Back in the 1984, singer Madonna declared (musically), "We are living in a material world." She was right on a couple of counts: During that decade, there was an increased desire to own as much stuff as possible. Moreover, that stuff tended to be of the physical variety. Your music and software inevitably came recorded on plastic or metal, boxed in cardboard. Literature, news, letters, and interoffice memos were almost exclusively printed in ink on paper and often delivered via some form of fuel-consuming vehicle. Having a face-to-face chat with a CEO, client, or grandparent living on the opposite end of the country entailed being physically transported via airplane, train, Greyhound, or whatever your budget afforded.
The world has changed since then. Stacks of CDs, books, newspapers, business reports, and the like, previously transported via airplanes and trucks, have been replaced with megabytes of electronic files transported via the Internet. More meetings are held virtually via Web conferencing or teleconferencing. Instead of transporting atoms, we're transporting bits. Thanks to technology, we are living in an increasingly immaterial world. That trend represents opportunities for businesses and customers alike to save money and to be better environmental stewards. However, when you dig a little deeper, you'll find that digital delivery isn't always better than physical delivery.
A report released this week titled "The Energy and Climate Change Impacts of Different Music Delivery Methods" [PDF] illuminates the environmental benefits and potential drawbacks of dematerialization, an economic term that basically means "using fewer materials to achieve the same economic outcome." In the report, the authors compare the environmental impact of six music-delivery scenarios, ranging from driving to the store and purchasing a music CD to downloading a digital album and not burning it to CD. (The authors are Jonathan G. Koomey, visiting professor at Yale University; Christopher L. Weber, research assistant professor at Carnegie Mellon University; and H. Scott Matthews, associate professor at Carnegie Mellon.)
Cutting right to the chase, the authors conclude: