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Responsibility for Sustainability

Leuphana internal research project


Project period: 01 July 2013 – 31 January 2014


Project description:

The norm of sustainability requires today’s individual and collective actors to act in a way such that the consequences of their actions are in accord with the normative objective of sustainability. However, for each actor in a concrete action context, the set of feasible actions as well as the knowledge about their consequences are limited. This raises the question of how an actor can act and how she should act in order to fulfil the requirements of sustainability. For, it is possible that an action which to the best of the actor’s knowledge seems sustainable actually leads to non-sustainable results.

Therefore, an adequate criterion for assessing these actions does not take their consequences as a starting point, but evaluates if the agent acted responsibly with regards to sustainability. This means whether she has acted – in the concrete context of a set of feasible actions and the (limited) knowledge of their consequences – with good reasons that are rationally comprehensible to other members of the community. ‘Responsibility’, in this sense, means the possibility of ascribing the consequences of an action to their perpetrator, as well as the obligation that these actions fulfil certain normative standards.

Against this background, we analyse a dynamic ecological-economic system the development of which is uncertain and study the following questions:

(i) How can future ecosystem states be ascribed to present actors? And how can their responsibility be measured quantitatively?

(ii) How far into the future does this responsibility extend? And how does this temporal extent depend on the system dynamics and institutions?

(iii) Which trade-offs exist between the different normative requirements of sustainability (such as e.g. intra- vs. intergenerational justice) and how do they impact on responsibility?

(iv) How should institutions be designed in order to ensure responsibility consistently and efficiently (i.e. who should be responsible to whom and to what extent)?

(v) What recommendations can be given for the design of institutions in the economy, politics, and society?


Principal investigator:

Prof. Dr. Stefan Baumgärtner

Leuphana University of Lüneburg, Department of Sustainability Science and Department of Economics 


Scientific collaborators:

  • Dr. Bernd Klauer and Dr. Johannes Schiller, Helmholtz-Centre for Environmental Research UFZ Leipzig
  • Prof. Dr. Frank C. Krysiak, University of Basel, Switzerland
  • PD Dr. Thomas Petersen, University of Heidelberg
  • Prof. Dr. Martin F. Quaas, University of Kiel
  • Prof. Dr. Garrath Williams, Lancaster University, UK 



This research project is funded through Leuphana University of Lüneburg.


Contact persons:

Prof. Dr. Stefan Baumgärtner, Felix John.


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