Paper is greatest invention - at a cost

WHAT'S the greatest human invention? The wheel? The knife? The internet?

Aidan Semmens

WHAT'S the greatest human invention? The wheel? The knife? The internet?

All of those have certainly made a huge contribution to our well-being and development, even if there are inevitable troubles with some of the uses to which they're put.

A popular answer I've seen to the question in the past has been printing, and you can't deny that it too has had a massive effect on humankind over the last few centuries.

But printing wouldn't have had much impact if it hadn't been for another invention, groundbreaking in its day (around 2,000 years ago) though now rather taken for granted. Paper.

It must be 20 years or more since the rise and rise of computers led to optimistic talk about “the paperless office”.

Most Read

These days, like so many of us, I live half my life in front of a screen. Does that mean I'm not surrounded by drifts of paper? Like heck it does.

I strongly suspect there's more paper littering the world than ever before.

If I'd read all of Mandy Haggith's new book Paper Trails I'd probably know for sure and be able to give you facts and figures.

Haggith is one of the good guys. Her CV, like mine, is headed “freelance writer”, but it goes on to detail greater commitment than I can lay claim to.

“She has spent the past decade campaigning for the world's forests, including lobbying at the United Nations and working as a consultant for Greenpeace.”

I'd say she probably knows what she's talking about. Her book - subtitled “From Trees to Trash; the True Cost of Paper” - is sure to be a real eye-opener.

How wide we want our eyes opened to yet another instance of mankind's ravaging of our planet is another matter.

First, however, the plus points. Paper is both a powerful symbol of civilisation and “a tool for transferring ideas across time and space”.

That, of course, applies to both good ideas and bad (see below) but let's admit that sharing ideas is generally more useful than not.

It's certainly - more than any one invention (see above) - what's put humanity where we are today. (Whether that's a good thing for the wider world is debatable, but that's another story.)

We've all been brought up to believe that paper is a “natural” product, that paper bags, for example, are better than plastic ones. That's the first assumption Haggith questions.

Sure, paper is made from wood, which can be grown sustainably. There's also a lot of new paper these days made from old paper - one of the Evening Star's two main suppliers produces entirely recycled newsprint.

But the paper in your notepad, even the pile of junk mail on your doormat, is the product of a sophisticated modern industry, heavy on chemicals and environmentally not very friendly.

To make each sheet of printer-quality white paper takes a mugful of water and produces the equivalent in emissions of leaving a standard lightbulb on for an hour. That's just one thing I've learned from Haggith.

Another is that pulp for paper doesn't just come from responsibly managed forests in countries like Norway, Finland and Canada. It's one of the reasons for the felling of irreplaceable habitat from Indonesia to Brazil, Russia to Sumatra, threatening to wipe out species after species.

And then, of course, there's its rapid industrialisation in paper's birthplace, which also happens to be the fastest-growing economy in the world right now - China.

Maybe the biggest shock is that even toilet-paper is made from the wood of virgin forests. At least it is if it's the super-soft, kind-on-your-bum type. I guess now I know that I'll have to start being a little less kind to my bum.

At least there's something we can do about that, simply by changing our buying habits. And changing our habits is all, in the end, Haggith wants us to do.

The irony is, of course, that it takes 256 pages of book-grade paper for her to tell us that.

- I PROBABLY shouldn't admit this, but a little bit of me sympathised with those radical Muslims who set a torch to Salman Rushdie's book The Satanic Verses.

Not because of any perceived insult to Islam that it may have contained but simply because I think Rushdie is a very bad writer.

Other candidates for the bonfire: Hitler's Mein Kampf, Lolita (even its author, Vladimir Nabokov, kept trying to burn the manuscript) and anything allegedly written by Wayne Rooney, Posh Spice or Jordan.

Except, of course, that burning - or banning - books is a Bad Thing, even if the books themselves are bad.

As Heinrich Heine said: “Where they burn books they will end by burning human beings.”

Heine, a German Jew, didn't live to see his own books burned by the Nazis.

The 16th-century Englishman William Tyndale probably did live to see piles of his life's major work incinerated. He ended up being burned himself for the crime of translating the Bible into English.

The reason all this occurs to me now? Because of a fascinating new book by Matthew Fishburn entitled, and about, Burning Books.

Which, like Mandy Haggith's Paper Trails (see above) also happens to contain exactly 256 inflammable pages.