Publishing and the climate emergency

What can publishers do in the time of climate emergency?

Climate breakdown and mass species extinction now pose a threat to human life on earth. All human culture is affected, including publishing. What can publishers – often slow in reacting to change – do in the race to salvage what will remain of human agency in the coming decades of impending climate chaos?

Here are three ways publishing can react.  Firstly publishing can reduce the environmental damage done by its core activity. Secondly  – like many businesses or activities – publishing can change the way it does business and reduce the damage done. Thirdly, paradigmatic shifts that publishing can make may involve significant change to the nature of publishing, but they may result in a positive impact on the global climate.

The small operational changes that publishing can make now and larger changes that it can make within a few years may have some impact on carbon emissions and biodiversity loss. But it is now time for companies and organisation to imagine a much broader range of possible best and worst cases in the light of current knowledge about the changes happening in the world’s climate, and to begin changing the publishing industry with a new vision for years 2030, 2040 and 2050. It’s time to start now. No delays. No excuses. This is a matter of life and death.

Changing publishing policies and paradigms

Let’s get the easy stuff out of the way first.  Over recent years there’s been some serious engagement by publishers in the environmental effects of their activities, and this has mostly focussed on efforts to use paper and printing processes that reduce the environmental damage done by the industry. The emphasis on sustainability, certification schemes and voluntary codes of practice has almost certainly had some effect on reducing the centuries-old environmental damage done by the practices of the paper, ink and printing industries, but we need to see much more action in these areas, and aim for an overall result of eliminating rather than reducing environmental damage.

All organisations need to change their policies in relation to climate change, as is now being done with transport, where arguments are now going beyond comparing petrol, diesel and electric vehicles to a reframing of the more fundamental changes needed to challenge the private/public transport split, local/distant travel needs, and the levelling of the transport needs of the rich/poor and the rural/urban populations of the world.

In a similar way, publishing must reassess how it operates at all levels. We need to look at how publishing activities affect the local, national and global cultural and economic space, and see how owners and employees can develop better world citizenship as we struggle together to ensure our survival.

The objective must be to build an industry that will both serve and benefit from an honest understanding of how the world might survive; how publishing will look in the very different world that is coming as climate change accelerates; and how publishing can contribute to the way the world’s human, animal and plant populations can try to adapt to the new circumstances of life on earth.

Changing the business models

If the first steps are relatively easy – making sure that all publishing conforms to the standards in current industry recommendations on paper, ink, printing and packaging – the second is much harder. It will require courage, honesty and much more creativity and daring.  As resources become scarcer, publishers must look to publish less, to publish less wastefully, to eliminate overproduction and overconsumption, to produce for the coming times of scarcity as if they were already here.  This will require building new relationships and alliances with contractors and customers, adopting new business and economic models that will radically reform what publishing is all about.

It will not just be about ‘save’, ‘reuse’, ‘repurpose’ or ‘recycle’, but is likely to involve stopping some production altogether – reducing consumption while increasing access and usage, perhaps shifting closer to the ‘commons’ model of publishing, encouraging sharing rather than ownership, liberating the power of private and personal libraries, localising publishing to a street or village level, building business activity around human activity, not around corporate sales and profit.

Digital is not always the answer

For too long publishing has seen the digital as its get-out clause – clean, democratic and liberating – without recognising the environmental cost of digital publishing. The energy cost of digital is high and networks are vulnerable to climate breakdown.  Data processing, storage and transmission technologies used to prepare text, still and moving images, sounds and artificial intelligence, are energy intensive operations using rare resources often obtained by violent and exploitative means; and energy use is at the heart of greenhouse gas emissions and global heating. Publishing must immediately start to reduce its energy usage in the digital sphere.

In this as in all areas, it’s important not to replace one carbon use with another – power for data farms still pollutes and warms the planet, and offshoring production to other countries, exporting your carbon emissions to other pats of the globe, doesn’t work either.

All carbon costs entailed in the whole publishing process – from creator to reader – need to be audited, questions asked and answered. Publishers pride themselves on their creative thinking, so let’s see more of this as we address the urgent issues raised by the climate emergency.

Some questions

As we go further and examine some of the fundamentals. Here are a few questions the industry might ask.

Can publishing rid itself of its own equivalent of the ever-increasing GDP myth and start to reduce title output, see reducing turnover and market share as markers of success? How can publishers plan for successful de-growth?

Can publishers reassert their central role in deciding what to publish, reducing the number of titles published and eliminating publications that are built on a publishing economic model of ever-greater title production? Can publishers be leaders in the move to value quality over quantity?

Can publishers lead the development of a new literacy, one that encourages a new generation of writers and creators who aren’t governed by the (often false) lure of profit from mass consumption, develops audiences based on genuine need (as we have long taught in marketing classes!), and fosters individual creativity and idiosyncrasy rather than creating/making stuff for mass consumption. How does publishing reassert its faith in the individual?

Can publishing encourage more sharing of publications, committing to reinvigorate ‘library’ systems for the coming era of scarce resources? At its core, publishing is about sharing ideas, so how can this role be proudly re-articulated?

Can publishing be a leader in developing ways of personal interaction that do not involve thousands of people using vast resources travelling to events like the Frankfurt Book Fair?

If publishers must occupy offices and warehouses, can they reduce this need as much as possible and adapt these premises to eliminate wasteful heating or air conditioning, equip all buildings with solar panels, wind turbines, insulation and other technologies possible, to create cleaner and more productive workplaces that don’t add to the problems of the climate emergency? Should publishers move their operations to what are – at least for the moment  – more temperate climates?

Is more localisation a fruitful direction of travel for a global publishing industry that has lost contact with many users and readers? How can publishing organisations (even those large corporations that often appear to have no home in the physical world) interact more fruitfully with their local communities, working to improve the resilience of their transport, housing, energy and communications systems, all of which will come under threat as climate change accelerates?

How can publishing improve its credentials as a good citizen and good employer? Employees are people who want the world to survive, who want their children and grandchildren to be able to breathe, eat and drink clean air, food and water. Let’s see a massive move away from the car culture, eliminate personal company cars, provide bikes and buses for employees, work with local councils and communities, and turn car parks into pleasure parks.

The climate emergency is not going away

Many more questions will need to be asked, but publishers have the intelligence and imagination to address them.  Publishers must recognise and communicate the ways in which times are changing and encourage each other to look the changes in the face and start producing responses to the climate emergency, because the climate emergency is not going away.

We have a little over a decade to make radical changes if we hope to avoid the loss of the ecosystem on which life on earth depends. There is no way that publishing and the people who work in it can avoid the effects of climate breakdown, so no moment is too soon for the industry to wake up to the need for serious and significant changes in the ways it does business.

Extinction Rebellion (XR), an organisation that like Greta Thunberg and the school strike has done so much to bring climate breakdown into the public consciousness, operates on three central demands that may be useful here.

The first is Tell the Truth. Publishing needs to acknowledge the truth of the climate breakdown that is already coming and use its publishing skills to communicate this knowledge within its own industry and to customers, users and readers.

The second demand is Act Now to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to net zero by 2025. Publishing people and publishing organisations need to start acting without delay. Some methods are already obvious; some require a change of direction and a change of heart; others are as yet unknown and will only emerge as the result of a sustained and collaborative drive to accelerate innovation to make publishing a force in the coming struggle.

The third XR demand is for a Citizens Assembly to determine how climate and ecological justice can be part of the world’s response to the climate emergency. In publishing terms, the industry needs to refocus its constant appetite for seminars, workshops, conferences, book festivals and book fairs towards the development of democratic communications on what must be done about climate change in all parts of the book chain.

All creators and producers, readers and users of publications, institutions and individuals of all kinds, publishing in all its forms, can then make the adaptations that will be needed if publishing is to play its part in helping the world to avoid the worst effects of rapidly accelerating global heating.

For publishing and for publishing people, now is the time for change. Now is the time for telling the truth. Now is the time for action.