Part Mr. Science, part Jeremiah, and part super policy wonk, Don Carli has spent the last 10 years spreading the message of sustainability throughout the printing industry in a one-man avalanche of wake-up facts and shake-up statistics. He brought his green-bannered crusade to New York University last night with a presentation that recommended, among other things, building a national network of clean-running “integrated bio-refineries” to produce energy, feedstocks, and all of the cellulose fiber that the U.S. papermaking industry would need to protect itself against foreign competition.

Carli, executive vice president of SustainCommWorld and senior research fellow at the Institute for Sustainable Communications, was the featured speaker at the annual gathering of alumni of NYU’s M.A. Program in Graphic Communications Management and Technology. The program is endorsed by a large and loyal base of graduates, adjunct and professional faculty, and advisory board members, many of whom came to hear Carli in The Torch Club on NYU’s Washington Square campus.

He was introduced as “the guru of green, the sultan of sustainability”—a role he also played earlier this month as the program chair of The Green Media Show in Boston. Known for his often astonishing ability to cite nugget after nugget of highly detailed, source-attributed information without the aid of notes, Carli marshaled a typically impressive array of data as he called for a “new kind of accounting” to measure the environmental and social impacts of all graphic media and the infrastructures that support them.

Although hard-copy printing can be an easy target for negative commentary by environmentalists, Carli said, it actually is one of the least energy-intensive of all manufacturing industries. He went on to explain that paperless communication via the web is a hidden culprit because “computers don’t grow on trees”: they have to be manufactured using processes that consume vast amounts of energy, and they eventually must be disposed of as mountains of “toxic waste” in the form of cast-off computer junk.

And, because data centers and other Internet transmission facilities draw so much electrical power, every online message produces a “bubble of CO2” that contributes to the eight-billion-ton carbon footprint left by all human activity each year. “Electrons aren’t free,” Carli said.

But, he continued, “there are no good media or bad media” when it comes to reckoning environmental impact, because no medium—including print—has fully committed to self-measurement and self-mitigation. “What is the footprint of print? What is the footprint of digital media?” he asked. No one knows, and for that reason, “there is no such thing as a sustainable medium.”

Carli said that the time has come to “secure the flow of energy that the capacity to communicate depends on” by asking the right questions and taking the right steps to operate all media more sustainably. Predicting that within two years, the U.S. would adopt a mandatory cap-and-trade scheme to reduce industrial carbon emissions, he urged media executives to prepare for a greener tomorrow by conceiving “a new supply chain infrastructure for our industry.”

If, according to Carli, that infrastructure contained 100 “integrated bio-refineries” running on biomass (plant matter usable as fuel), the nation could cut its petroleum use by up to 30% while underpinning its domestic papermaking capability.

Among general signs that attitudes are changing, Carli said, is the fact that about half of the Fortune 500 companies now publish sustainability reports and employ sustainability managers. Sustainability also is being added to academic curricula including the M. A. Program in Graphic Communications Management and Technology at NYU.

Offered by NYU’s School of Continuing and Professional Studies (SCPS), the program recently won the 2008 Excellence in Education Award for Innovation in Higher Education from the Electronic Document Systems Foundation (EDSF). The management-focused degree combines theory and critical thinking with practical applications across the full spectrum of graphic communications. Many of its faculty are industry leaders in the subjects they teach.