R01: Our Common Future Ocean

How can sustainability of the uncertain future ocean be conceptualized in a way that can be widely agreed upon and that guides responsible decision-making?

The topic brings together researchers from the disciplines of ethics, economics, arts, political sciences, law and natural marine sciences to develop a concept of ocean sustainability.


The conceptual approach is complemented by analyzing and actively taking part in the societal and scientific discourse on ocean sustainability in different cultures, and by experimentally eliciting sustainability views held by society. The sustainability concept is applied to a range of specific ocean issues including CO2 storage in the ocean or the use of ocean resources. Sustainability has been a key notion in the societal and scientific discourse about the relationship between human societies and nature at least since the UN report ‘Our Common Future’ (WCED 1987). Sustainability has become widely agreed upon as a general and abstract objective, but the practical effect has as yet remained small. A major problem is that it is often unclear what sustainability actually means in a concrete decision context. In particular, the large uncertainties with regard to the future ocean and inevitable ocean change challenge simple concepts of sustainability.

The Brundtland report, for example, considers sustainability to be an attribute of future development (‘sustainable development’). Future development of the oceans, however, is uncertain and foreseeable only to a limited extent, both because of stochastic events and because of our limited knowledge about ocean dynamics. Whether or not the actual development path will satisfy sustainability requirements, such as the maintenance of specific ecosystem services, can only be verified ex post. Thus, pure outcome-based concepts of sustainability, as the one suggested by the Brundtland report, are not applicable under uncertainty. Furthermore, a sustainability concept can only be of practical relevance if it is shared by a large part of society. To this end, it is necessary to increase public and cultural awareness of the effects of ocean change and to take into account the normative views on sustainability held by society.

Future Ocean provided scientific underpinning

  • to develop a concept of ocean sustainability
  • to elicit normative views held in society to verify the concept empirically
  • to explore and advance the artistic perception and interpretation of the cultural impact of ocean change
  • to apply the concept of ocean sustainability to specific issues


Research activities