The other day I was sitting in a trial, testifying about the effects of wood waste in the marine environment. It was rather surreal. Aside from the multitudes of lawyers, I was absolutely surrounded in a sea of paper. This trial generated more paper than I normally expect to see outside a library. The judge had a swath of binders that ran from end to end on his bench. There was another copy of all the binders on the floor, by the witness stand. The floor was so full of documents that the court reporters could barely make their way from the break room to their places in front of the bench.
Never mind the copies the lawyers had with them, the backup copies in the “war room” back at the hotel and in the local law offices, the other copies in the law offices in other states, and all the copies that all the experts had. I know because my living room is full of papers, piled by topic and date. Each time I get involved in a trial, some room in my house is taken over by paper. I can’t pick it up until the trial’s over, lest some crucial document becomes hard to find in the moment it is needed. And when all this is over, all that paper – will be shredded.
During my testimony, I kept getting handed giant binders of materials to look through that I had no place to set down, balancing them teeteringly on the polished wood before me and searching for a key line or phrase that was somehow of importance. This courtroom actually has some neat gizmos, electronic touch screens that you can draw on with your finger and highlight phrases or create arrows to point at something. And during the preparation for this trial I did see electronic progress, as I received many documents on CD or by ftp for the first time. Yet even still, the binders went forth and multiplied.
And this was a trial, in the end, about trees.
The irony was not lost on anyone in the courtroom. There were little jokes about how we were keeping one side in business. Some of us have been working on this particular project for almost 20 years, and now we are reaching the final throes, the last gasps of contention as those who have already done the cleanup of old historic pollution litigate to see who should pay for it. The paper in this room and involved in this one trial is just a tiny subset, really, of the paper that’s been generated just trying to study and clean up the pollution offshore of this one industrial city, not to mention the other trials spawned by this cleanup involving hundreds of properties, industries, insurance companies, port districts, and municipal entities.
I know in my heart the bay is actually clean now. Was it worth it? All that expense and all that paper, all those years of work by almost everyone in the environmental community – consultants, agency staff, activists, cleanup contractors, facility managers, lawyers… 20 years to undo a century of contamination. 20 years of paper.
Are we in the electronic age yet? It couldn’t come too soon for me :)