Towards a Paradigmatic Shift in Sustainability Studies: A Systematic Review of Peer Reviewed Literature and Future Agenda Setting to Consider Environmental (Un)sustainability of Digital Communication
The materiality of digital communication inflicts substantial environmental damage: the extraction of resources needed to produce digital devices; the toxicity of e-waste; and the rapidly increasing energy demands required to sustain data generated by digital communication. This damage, however, is paradoxically under-theorized in scholarship on environmental sustainability. Despite the existing critique of the “techno-fix” approach in sustainability studies, digitization – and digital communication in particular – continue to be celebrated as the tool for environmental sustainability; an approach we coin “digital solutionism.” The article presents the first systematic review of the literature to map the implicit assumptions about the relationships between digital communications and environmental sustainability, in order to examine how digital solutionism manifests, and why it persists. We propose a concept matrix that identifies the key blind spots with regards to environmental damages of the digital, and call for a paradigmatic shift in environmental sustainability studies. An agenda for future research is put forward that advocates for the following: (1) a systematic account of material damages of devices, platforms and data systems adopted into sustainability research and practice, resulting in changes in both research framing and methodological foundations; (2) a reconceptualization and denaturalization of the digital itself as a promising solution; (3) a theoretical dialogue between sustainability studies and environmental communication. (4) an expansion of environmental communication as a field, from focusing on the communication aspect of environmental change to include the environmental footprint of communication itself.