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Home arrow Political science arrow Sustainability of Agro-Food and Natural Resource Systems in the Mediterranean Basin

Looking Ahead

What prospects and constraints does digitization harbor for environmental governance? One significant fact is that profound changes have already occurred. The most compelling reason to use ICT in production and politics for sustainability, then, stems not from any inherently beneficial or effective properties, but from the fact that there is little choice in the matter.

In this respect, the challenge bears similarities to the issue of mass transit in Los Angeles: having built an entire metropolis around the automobile and sprawl, there is no sensible way to shift to a fixed rail system, because there are no concentrated commercial, industrial, and residential settlements among which to fix the rails. Buses, on the other hand, can travel on the dispersed network of roads and highways that sprawl throughout the metropolis, thus delivering economic, environmental, and social benefits by putting the problematic infrastructure to a more sensible use. Digital systems surely harbor more positive prospects and are less rigid than Los Angeles's transport system, but the common element in both is that creativity is required to nudge an existing infrastructure in better directions.

This means that a strategic orientation toward the Internet is critical. It is possible that, on balance, digital systems have added to ecological destruction and sociopolitical polarization, although no unambiguous answers are available on this matter, nor are there likely to be any in the future. But the possibility that this hypothesis is just shy of outrageous, and not clearly outrageous, suggests that proposals to deploy digital systems for environmental purposes should be greeted with skepticism, and should only proceed if the skepticism is taken seriously.

A good example is Ecoinformatics, an effort to integrate data on biodiversity so as to better understand what is actually happening to natural systems, to determine the most effective projects for preserving them, and to support the decisions of people who manage those projects. Megaprojects like this routinely disappoint, and often fail outright. Yet the scale and complexity of the transition toward sustainability poses a trenchant question: how can such a massive and expensive task be successful in the absence of a technologically sophisticated means of bringing intellectual order to what is known about the problem, establishing priorities, monitoring efforts, and supporting experts and citizens alike in the implementation of the transition? Debates over these types of issues should become an ongoing feature of governing for sustainability.

Finally, if a meaningful public discourse about public and private investment ever takes place (and if it does not, sustainability will not happen), it will have to address more than simply diverting some of the trillions of dollars invested in ICT in recent decades toward sustainability. The enormous profitability of ICT will have to be addressed as well. Can sustainability compete with ICT in this regard? If not, how will it be politically and economically possible to adjust investment patterns?

In sum, there is little choice about engaging digital systems in environmental governance, but naïve attachment to them will perpetuate distorted patterns of investment and other features of the socioeconomic model that has generated the environmental crisis. Critical engagement, careful strategizing, and most of all a commitment to profound change are preconditions for using these systems for different ends.

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