A few year ago, I observed that the paperless office, long derided as a myth was on the edge of becoming a reality for those on the leading edge of technology (immodestly, I took myself as an example). Jumping to the present, global demand for paper has dropped sharply. Granted, there’s a recession on, but that’s only a spur to changes that were going to happen anyway. When and if the economy recovers, i don’t think paper demand will bounce back, except in a few specialty areas.
This is a big deal as far as the world’s forests are concerned. If demand declines to the point where it can be met by existing plantations, one of the main factors pushing forest clearance will be removed.
In this context, I think it’s reasonable to use my own experience as a representative instance of what’s happening at the technological frontier, and will happen more generally in the near future. Today, a fairly typical if excessively busy day, I received 80 emails and two pieces of physical mail. A couple of these involved confirmation that I could use a scanned signature in an email attachment, rather than incurring the delays associated with a paper document and ink signature, eliminating one of the few remaining reasons for physical printing. Yesterday was devoted in part to making space on my shelves by throwing out recent copies of journals to which I have online access. To sum up, my demand for paper is rapidly approaching zero.
This is important in itself, but even more so as a metaphor for the more complex issues surrounding energy. Those who derided the paperless office showed the same lack of imagination as people who now use terms like “baseload demand” as if this were an inherent physical fact rather than an artefact of existing generation technologies and the price systems adopted to match supply and demand.
It’s true that low-carbon energy won’t exactly replicate the services offered by existing technologies, just as screens don’t exactly replicate paper. But, if the prices are right, we’ll adjust our patterns of work and life to take advantage of new technologies and abandon old ones.