What does sustainability mean?

To clarify what Sustainable Sardinia aims to achieve, we need to talk about three topics: sustainable development, computational sustainability, and which are the sustainability problems in Sardinia.

What is sustainable development?

The origin of the concept of sustainability are remote and can be followed through the history of political philosophy, but in recent years, the term has become a buzzword with unclear meaning (Du Pisani, 2006; Spindler, 2013).

In 1987, in the UN’s Brundtland Report established the political framework for work in this field, and provided the following widely-accepted definition (World Commission on Environment and Development, 1987):

“Sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”

In 2017, the UN produced a list of 17 Goals as to be “a blueprint to achieve a better and more sustainable future for all” (United Nations, 2017):

  1. End poverty in all its forms everywhere.
  2. End hunger, achieve food security and improved nutrition and promote sustainable agriculture.
  3. Ensure healthy lives and promote well-being for all at all ages.
  4. Ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all.
  5. Achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls.
  6. Ensure availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all.
  7. Ensure access to affordable, reliable, sustainable and modern energy for all.
  8. Promote sustained, inclusive and sustainable economic growth, full and productive employment and decent work for all.
  9. Build resilient infrastructure, promote inclusive and sustainable industrialization and foster innovation.
  10. Reduce inequality within and among countries.
  11. Make cities and human settlements inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable.
  12. Ensure sustainable consumption and production patterns.
  13. Take urgent action to combat climate change and its impacts.
  14. Conserve and sustainably use the oceans, seas and marine resources for sustainable development.
  15. Protect, restore and promote sustainable use of terrestrial ecosystems, sustainably manage forests, combat desertification, and halt and reverse land degradation and halt biodiversity loss.
  16. Promote peaceful and inclusive societies for sustainable development, provide access to justice for all and build effective, accountable and inclusive institutions at all levels.
  17. Strengthen the means of implementation and revitalize the Global Partnership for Sustainable Development.

Sustainable development
The 17 Sustainable Development Goals defined by the UN (United Nations, 2017).

To further clarify the Goals, the UN provided a list of Targets for each goal, for a total of 169. While some of the Targets apply in practice only to developing countries, others are much more general. For example, consider the following one (United Nations, 2017):

“Improve progressively […] global resource efficiency in consumption and production and endeavour to decouple economic growth from environmental degradation […].”

This Target could apply to developing countries as well as to economically depressed peripheral areas of developed countries. In both cases, non-sustainable development imposes a choice between jobs and pollution, often hiding under supposed sustainability for the financial benefits of speculators (Puggioni, 2014; Tola, 2016).

The adjective sustainable has multiple meanings and, similarly, sustainable development has multiple aspects. One of these aspects is that it’s not enough for it to be endurable given the available resources. Sustainable development also needs to be a long-term plan for resource management (Daly, 1990):

“For the management of renewable resources there are two obvious principles of sustainable development. First that harvest rates should equal regeneration rates (sustained yield). Second that waste emission rates should equal the natural assimilative capacities of the ecosystems into which the wastes are emitted. Regenerative and assimilative capacities must be treated as natural capital, and failure to maintain these capacities must be treated as capital consumption, and therefore not sustainable”

What is computational sustainability?

Computational sustainability is applying computer science towards sustainable development, to fields like ecology, economics, and social studies. The computational sustainability community shares the following vision (Gomes et al., 2019):

“Our vision is that computer scientists can and should play a key role in helping address societal and environmental challenges in pursuit of a sustainable future, while also advancing computer science as a discipline.”

Computational sustainability isn’t only for computer scientists, though. To be successful, computational sustainability needs the collaboration of a large number of experts in social, environmental and natural sciences.

The following are some examples of work done in the field of computational sustainability.

Why the interest in Sardinia?

Sardinia is the second-largest island in the Mediterranean Sea, It has a population of about 1.6 million people, mostly belonging to the local ethnic group: the Sardinians (Danver, 2015).

The Sardinians are an ethnic group within Italy similarly to how the Welsh, the Scots, and the Irish are ethnic groups within the British Islands. Although today Italian is the most spoken language on the Sardinia, the local Sardinian language, an autonomous Romance language that is not a dialect of Italian, is still spoken albeit often as a heritage language (Onnis, 2019). Other languages spoken in Sardinia are: Catalan, Gallurese, Sassarese, and Tabarkin. This diversity gives the island rich cultural traditions and a strong identity, but Italianisation, which had its peak during the fascist era of the 1920s, has – and still is – eroding this rich cultural fabric. This is because the population associates the Italian language with promises of improvement of their socio-economic conditions (Schjerve, 1993; Mongili, 2012), at the cost of cultural alienation. This process of cultural cringe shows why the social and economic situation of Sardinia can be described with the tools provided by postcolonial studies (Sulis, 2012; Mongili, 2015), similarly to what has been done for Scotland (Macdonald, 2006).

After the Second World War, Sardinia was one of the poorest regions in the whole of Europe. Starting from the 1950s, the induced industrialisation of the Renaissance plan improved the economic conditions of the inhabitants, but the improvement slowed down at the beginning of the 1970s until it stopped altogether (Biagi et al., 2019). Today, both the island’s income per capita and its employment rate are well below the Italian and the European averages (European Commission, 2010).

The results of non-sustainable development policies in Sardinia are visible. About half of the territory of Sardinia is threatened by the desertification process, and groundwater resources are quantitatively more than surface water. However, the concentration of nitrates in the water is higher than the allowed threshold according to EU regulations, mainly due to pollution (Ghiglieri and Da Pelo, 2016). Considering the state of degradation of the soil in the areas of now-closed mines, a report to the UN’s Food And Agriculture Organization (FAO) makes a stark remark (Aru, Tomasi and Vacca, 2006):

“The soils involved, initially highly fertile, have been irreversibly contaminated. The superficial horizons now show high values of lead, and significant amounts of zinc, manganese and cadmium.”

Non-sustainable tourism has also become an environmental problem (Aru, Tomasi and Vacca, 2006):

“The tapping of aquifers in coastal areas, which has skyrocketed with the boom in tourism, is not properly managed. Unfortunately, the excessive drain on underground water has altered the balance with marine waters, provoking saline intrusions that contaminate aquifers and cause saline deposits on soils.”

Also, Sardinia hosts a large number of military sites, in particular weapon test ranges, which are a danger both to the health of the people living nearby and the ecosystem (Zucchetti, 2005; Cristaldi et al., 2013).

For all these reasons, Sardinia desperately needs actual sustainable development policies, before it’s too late.


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Biagi, B., Dettori, B., Paci, R. and Usai, S. (2019). Economic development in Sardinia: overcoming the insularity gap. Centro Ricerche Economiche Nord Sud (CRENOS) Working Papers. University of Cagliari, University of Sassari, p. 2.

Cristaldi, M., Foschi, C., Szpunar, G., Brini, C., Marinelli, F. and Triolo, L. (2013). Toxic Emissions from a Military Test Site in the Territory of Sardinia, Italy. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, 10(4), pp. 1631–1646.

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Fang, F., Nguyen, T.H., Pickles, R., Lam, W.Y., Clements, G.R., An, B., Singh, A., Schwedock, B.C., Tambe, M. and Lemieux, A. (2017). PAWS — A Deployed Game-Theoretic Application to Combat Poaching. AI Magazine, 38(1), pp. 23–36.

Farnsworth, A., Sheldon, D., Geevarghese, J., Irvine, J., Van Doren, B., Webb, K., Dietterich, T.G. and Kelling, S. (2014). Reconstructing Velocities of Migrating Birds from Weather Radar – A Case Study in Computational Sustainability. AI Magazine, 35(2), pp. 31–48.

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