Will carbon consumption, cost, and severe limitations finish paper journals?

In Mike Berners-Lee’s book on the carbon footprint of everything I read about the carbon footprint of newspapers, which triggers for me a question of how much longer paper versions of scientific journals will continue. There are other reasons apart from their carbon footprint why paper journals are likely to end, including cost and severe limitations, and it is probably more a question of when than whether.

Let’s start with carbon. Berners-Lee writes: “A quality paper every day of the week adds up to 270 kg CO2e per year, even if you recycle them all. That’s equivalent to flying from London to Madrid one way.”

Journals like the BMJ, Lancet, and Nature are weekly not daily, and they are not as thick as what Berners-Lee calls “a quality paper” [I hate quality being used as an adjective], but they are thicker that the Guardian Weekly, of which Berners-Lee writes the following:

“Opting for a slimmed-down weekly paper, such as the Guardian Weekly, is one good way to reduce emissions. Another is to get your news online. If you do this for an hour a week on a 50-watt laptop and if we multiply that by, say, 5 to take account of the production of the laptop, the running of your network and the electricity consumed by all the hubs and servers around the world that support the websites you browse, it still comes to around half the impact of the Guardian Weekly.”

It’s also worth noting that journals are thicker than the Guardian Weekly and come in packets, Berners-Lee wrote his book when a much smaller proportion of electricity was generated from renewables and laptops were less energy-efficient. The carbon saving may thus be greater than Berners-Lee estimated. Further, if readers send their discarded journals to landfill rather than recycle them then their carbon footprint more than doubles

Then the sad truth of a journal like the BMJ is that it sent to many people who belong to the BMA but are not much interested in the journal. Perhaps 10% of recipients never read the journal, and the majority read only a small part of it. Most doctors also receive many other journals—specialist journals and journals from their colleges. College journals are often thicker than the BMJ and yet, I suggest, are even more poorly read. People usually read only a small proportion of even the journals they subscribe to: I subscribe to the Economist but most weeks read only about a fifth of it at the most.

The cost of printing, warehousing, and distributing paper journals is a high proportion of their costs—perhaps 10-20% of traditional science publishers’ gross revenue. https://scholarlykitchen.sspnet.org/2011/12/07/the-costs-of-print/ For newspapers, most of which are no longer profitable and many of which have disappeared, costs are even higher: 25%-35% for paper and printing and 30%-40% for distribution. http://adrianmonck.com/2008/12/newspaper-cost-structure/#:~:text=In%20a%20typical%20operation%2C%20the,for%20administrative%20and%20marketing%20expenditures. Newspapers can be potentially made profitable overnight by ceasing printing paper versions, and publishers of paper scientific journals can similarly increase their profits—or save themselves–by ceasing publishing on paper. Financial problems caused by the Covid-19 pandemic may hasten this change.

Many scientific journals are already available only electronically—all those, for example, published by the Public Library of Science and Biomed Central and all new journals; and some journals that did have a paper form now exist only electronically. Indeed, the BMJ is best described as an online journal with various paper versions that contains subsets of what is available electronically. Many readers of journals, particularly younger ones, read only online and through apps. For years I taught a class on medical journalism at Imperial College, and I would ask students each year what they read: fifteen years ago several read paper newspapers and publications; now none do.

Publishing scientific papers is old-fashioned in that it restricts length and does not allow access to the full dataset. It does not make sense in the electronic world to restrict length when it means leaving out details of what was done and does not leave space for the many caveats that always accompany science. Brevity may be appreciated by casual readers, but there are few casual readers: those who really care about the science want every scrap of detail, including access to the full dataset.

I should confess here that I prefer to read paper journals, particularly journals like the BMJ and Lancet that are much more than a collection of scientific papers, and I read them more than I read journals online. Indeed, if I want to read an article very carefully I will often print out the paper version of an online article, partly so that I can make marks on the paper version. There is some evidence from neuroscience that reading on paper allows for deeper reading, but I wonder if this might be a generational effect. I prefer reading novels to reading scientific journals, and, in contrast to my preference for paper journals, I prefer to read the novels on a Kindle.

Publishers and editors are nervous about stopping producing paper version of journals for fear of losing readers, particularly subscribers, and advertising; and there are strong sentimental ties to paper. But as older readers die and advertisers follow the eyeballs to online versions, paper versions will look ever more anachronistic, and their carbon footprint and cost will consign paper journals to history.


The Iliad from the woman’s point of view

The Iliad is a poem about heroic men, particularly Achilles, and warfare, but women are at the centre of the story in that the Trojan War was started by Paris seducing Helen and the row between Achilles and Agamemnon is over a woman, Briseis. The Ancient Greeks believed that “Silence becomes a woman…,” and the Iliad says little from the woman’s point of view. Pat Barker has tried to put that right by telling the woman’s version of the story. In doing so she inevitably makes us think us about the position of women throughout history.

When the Ancient Greeks sacked a city they killed all the males, including ones in the uterus, and took all the women into slavery. The women who were the wives of kings would be given as prizes to the leaders of the conquering army; the rest would be slaves and repeatedly raped by any soldier who could be bothered. Knowing their fate, many women would kill themselves when the cities were sacked. Briseis, the narrator in much of Barker’s novel, regrets that she didn’t have the courage to do so. She is given as a prize to Achilles.

For most of the novel Achilles is simply a thug, a childish self-centred thug at that. He fucks Briseis (and Barker uses the verb often) fast, without enthusiasm, almost as a duty. Briseis explains what it is like to be a slave: “This is what free people never understand. A slave isn’t a person who’s being treated as a thing. A slave is a thing, as much in her own estimation as in anybody else’s.” Things are worse for Briseis when she is taken by Agamemnon, a pompous, scheming, coward, because he likes only anal intercourse.

The one man that Briseis comes to love is Patroclus, a gentle, kind, thoughtful man who is the great love of Achilles. When Patroclus is killed Achilles becomes almost mad with grief. He will now fight, and his almost his only comfort is that he knows that he soon will be dead. “Now, he can see what he’s been trying to do: to bargain with grief. Behind all this frenetic activity there’s been the hope that if he keeps his promises there’ll be no more pain. But he’s beginning to understand that grief doesn’t strike bargains. There’s no way of avoiding the agony – or even of getting through it faster. It’s got him in its claws and it won’t let go till he’s learnt every lesson it has to teach.” (The novel switches narrators at times.)

Grief brings out some humanity in Achilles, and he comes to value Briseis not so much for herself but as a friend and reminder of Patroclus. Knowing he will soon be dead, he commands one of his lieutenants to marry Briseis, who is now carrying Achilles child. Being pregnant, the potential mother of a hero, may have saved Briseis. It is the most she could hope for.

I didn’t greatly enjoy Barker’s novel, but I enjoyed it enough to finish it. The story is familiar, the prose flat (perhaps deliberately so in contrast to Homer’s poetry), and the insights few. But I can see that somebody needed to tell this great story from the woman’s point of view. It’s neither a happy nor a heroic story.










The journey to carbon literacy: step 3: bananas—a great food for those who care about the climate crisis

“Bananas are a great food for anyone who cares about their carbon footprint,” writes Mike Berners-Lee in his book How Bad Are Bananas? “For just 80 g of carbon, you get a whole lot of nutrition: 140 calories as well as stacks of vitamin C, vitamin B6, potassium and dietary fibre.”

(Now I understand why his book on the carbon footprint of almost everything has such a strange title, but it’s interesting that the title is How Bad Are Bananas? not How Good Are Bananas? He is emphasising that bananas do have a carbon footprint, albeit a small one, and that to save the planet we need to get to zero carbon emissions.)

Bananas are so good because:

  • They are grown in natural sunlight – no hot-housing required.
  • They keep well, so although they are often grown thousands of miles from the end consumer, they are transported by boats (about 1% as bad as flying).
  • There is hardly any packaging, if any, because they provide their own.

The only bad banana is one that is left to rot—and too many are.

Apples, especially ripe apples picked from a tree (zero carbon), are also good low-carbon food but Berners-Lee discusses two studies, one arguing that New Zealand apples have the lowest carbon and another that it’s German apples: “Each study went about things slightly differently and made different assumptions. This story illustrates an important point: these kinds of study are always tricky, heaped with far more uncertainties and subjective judgements than many people like to admit.”

I remember being told in New Zealand that a pound of New Zealand butter on a supermarket shelf in Britain has a lower carbon footprint than a pound of English butter. I couldn’t believe it, but it may well be true as British cows must be kept indoors for part of the year.



Asking Yotam Ottolenghi whether food is political?

Yesterday I listened online to an interview with Yotam Ottolenghi, the chef whose books have sold millions around the world, has a million followers on Instagram, and who has “radically rewritten the way Londoners [and many others] cook and eat.” I got to ask him a question, a silly question really—but he gave an interesting answer.

I was inspired to ask the question by him saying how his books written with his partner Sami Tamimi were popular across the world except in the Middle East. They are not popular in the Middle East because Ottolenghi is an Israeli Jew and Tamimi an Arab-Palestinian. It may also  be because they delight in combining cuisines, including Jewish and Palestinian dishes.

(As an aside, Ottolenghi said that his favourite cuisine was Turkish—the result of the many cultures that made up the Ottoman empire—and the cuisine he most wants to know more about is Mexican. Good judgement on both counts, I thought, thinking of the wonderful food I’ve eaten in the Grand Bazaar in Istanbul and in the streets of Queretaro in Mexico.)

I asked Ottolenghi “Is food political?” and initially got the answer that I knew I’d get “Everything is political.”

There is, he began, all the politics of how the food arrives on the plate. He didn’t elaborate, but I knew he meant the farmers, their subsidies, the  underpaid farm workers, the trade deals, the cross-border flows of goods, the health and safety rules, the power of restaurant chains, and so much more.

But he recognised that competition among national cuisines can be competitive and political. To whom, for example, does hummus belong? And who makes the best hummus? Who can make the biggest dish of hummus? (I learn from Wikipedia that there is a documentary, Make Hummus Not War, on the political and gastronomic aspects of hummus.)

But most of Ottolenghi’s answer concerned Irish Stew. His husband is from Northern Ireland, and his mother-in-law makes excellent Irish stew. Ottolenghi decided he’d adapt Irish stew, and he developed a recipe including orange zest and thyme. He published his recipe in the Guardian, https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2013/dec/06/irish-stew-potato-cakes-recipeswhere he has long written a column, and the response was great anger. How dare an Israeli mess with a traditional Irish dish?

“I am not Irish but I feel insulted by this,” wrote Sybil Sanderson. “How would you feel if I introduce fried bacon in shakshuka as a wonderful idea to get more Umami in a dish.” The answer, of course, is that Ottolenghi, whose family ate pork, wouldn’t care a fig so long as the dish was tasty. “My family are Irish. I add all kinds of stuff to my stew and daaaaare call it Irish. Get over yourself,” responded an Irish person to Sanderson.

Ottolenghi was amused not disturbed by the episode and observed that his mother-in-law liked the dish and that the complaints came mostly from the English not the Irish.


Empathising with the chief medical officer and chief scientific adviser

Yesterday Chris Whitty, England’s chief medical officer, and Patrick Vallance, the government chief scientific adviser, were placed in one of those awful predicaments where the right thing to do might have been to resign. I empathise with their predicament, but what was the right thing to do?

They were standing beside the prime minister at the daily press conference on Covid-19. Inevitably journalists wanted to ask them about the actions of Dominic Cummings, the prime minister’s adviser who has broken at least the spirit of the rules he helped set by driving his child and sick wife 260 miles and then driving 60 miles “to test his eyesight.” Whether it was medically and scientifically advisable to take such actions are legitimate questions for a doctor and scientist, but the prime minister, desperate to an extraordinary degree to keep Cummings, stopped them from answering the questions. They might also have answered questions on whether allowing Cummings to get away with flouting the rules would make it more likely that people would ignore government rules.

John Crace from the Guardian writes these words about the episode: “a plainly terrified Whitty and Vallance just stood there and took it. If either had a smidgeon of self worth, both would have walked out once the questions began….It’s possible that both men had only agreed to stand alongside the Great Dictator on the proviso they were allowed to say nothing. If so that was a huge mistake on their part, because reputations that had taken decades to build were shredded in a matter of minutes.” https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2020/may/28/boris-johnson-sacrifices-top-scientific-advisers-on-altar-of-classic-dom

Many people, including many doctors and scientists, would agree with Crace. They are not exercising independence. They are silenced lapdogs going along with government action in keeping Cummings, an action with which they almost certainly disagree. Science is being debased, and so are they. And this may not be the first time. Britain has done badly in managing the pandemic, and might this be because scientific advice has been ignored? Or was it because the advice was poor? Either might be grounds for resigning.

They surely knew before the press conference that there would be questions about Cummings and that they would be required not to answer them. If they were going to object they should have done so before the press conference, although the drama of one or both of them walking out would have been considerable—and perhaps precipitated the ousting of Cummings or even the collapse of the government.

But they could resign today, writing closely argued, evidence-based letters on why they were resigning. Will they?

I can see why they won’t. Firstly, we are in a pandemic, probably nearer the beginning than the end, not a good time to either resign or destabilise the government. Secondly, they knew the rules when they signed up to their positions: they are advisers not decision-makers. Nevertheless, there does come a point when you have to decide that you cannot go along with what is happening. Whitty and Vallance may not be far from that point, and it cannot be a comfortable place to be.


Two literary accounts of how it is to die

Descriptions of how it is to die have the advantage over descriptions of sex, which are so often awful, that there isn’t anybody around to say “that’s not how it is.” There are, of course, people who have come close to dying and have had cardiac arrests, but are they quite the same as dying? We can’t know, and so authors can wax lyrical with accounts of how it is to die.

My favourite description has long been that of the death of Don Fabrizio, Prince of Salina, in The Leopard by Giuseppe Tomasi Di Lampedusa, but James Jones’s description of the death of Prewitt in From Here to Eternity, emphasising how normal it is to die, is just as good if very different. Both are below.

The death of Don Fabrizio from The Leopard

Don Fabrizio, a Sicilian aristocratic, is old and dying in his place above Palermo at the end of the 19th century.

DON FABRIZIO HAD always known that sensation. For a dozen years or so he had been feeling as if the vital fluid, the faculty of existing, life itself in fact and perhaps even the will to go on living, were ebbing out of him slowly but steadily, as grains of sand cluster and then line up one by one, unhurried, unceasing, before the narrow neck of an hour-glass. In some moments of intense activity or concentration this sense of continual loss would vanish, to reappear impassively in brief instants of silence or introspection; just as a constant buzzing in the ears or ticking of a pendulum superimpose themselves when all else is silent, assuring us of always being there, watchful, even when we do not hear them….

With the slightest effort of attention he used to notice at all other times too, the rustling of the grains of sand as they slid lightly away, the instants of time escaping from his mind and leaving him for ever….

From the room next door, open on to the same balcony, Concetta’s voice reached him, “We simply must; he’s got to be called. I should never forgive myself if he weren’t.” He understood at once; they were talking of a priest. For a moment he had an idea of refusing, of lying, of starting to shout that he was perfectly well, that he needed nothing. But soon he realised how ridiculous all that would be: he was the Prince of Salina and as a Prince of Salina he must die with a priest by his side. Concetta was right. Why should he avoid what was longed for by thousands of other dying people? And he fell silent, waiting to hear the little bell with the Last Sacraments. It soon came; the parish church of the Pietà was almost opposite. The gay silvery tinkle came climbing up the stairs, flowed along the passage, became sharp as the door opened…

He wanted to confess. Things should be done properly or not at all. Everyone went out, but when he was about to speak he realised he had nothing to say; he could remember some definite sins, but they seemed so petty as not to be worth bothering a worthy priest about on a hot day. Not that he felt himself innocent; but his whole life was blameworthy, not this or that single act: and now he no longer had time to say so. His eyes must have expressed an uneasiness which the priest took for contrition; as in fact in a sense it was. He was absolved; his chin seemed to be propped on his chest, for the priest had to kneel down to place the Host between his lips. Then there was a murmur of the immemorial syllables which smooth the way, and the priest withdrew.

He was making up a general balance sheet of his whole life, trying to sort out of the immense ash-heap of liabilities the golden flecks of happy moments. These were: two weeks before his marriage, six weeks after; half an hour when Paolo was born, when he felt proud at having prolonged by a twig the Salina tree (the pride had been misplaced, he knew that now, but there had been some genuine self-respect in it); a few talks with Giovanni before the latter vanished (a few monologues, if the truth were told, during which he had thought to find in the boy a kindred mind); and many hours in the observatory, absorbed in abstract calculations and the pursuit of the unreachable. Could those latter hours be really put down to the credit side of life? Were they not some sort of anticipatory gift of the beatitudes after death? It didn’t matter, they had existed.

In the growing dark he tried to count how much time he had really lived. His brain could not cope with the simple calculation any more; three months, three weeks, a total of six months, six by eight, eighty-four . . . forty-eight thousand . . . √840,000. He summed up. “I’m seventy-three years old, and all in all I may have lived, really lived, a total of two . . . three at the most.” And the pains, the boredom, how long had they been? Useless to try and make himself count those; the whole of the rest; seventy years.

He felt his hand no longer being squeezed. Tancredi got up hurriedly and went out . . . Now it was not a river erupting over him but an ocean, tempestuous, all foam and raging white-flecked waves. . . .

He must have had another stroke for suddenly he realised that he was lying stretched on the bed. Someone was feeling his pulse; from the window came the blinding implacable reflection of the sea; in the room could be heard a faint hiss; it was his own death-rattle, but he did not know it. Around him was a little crowd, a group of strangers staring at him with frightened expressions. Gradually he recognised them: Concetta, Francesco Paolo, Carolina, Tancredi, Fabrizietto. The person holding his pulse was Doctor Cataliotti; he tried to smile a greeting at the latter but no one seemed to notice; all were weeping except Concetta; even Tancredi, who was saying: “Uncle, dearest Nuncle!”

Suddenly amid the group appeared a young woman; slim, in brown travelling dress and wide bustle, with a straw hat trimmed with a speckled veil which could not hide the sly charm of her face. She slid a little suède-gloved hand between one elbow and another of the weeping kneelers, apologised, drew closer. It was she, the creature for ever yearned for, coming to fetch him; strange that one so young should yield to him; the time for the train’s departure must be very close. When she was face to face with him she raised her veil, and there, chaste but ready for possession, she looked lovelier than she ever had when glimpsed in stellar space.

The crashing of the sea subsided altogether.


The death of Private Robert E Lee Prewitt in From Here to Eternity

Prewitt, a 30-year-man, has gone AWOL after murdering a man in Hawaii in 1941. He is returning to his company a few days after the bombing of Pearl Harbour when in a mix-up he is shot in the chest by military police. He is dying in the sand in a bunker on a golf course in the dark.

You always wondered just how it would come. You always thought it would somehow be special. What you couldnt imagine was how it would have this just everyday quality. Like taking a crap. Or getting your socks off. Or rolling a smoke. Just common, ordinary, everyday. You sweated and sweated it out, and waited and waited on it, all your life you waited on it, and then finally it came, and all the time you had hoped you would be able to do it well, and then it came, and there it was, and now you would see if you would do it well. You did not guess it would be everyday, though. It would have been a lot easier to do well if it had been special….

He was sliding down a long skislide of long snow, like. And he could feel himself beginning to go clear out of himself. And the cord he had seen that time in the Stockade that looked like it was made of come kept stretching and stretching as he coasted. Then he slowed and stopped coasting, delicately like, as if something hadnt quite made up its mind yet, and then began to come back in a little. So this was the way it was, hunh. Who would of guessed it was like this….

All go right on. He was selfish. He did not want it all to go right on. You wouldnt think it would take so long. Even all tore up, it took so long. My body’s all tore up. My body. He did not want his body to be all tore up. You can let go if you want to. They’d never know. You cant speak. You cant move. And its taking too long. And my body’s all tore up. Tore to pieces. Tore all up. It’s a shame. And they’d never know. But you’d know. You got to do it right. It wont take very long. Just a minute more now. And you want to do it good. Even if nobody will know it. Just another minute. Then it will end. Then it will be over….

If you could just say something. Just a word. If you could just even move a little. If you could just do anything, besides just lay and look at them, and look at it. Christ, but the world was a lonesome place.


The journey to carbon literacy: step 2: carbon footprints per capita and what does a tonne of carbon look like?

Territorial and consumption footprints are different

The “territorial carbon footprint” of the average Briton is 5.81 tonnes of carbon—and a tonne of carbon is 1000 kilograms. The territorial footprint is the carbon consumed in the country to do things like heat homes, provide transport, and grow food.

Per capita

But Britain “imports” about 40% of its carbon—products and food that used carbon consumed outside Britain. The “consumption carbon footprint” of the average Briton is 8.13 tonnes.


The territorial footprint of the average Bangladeshi is 0.53 tonnes and the consumption footprint 0.67 tonnes.

Some countries have a consumption footprints lower than their territorial footprint because they use carbon to produce goods and foods for other countries. For example, the average South African’s territorial footprint is 8.05 tonnes but the consumption footprint is 5.77 tonnes.

What does a tonne of CO2e look like?

Mike Berners-Lee provides an answer: “If you filled a couple of standard-sized garden water butts to the brim with petrol and set fire to them, about a tonne of carbon would be directly released into the atmosphere.”