Thoughts on environmental sustainability in archives

The impulse of our century has been to substitute earth for god as an object of reverence.

Glück, Louise. “On T.S. Eliot.” Proofs & Theories. Hopewell, NJ: Ecco Press, 1994. 19-23. Print.

Perhaps Louise Glück would not appreciate my quoting her in this essay. Glück was examining the differences in the voices of T.S. Eliot and William Carlos Williams – specifically the two men’s contrasting orientations to the experience of the physical world and to the concept of Truth (yes, capital T). She wasn’t writing about environmentalism, or sustainability.

Yet the observation seems remarkably accurate for both the previous and current centuries. Environmental sustainability – as a concept, ideal and movement – has an increasing purchase on professional fields, organizations and governing bodies. Our paper, “Towards Environmentally Sustainable Digital Preservation,” could be considered a piece of this trend. While our paper does not argue for environmental sustainability as a supreme organizing value, we do argue that environmental sustainability run alongside archival efforts such as appraisal, preservation and access. Since publication I have had increasing doubts on this argument’s merit. I will put forward two scenarios to explore this.

(1) In the paper we note that economic efficiency or budgetary concerns frequently align with environmental sustainability goals. That is, the effort to achieve the most archival mileage out of the least money will also lead to the least environmental resource use. For sustainability of the environment to be visible as a principle, we would need to identify scenarios where the archive is cost-saving but using more environmental resources. We can imagine such scenarios: a cloud storage vendor using an an environmentally impactful energy grid that is cheaper than a modern one, or a drive vendor sourcing metals from a mining operation engaged in practices deleterious to the local population, presumably while a superior operation exists.

Purveyors and operators of services and products used in digital preservation are economic actors, and it is reasonable to project that they will use better grids and resources if and when they become fiscally prudent to do so. Correspondingly, archives will choose these actors more. Therefore, the scenario described is a limited one – an archive may run an operation that is cheaper but less environmentally friendly, but it is unlikely to be able to do so – or to want to do so – for any period that could matter.

A rebuttal may be: what if more environmentally sustainable sources never become financially viable? I don’t foresee this. The negative externalities of existing strategies must become severe enough to suggest alternatives – if they do not, then there is no case for alternatives. Granted, an individual can wish for greater speed or foresight here, so as to more quickly draw down the negative externalities. Yet, a desire for another authority to force economic actors to adopt a more expensive but ostensibly less environmentally impactful operation is incoherent at both the level of resource and political arrangement.

(2) In the absence of such an authority, another route does exist: the conscious actor who will assume the costs of the more environmentally sustainable method to more quickly close these negative externalities. The scenario here asks: will an archives that prioritizes environmental sustainability be successful? Initially, I believed the answer was yes. Sustainability was aligned with archival values. Conservation is written into the archival mission as a key goal; sustainability of the environment in which archives operate is a natural and wise extension of an archive’s conservation of donated materials. But I do not think this is true anymore.

There are trade-offs to be navigated in the three main practices we identify in the paper: preservation, access and appraisal. An archive could broaden its appraisal strategy, taking in more material. But this would lengthen the pipeline for access, and may diminish description, which would further impair access due to less informative search results. A widened appraisal scope would impact preservation efforts, constraining the archive’s options for ongoing management and storage cost. In another direction, hyper-focus on preservation deprives an archives of resources which could otherwise be devoted to outreach, appraisal, description and access. And so on. Not only does every decision lead to a trade-off, every decision is a trade-off – else not a decision at all.

For sustainability to be a fourth practice, we must imagine a similar trade-off. If we can’t imagine these trade-offs, then there’s no case for sustainability as an organizing principle in archival work. Let’s imagine an archive which regularly prizes sustainability over the other three values. Whatever the praise applied to such an organization, one must consider its long-term competitive viability. I do not mean competitive in the budgetary capacity, although that could be a problem. Rather, how does this archive compete with other archives? If a set of an author’s papers and born-digital drafting content is to go to one archive over the other, what case can the sustainability archives make that would compete with another archive – albeit, one with its own configuration of preservation, appraisal and access – but with no commitment to sustainability?

For the commitment to sustainability to mean anything, it must mean subordinating the other values to it at some point, which means the offering is less committed to the retention, description and access to the literary materials than the competing archive. (Again, if an archive achieves a more optimal digital preservation which coincides or is co-operative with a better financial model, then it would do the same regardless environment sustainability.) No doubt some donors will make this choice. They may view the archive’s commitment to environmental sustainability as not directly serving their donation, but indirectly doing so over time. But I maintain that over time no majority will think this way – because at base this is a sentiment or a conviction, not a demonstrable case. Moreover, it is antithetical to the premise of the archives and the interests of the donor. The donor wants the archive to appropriate resources in order to retain the materials in perpetuity. An archive which advertises its effectively competing interest in sustaining the environment – and it must be competing, else it is not a commitment – will not be able to secure the donation.

To recap the first case, I suggest the scenarios where an archive’s financial interests and environmental impact are at contradictions is minimal and temporary. To recap the second, I suggest an archives which elevates its conceptualization of global concerns over its local concerns (i.e., prioritizing its institutional understanding of environmental sustainability over the retention of the donated material) will not succeed. Given the two, I can’t foresee a winning scenario for a sustainability-focused archives, or even an archives which attempts to thread this goal into its decision-making.

Other concerns background this change in thought; I will elaborate just one here. I have said in subsequent discussions from this paper that it would be ideal to have some reasonably accurate measure of environmental impact for a given operation – i.e., if an archive could know what the specific environmental impact of a practice was, that archive may better determine how to run its digital preservation efforts. I no longer think this is possible, or ideal.

Is it possible? The world and the its climate is surely one of the most complex systems encountered. It is not at all clear that for a dynamic, complex system any confidence-inducing measure of impact will ever be devised, less so one that has an effective consensus.

Is it ideal? What body would measure environmental impact? And if such a body did exist, what else may it adjudicate in the name of environmental impact, justice and change? Bear in mind that impact alone is not actionable, environmental impact can only be evaluated alongside the value derived from said impact. Given the evaluation that must happen here (impact plus value), I do not think central stewardship of a global climate or environment is desirable, even at the level of an advisory. Alternatively, multiple bodies wielding their own environmental impact metrics, and local concerns determining value from impact (or a mixture of these roles among those groups), is also ineffective due to political fracturing among the groups and a corresponding dilution of trust and confidence in their claims.

You may find the paper I and my co-authors wrote to be the superior argument. Perhaps it is. But the suggestions and moreover the long-term implications of the paper seem less and less tenable to me. Please let this post serve us an update on my thinking for these areas. I do not speak for my co-authors, who have their own views.