The Crisis of Sustainability:
Harry Potter and Global Warming

In the summer of 2000, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, the third book in J. K. Rowling's wildly popular Harry Potter series, was published to great fanfare. As part of its efforts to promote sales of the book, the publisher entered into an agreement with web-retailer Amazon.com and delivery service company Federal Express to guarantee overnight delivery of 250,000 copies of the book beginning just after midnight on the day the book was released. Federal Express later boasted that these deliveries required a fleet of 100 airplanes and 9000 trucks.

Although Fedex did not say how much extra gasoline and jet fuel was burned to make these deliveries, we might reasonably ask about the environmental impact of such a promotion. To state it more broadly, to what extent are our literate practices implicated in environmental degradation?

Scholars such as Harvey Graff, Brian Street, and Elspeth Stuckey have helped us see that literacy can be a tool for social control and political oppression as well as a vehicle for individual empowerment, but still it may seem odd to think of the act of reading and the desire to have a specific book to read as implicated in environmental degradation. Yet this example of the release of Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire begins to illuminate rather dramatically the complex ways in which literacy and literate practice--as well as technologies for literacy, including print and computer-mediated spaces--are directly and indirectly implicated in environmental degradation:

In short, literacy has material consequences; it is always in several senses physical. Moreover, electronic environments for literacy, such as the World Wide Web, are also physical environments and thus have material consequences as well. What's more, technology can help make this physicality of literacy "invisible" in the sense that technologies for literacy become seamlessly integrated into our literate practices and indeed into our ways of being-in-the-world. In this case, various computer technologies, along with print technology (the book) and transportation technologies, all form a kind of seamless web with far-reaching consequences that we don't always see. The click of the computer mouse to order a copy of Harry Potter from Amazon.com can seem a simple and almost natural act, yet it represents participation in this bewilderingly complex web of material connections that is anything but simple. And that participation contributes to the condition of our planet.

But there's still something missing from this picture: Literacy is not only material; it is also ontological. That is, literacy is implicated in our conceptions of self, which in turn help shape our ways of being in the world--which is the issue explored in Section 2: Plato Lives.