Books, Paper and Possums

Books are possibly my greatest weakness – I’ve been known to spend money intended for food on books. I could happily live on brown rice for a week instead. But what impact is my love of books having on the environment? This is an area where I know I need to rein in my consumption, and I’m working on it. Continuing our ‘Embrace Simplicity’ challenges, the aim is to focus our interests on only those subjects we are truly passionate about, and buy fewer books, or find alternative ways to access the books (or the relevant information) we want to read.

We know trees are vital to the functioning of a healthy planet and that deforestation to a degree is required to supply us with paper and related products (including books), but that this has an impact on the environment, and other forms of life that share the Earth. Human beings are not the only organisms to use trees for a purpose – animals and birds rely on trees for their habitat and survival.

I received a link to a story that it was time to choose between Leadbeater’s possum and timber, written by the President of Friends of Leadbeater’s Possum volunteer group, Steven Meacher. I was aware of this issue but, after I read the article, I looked more closely at the rows of titles on my bookshelves.

I leafed through the pages of some of my favourite books and thought about the trees these possums inhabit. Leadbeater’s Possum inhabit. My books may not necessarily be made of paper from the trees logged in this species’ habitat, but they did come from somewhere, and those trees may have once been the home of a different species.

I live in Victoria in south-eastern Australia, where a tiny species of native Australian possum (and the state’s faunal emblem) is at the centre of a major battle between government, conservation groups and timber companies. The habitat of the critically endangered Gymnobelideus leadbeateri (Leadbeater’s Possum), the ash forests and sub-alpine woodlands of the Central Highlands, is threatened by severe logging.

Professor David Lindenmayer of Australian National University says the two main threats to G. Leadbeateri habitat are logging and fire, although the key threat has been identified as the industrial clear-felling of forests over the last fifty years (the species has survived the impact of wildfire and climate change for millions of years). Scientists say the only way to save the species is to end industrial logging in the Central Highlands.

I use the example of the Leadbeater’s possum to make a point:  NO HABITAT = NO SPECIES. This species of possum has survived for millennia, but in fifty short years (a miniscule moment in evolutionary perspective) the actions of human beings have pushed it to the brink of extinction. If we destroy the habitat of the Leadbeater’s possum, there will be no more Leadbeater’s possum (we can substitute any other species here, including human beings).

Destroying the ecological foundation of the Earth will cause the extinction of life on Earth. Thinking we can always colonize another planet once we’ve trashed this one is a huge copout, because we are not addressing our own destructive behaviour.

We must reduce our consumption and our impact on the environment. We cannot destroy the Leadbeater’s possum habitat (or any habitat) to support a consumer culture with no end point in sight, other than to amass huge amounts of profit for some large corporations. By its very nature, a consumer culture can never be truly satisfied.

Another species facing extinction from habitat loss is the orang-utans of Borneo and Sumatra, from massive deforestation by the palm oil industry (to supply consumer demand). We need food, medical care, clothes to wear, a roof over our heads, a creative outlet, meaning and purpose in our lives, but beyond that, we don’t really need much.

When do we stop consuming…when everything’s gone? We need a new ethic for sustainability, an ideological shift to a more ecologically sound existence. It’s about finding balance between consumption and conservation, sharing, and thinking of others, not just ourselves.

When I think about books, paper and possums, or orang-utans and palm oil, I want to do everything I can to reduce my consumption and environmental impact. We have to co-exist with other species on the Earth, and to heal the cognitive split in our brains that enables us to act in a way we assume has no impact on the wider environment. Our actions do not exist in isolation.

Here are some ideas we can implement into our lives to reduce our consumption of books (or rein in a serious addiction to books without feeling deprived):

Limit your library: I’m in the process of whittling down my personal book collection. I want to focus only on those subjects that truly move my soul. My aim is to only own books I will read or refer to more than once.

Join a public library: I’ve found some wonderful books on the shelves of my local public library, including The Omnivore’s Dilemma by Michael Pollan and On Photography by Susan Sontag.

Buy second-hand books: I’ve found some gems in second-hand bookstores, including a biography on artist Georgia O’Keeffe and Dharma Gaia: A Harvest of Essays in Buddhism and Ecology.

Purchase an e-reader: I own an original Amazon Kindle (with the buttons, not the touch screen) that I take on public transport or when I travel. However, e-readers may have more of an environmental impact than the books they are intended to replace.

Buy e-books: You can buy and download e-books through various platforms. Titles I’ve purchased in this way are E-Squared and E-Cubed. Sometimes I’m curious about particular books but I don’t necessarily want them in traditional book form.

Buy PDF books: I’ve purchased several books this way, including Spiritual Ecology – The Cry of the Earth.

Swap books with friends: Perhaps a friend has a book you want to read, but not necessarily own.

Exchange a book for a tree: Plant a tree for every book you purchase, through a carbon offset emissions scheme.

Purchase books made from FSC certified pulp: There are three types of FSC labels. FSC 100% is used for products made with paper sourced from well-managed forests, FSC MIX is used for products made with paper from responsible sources and FSC Recycled is used for products made from recycled paper. The FSC-certified logo can be found on the back cover of the book if the publisher uses this certification system.

Purchase books from publishers with a strong environmental paper policy: One of my favourite authors Bill Plotkin is published by New World Library, a supporter of the Green Press Initiative, a non-profit program based in the United States to encourage authors and publishers to use recycled paper and environmentally safe printing processes. This publishing house prints most of their books with soy-based ink on 100% post-consumer waste recycled paper.

Reading is one of the greatest pleasures of my life. To me, books are sacred scripts that hold immense treasures and truths, and words that inspire, teach, guide, entertain, nurture and comfort me. Humans need trees, but so do Leadbeater’s possums, orang-utans, and many other species that share the Earth.

© 2015 Environmental Warrior
Photo by Glen Noble on Unsplash

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