I've spent a lot of time over the last little while thinking about e-readers and whether or not they're going to eventually mean an end to paper books. I really hope not.
It's not that I don't want people to be environmentally conscious. I do and I recognise that every little bit helps, so even though switching to ebooks isn't going to have the same impact as, say, driving a fuel efficient car or walking to work every day, I don't think it's a bad idea to do something to help the environment, especially where trees are concerned. This seems to be a hot topic for debate at the moment, but so far, even where there is a clear support of the continuation of paper books, everything I've read suggests that, over all, for avid readers, ereaders are the environmentally conscious way to go. Two blogs with differing opinions on the subject, but which present essentially the same research are Daniel Goleman's (E-Reader Versus Book: The Eco-Math) and Earth Beat (The future of paper books ... and e-readers).
So, why, as an environmentally conscious writer, would I not want ereaders to replace traditional books? A few reasons.
The first and biggest reason is that I think our society depends far too much on technology. Just about everyone in North America remembers that wide-spread, three-day blackout and the rolling black and brown outs that followed it. In the realm of disasters, it ranked pretty low, but it wasn't nothing. Some people died as a result, because they had no air conditioning and the financial damages done to businesses due to products spoiling or stores having to stay closed for long periods of time, was immense. And that is a system that has been in place for many, many years. What makes us think that the Internet (something new enough that I remember when only rich people could afford it, something which, at the time, couldn't be accessed without a dedicated phone line and ten minutes of horrible beeping and gurgling) is any less likely to spontaneously go down? Or, Hell, if you believe the Internet is bullet proof, good luck using it if the power goes out again. Good luck charging your ereader, too. If we've converted all of our old books to efiles and, especially, if our new books were never (or hardly ever) actually in print, a technological breakdown would be crippling to the acquired and compiled knowledge of the entire world. Think the burning of the library at Alexandria. Having all of our knowledge stored in one place is a bad idea.
It's also a money thing. Right now, especially, people don't have a lot of money to spend on, well, anything. So while an ereader might save you money overall (from what I can tell, ebooks aren't that much cheaper than paper, but they are a bit), most people don't have the money to spend on an ereader up front, and if they do, and enough people switch, it's going to drive the price of traditional books up - which means that people who couldn't ever hope to afford an ereader now won't be able to afford paper books either. Any new technology does this at first, drives out the old technology while simultaneously being too expensive for many people to afford (I saw this first hand with the transition from tape-cassette to CD, Discmans to mp3 players and videos to DVDs), and yes, eventually, it does balance out, but in the meantime, it sucks for the people who are too poor to afford the new stuff and (because the new stuff is so widely available to those who can afford it) can't find the old stuff anywhere.
Then there's the issue of the traditional in traditional books. It may sound a bit snobby and like it's not much of an argument, but there is something to be said for the feel of a paper book in your hands. There is something to be said for the idea of taking your book on a plane or a bus or to the beach or camping or hiking through the mountains and not having to worry about what happens if your batteries die. I don't know, the idea of reading The Paper Bag Princess to a kid on an ereader just doesn't work for me.
As for the solutions to the environmental implications of sticking with paper books, my suggestions to the publishing world at large include using recycled (preferably sustainable) paper and natural inks and printing books on demand, rather than printing huge quantities then warehousing them and eventually pulping the unwanted ones.
Obviously, this is a subject which readers and writers alike have strong opinions about and most of the articles I've read contain very evident biases (I read one article comparing various ereaders and paper books, which ranked most of the ereaders' readability as high and the readability of paper books as medium.) and I don't want to suggest that I think that ereaders in general are a bad idea, or that people shouldn't take steps to help the environment. In fact, I think they're a good idea, especially for people who want to read a book but don't necessarily want to own it (especially popular books which may not be in stock at a nearby library but are often overstocked at bookstores) or for people who spend a lot of time travelling and don't want to put fifteen books in the carry-on when they go on vacation. I think there are a lot of great uses for ereaders; I just don't want to see them replace paper books.