependent on logging. Although audiobooks and e-books are on the rise while the number of printed books is diminishing, our words can not enter the consciousness of a reader without leaving a trace in the actual world, the living nature.
In 2020 there are globally approximately as much man-made materials as there are plants, both weighing about a thousand billion tonnes. The amount of plant life would be double, had not the scale of deforestation been what it has.
The human effect on our ecosystem is so great that everybody should be aware of the consequences their actions have. An author, like everybody else, eats, drinks, travels, uses electricity and buys consumer goods. In addition to the inescapable environmental impact of our modern way of life, we might consider the specific strain an author’s work puts on nature – and what could be done to alleviate it.
A book has an ecological footprint we can estimate. Perhaps the most crucial thing to know is that manufacturing a tonne of paper takes about 2.7 cubic metres of wood. If a book weights 500 grams, a print run of 10 000 copies requires five tonnes of paper, which means about 13.5 cubic metres of wood. This is equal to 45 trees measuring 20 centimetres in diameter at chest level.
A typical Finnish forest today has less that 120 cubic metres of wood per hectare. Accordingly, a print run of 100 000 copies would require slightly more than a hectare of logging. However, the wood that is turned to pulp to make paper is usually sourced from the same plots as wood for solid lumber, so in practice logging needed to make a book is distributed to a wider area than these simplified calculations would indicate.
The environmental effect of a single audiobook or e-book is hard to calculate, since such works are usually read or listened to with devices also used for other purposes. The thing to keep in mind is that apparent immateriality might still put a heavy load on the environment. Manufacturing smart devices requires a considerable amount of energy and minerals. For example, a smartphone has about 40 different ingredients, including gold and rare-earth elements. In addition, the data centres crucial to information technology and telecommunications use up huge amounts of energy; globally, before the covid-19 situation, the environmental effects of electricity production required by data centres were equal to those of air traffic. Presently they are greater.
Currently, an author can alleviate the environmental effects of audiobooks and e-books mainly by favouring eco-friendly energy, by using any smart devices up to the end of their lifespan, and finally recycling them – and by encouraging the readers to do the same.
As to the use of wood there are more options. It is possible to negotiate with the publisher about the paper the books are printed on. An FSC certification guarantees that the forests where the wood is sourced from are not logged as intensively as others. Today, FSC certified paper is widely available.
And that’s not all that can be done to reduce the environmental footprint of a printed book. My most recent novel was printed on paper that was 50% FSC certified fibre, 50% recycled fibre. Paper that would be 100% recycled or treeless and suitable for printing books was not available in Europe. I hope this will change. Manufacturing paper from wood is a rather new invention: we have been making paper for about 5000 years, but using wood fibre for the purpose only 180 years.
The most difficult part in measuring the environmental effect of literature is assessing the way a work might shape the reader’s thought process. I would not recommend writing a novel with some message as your leading idea, but if you have things to say and find out that they are weaving nicely into the plot, don’t be afraid to take a stand.
A novel is an excellent framework where you can ponder the causes and effects of an ecological crisis, from various viewpoints and without pontificating. At best, what is read between the lines reaches out and resonates with the choices and habits of the reader – and naturally the end result is even greater when the message confirms to the reader’s own worldview.
The power of a novel might be at its strongest when the plot does not provide a ready answer. Something in the attitude, intensity or solace offered by the story just speaks out to the reader, moving and encouraging them to strive for a better future.
That is at least the effect my most powerful reading experiences I have had on me.
Anni Kytömäki writes books where people are a part of nature, not above it. She is the author of three novels, the most recent of which, Margarita (Gummerus 2020) claimed the prestigious Finlandia Prize for best novel.
Translation: Jaakko Kankaanpää