By far the most common request I get is from other academics and experts asking to collaborate on new Baby University titles. And, believe me, I would love to write “The Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty for Babies”*, I would. But I don’t get to decide what gets printed. In some sense, you decide what gets printed. I can’t speak for publishers (my favorite one, Sourcebooks, not excluded), but I gather that they are businesses with stakeholders that can’t afford to risk what would amount to hundreds of thousands of dollars to fill their warehouse with board books about niche topics like Quantum Entanglement for Babies that only a few enthusiasts will buy. And, by the way, if you have an idea how to create books about Every-Topic-Under-the-Sun for Babies that doesn’t involve a significant initial investment for publishers, I’m all ears — because I really do want to make them all! But every once in a while they decide, this idea here is too important to overthink, we need to do this. And, in mid-2019, the stars seemed to align on an idea.
* No joke — this was an honest request.
The so-called Climate Debate — you know, the non-debate where large media outlets were giving climate denialist morons a platform — was raging. America was one year out from what seemed like was going to be a plutonium fueled media garbage fire. And what would be burning? Well, the Earth of course. But also at the core would be the hottest hot-button issue of any election ever: climate change. What a perfect time to swoop in and say, this isn’t that complicated — even a baby can understand it. You see, the Baby University books have a powerful effect on not only children, but parents as well.
So, we thought this was a unique and perfect opportunity to educate those actively engaged in this (non) controversy.
I found the perfect co-author, too — Dr Katherina Petrou. Dr Petrou is a Senior Lecturer at the University of Technology Sydney in the School of Life Sciences. Her research focuses on ecological consequences of environmental change as measured by microalgae. She is studying the measurable impact of climate change, and that is what made her the perfect co-author — and scientific genius — behind Climate Change for Babies!
Right away, though, I knew this idea was not going to be an obvious net gain for positive progress on climate change. Let’s get straight to the point. Cutting down trees and manufacturing a book is a money-making venture that directly contributes to climate change. Is it then a bit hypocritical to create and distribute a book calling for action on climate change?
The obvious issue with physical books is moving them around. They are very rarely printed where they are sold. Indeed, if you buy one of my books in Australia, for example, it would have taken two trips across the pacific ocean! On the other hand, if it is purchased at Anderson’s Bookshop around the corner from the Sourcebooks warehouse, the emissions from transportation are minimal. The difference is enormous and it’s impossible to put a concrete number on the impact of shipping one book.
And, what about all those trees and all that carbon used to produce books? This is also a difficult question to answer, even in specific cases. The manufacturing process itself is a complexly layered enterprise that happens across many countries. Often what might seem like repetitive processes are anything but, as suppliers and distribution methods might need to change quite rapidly to meet demand. We did inquire, but in the first printing of Climate Change for Babies the questions halted only a few layers deep. In this case it was due to a mad scramble to meet demand in China at the peak of their coronavirus outbreak. The back-up to the back-up to the back-up of the contingency plan is not well-documented!
It was impossible to put a reliable number on the impact of producing these particular books. But, as it turns out, we are not the first to ask the general question. Caroline Ailanthus outlines the findings in a recent blog post, The Carbon Footprint of a Book. Briefly summarizing, Wells, et al. found that the carbon dioxide equivalent of a standard paperback book (printed and shipped in North America) was 2.71 kg, while a brochure produced by the VTT Technical Research Centre found that a Finnish hardback book has a carbon equivalent of 1.2 kg. A study of the American book publishing industry estimates the average carbon equivalent to be a whopping 4.0 kg. Let’s hedge then and say the carbon footprint of a copy of Climate Change for Babies is 4 kilograms. The book, by the way, is 341 grams.
How can you offset this directly? The easiest way is to plant a tree. It should be obvious that it depends on what kind of tree you plant, but this is not really the point. The point is not to balance your carbon budget and clear your conscience — it’s about changing habits.
Of course, this is not all you should do — and we give some key solutions for mitigating the effect of the primary greenhouse gases. At this point, we are long past what would have been simple solutions 30 years ago. According to the BBC, the most important action you can take is vote. Vote for politicians that support policy change. At the personal choice level, you can choose to eat less meat and not buy “fast fashion” clothing. You can also walk. How many times have you spent 30 minutes in the car sitting in traffic and looking for a park when it could have taken you the same amount of time to walk? You can cover more ground than you think!
Now let me say something else that does not easily translate to your carbon budget. The entire reason for making these books was to educate people about climate change. We are luckier than most authors because our publisher, Sourcebooks, has a mission to bring the messages that need to be heard to the widest audience possible through the medium of books. Why books? Well, we’ll do no more to answer this question than repeat the often quote phrase, books change lives! Reading is immensely important for children as is educating them and their parents about science — especially when it relates to critical things like the stability of the climate!
If you are interested in Climate Change for Babies, please contact your local bookstore. And, as the kids say these days, don’t let this flop.