Digital Sustainability? Promises, pitfalls, contradictions, paradoxes and backlashes of digitally-supported ecological transition

With the DIGGEO@ESOMAS I am proposing a call for papers for the next RGS-IBG Annual Conference 2022 (30th August- 2nd September). The session is intended to explore the controversial topic of Digital Sustainability in the ecological transition age (see the call below).

The session is fully online for both presenters and chairs, with 12 mins presentations each, 5 minutes for questions and 15 mins for collective recap and networking. Abstract are to be submitted to Chiara Certomà, Fabio Iapaolo and Paolo Giaccaria (; by the 28th of March 2022.

Digital Sustainability? Exploring promises, pitfalls, contradictions, paradoxes and backlashes of digitally-supported ecological transition

Session Conveners: Chiara Certomà, Fabio Iapaolo and Paolo Giaccaria – University of Turin

The most severe phase of the global COVID-19 pandemic inspired hopes for transforming densely populated and polluted areas of the world into hyper-connected hubs with digitally-enabled operational functions while avoiding harmful impacts in terms of sustainability. The persistence of emergency conditions slowed down the pace of most productive activities as well as the intensity and frequency of global flows of people, goods, and vehicles. At the same time, it sensibly reduced (some forms of) pollution, while allowing wildlife to intensify their presence within urban areas (e.g. Arora et al., 2020). These peculiar circumstances reinforced the already widespread narrative (and the associated rhetoric) of “digital sustainability”, i.e. the claim that the digitalization of most (if not all) of our social activities is consistent with sustainability goals.

The association between digitalization and sustainability did not come as a surprise, for this has been already alleged by authoritative statements of international organisations and institutions (EU, 2021) and supported by dedicated reports (Casal et al., 2004). This institutional auspice has been notably promoted by the techno-managerial perspective of the ICT business sector that promoted the dematerialisation, disintermediation, and virtualisation of (many) social reproduction processes to lighten our ecological footprint, and (allegedly) advance their democratisation, accessibility, and transparency.

However, whether digitalisation is serving the environmental cause is questionable as this may produce both progressive and regressive implications in terms of socio-environmental sustainability (e.g. Griffiths, 2020). Undeniably, our reliance on digital platforms, products, and services has reached unprecedented levels following the spread of COVID19. Still, the hidden costs of these systems – social, environmental, economic, and political – are too often neglected (Crawford and Joler 2018).

We welcome in this section critical contributions engaging with theoretical and empirical analyses of the contradictory and paradoxical effects emerging from the epistemological and pragmatic association of digitalization and sustainability, including (but not limited) contributions on:

the digital as a social technology able to impact on the material and symbolic constitution of the global and local environments (e.g. the rhetoric and pragmatic of multi-location living enabled by the diffusion of smart working);  and – by converse- the social construction of the techno-ecological systems;

the promises and reality of “digital sustainability”, including the impacts of digitalisation on global environmental changes and its socio-environmental costs;

the adoption of material-semiotic, non-binary, new materialist approaches for unveiling the dark sides of the utopian narratives of digital sustainability and the implications of emerging digital geographies produced by the human-technology-environment assemblages;

the political ecology of the digital approach (e.g. Gabrys, 2013) to describe the transformation of global metabolic processes supporting the reproduction of digital capitalism and to “follow the (digital) thing” along the production, distribution, use, and disposal cycle of digi-tech to detect where the materiality of digital geography is impacting (despite often ignored) on the environmental system (e.g. Smith et al., 2006);

the geopolitics of the digital feeding the complex entanglement of ownership, management, and use of digital infrastructures in the age of “digital feudalism” (Mazzucato, 2019), including the emerging conflicts connected to new resource extractivism;

the way in which polarised power geometries, novel social inequities, and technology imbalances reverberate the “more-than-real world” (McLean, 2020) where issues of ownership, management, and use of (hard and soft) digital infrastructures overlap with existing injustices by disavowing the progressive, democratic and empowering promises of digitalisation (e.g. Graham, 2013).

Arora, S., Bhaukhandi, K. D., & Mishra, P. K. (2020). Coronavirus lockdown helped the environment to bounce back. Science of The Total Environment, 742, 140573

Casal. C. R., Van Wunnik, C., Sancho L. D., Burgelman, J. C., & Desruelle, P. (eds.). (2004). The future impact of ICTs on environmental sustainability. Technical Report EUR (21384 EN). European Commission: Joint Research Centre. 

Crawford, K., and Joler, V. (2018). Anatomy of an AI System: The Amazon Echo as an anatomical map of human labor, data and planetary resources. AI Now Institute and Share Lab. 

EC. (2021a, March 19). EU countries commit to leading the green digital transformation

Griffiths, S. (2020, 6. March). Why your internet habits are not as clean as you think. BBC.

Gabrys, J. (2013). Digital rubbish: a natural history of electronics. University of Michigan

Graham, M. (2014) Inequitable Distributions in Internet Geographies: The Global South Is Gaining Access, but Lags in Local Content. Innovations: Tecnology, Governance, Globalization 9 (3-4): 3-19.

Mazzucato M., (2019) Preventing Digital Feudalism, Oct 2, 2019 , Project Syndicate

Smith, T., Sonnenfeld, D., & Pellow, D. N. (eds.). (2006). Challenging the Chip: Labor Rights and Environmental Justice in the Global Electronics Industry. Temple University Press

Instructions for prospective contributors: 

Please submit abstracts to the email addresses of Chiara, Fabio and Paolo (please include all of them) specifying: author name(s), presenting author, email address, title and abstract (max 250 words).

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