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    The Tree Cost to Print a Warehouse Worth of Internet

    Written by

    Ben Richmond

    Contributing Editor

    Everyone’s always saying, “follow your dreams,” even though lots of people dream of terrible things. In a way, then, it’s encouraging to see people come out to plead with Kenneth Goldsmith not to follow his latest dream. Citing the environmental impact of such an endeavor, there’s a petition going around titled, politely enough, “Please don’t print the internet.”  

    See, if you haven’t already heard, Goldsmith, the Museum of Modern Art’s first poet laureate, wants to print out the entire internet and put it on display in a warehouse/gallery space in Mexico City, as a piece in homage to Aaron Swartz.

    Rather than printing it all on his own, Goldsmith wants everyone to print some internet—news articles, personal blogs, emails, whatever—and mail it down to Mexico City’s LABOR space, where it will be on display from July 26 until the end of August.

    If your first thought was, “That sounds like a huge waste of paper and ink; there’s no way this is a good idea,” you’re not alone. Even fellow avant-garde poets and artists are saying this is a bad idea on Twitter, so you can imagine what they’re saying over at the Huffington Post.

    Tech Hive calculated what it would take to print the internet’s 4.6 billion pages, based on the shaky assumption that each webpage fits on one page of regular A4 paper, and concluded that a paper copy of the Internet would take up 29,374 cubic meters. In 2009, Cartridge Saver estimated that the Internet in book-form would weigh 1.2 billion pounds and be over 10,000 feet tall.

    Goldsmith’s space at LABOR is only a tenth of the room needed to house a copy of every webpage, and that’s before you add in the 144 billion emails sent every day, which are also invited. It’s easy to understand why he doesn’t have any illusions that the whole internet will be in the warehouse, telling Yahoo that even a small portion of the printed Web would “overwhelm any space.”

    And the project doesn't have any illusions about this being uniformly recognized as a good idea. Their Tumblr has posted their negative press alongside the positive, as well as links to the petition to stop the project (which is almost definitely going to be printed and put in the exhibition, right?).

    But let’s be optimistic about the crowd-sourced enthusiasm for this project, and pessimistic about how much people really care about the environment (usually a safe bet) and see just how bad it could be. If Goldsmith successfully filled the entire exhibition area at LABOR--no pathways or anything--how many trees would have to die?

    Probably 57,600 or so, actually, or about 140 acres of woods. This is either every current tree in Central Park, twice, or if Central Park were a forest, you’d have to clean cut a swath from Strawberry Fields up to the American Museum of Natural History. This may not seem far, unless you’re looking for a bathroom. Also keep in mind it’s the whole width, re-imagined as a uniform forest of 40 foot trees.

    Made with Daft Logic's Google Map's Area Calculator Tool

    I’d invite you to check my math, which I’ll admit is a lot of rough estimates, but is otherwise, I think, sound.


    1. Goldsmith has 3,000 cubic meters of space.

    2. It takes 320 reams of paper to fill a cubic meter (four by four by 20 reams), and each ream weighs about 5 pounds. Each cubic meter therefore weighs 1,600 pounds.

    3. So to fill the space takes 4.8 million pounds of paper, or 2,400 tons.

    4. According to Conservatree, it takes about 24 trees per ton of printing and writing paper, again, “based on a mixture of softwoods and hardwoods 40 feet tall and 6-8 inches in diameter,” if they are processed “using the kraft chemical (freesheet) pulping process.”

    5. So 24 trees times 2,400 tons nets 57,600 trees.

    6. Now, forest density was a tricky one, so I deferred to the NHS Forest website, which claimed, “typical densities range from 1000 to 2500 trees per hectare.” I used the less dense side of the spectrum, because that was easier to calculate—57.6 hectares—then just converted to acres—getting 140.

    Is this worthwhile use of trees, time, postage costs or ink? Hey, since when is conceptual art supposed to be worth anything?