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Sustainability as social-ecological dilemma in specific situations

“[I]n the end, sustainability is an issue of human behavior and negotiation over preferred futures, under conditions of deep […] uncertainty” (Robinson 2004: 379).


Sustainability as a consequence of a hegemonic economy of globalized markets

We, at Lighthouse, assume, sustainability has been constituted as a normative orientation towards and due to a perceived increasing complexity (for example, Hummel et al. 2017). This perceived increasing complexity is related to the globalization of markets, as the hegemonic way to organize ways of living together, based on an “Eurocentric Cartesian worldview” (Vanhulst and Beling 2014: 59), techno-science (Schmieg et al. 2018: 789) and a specific relationship, namely a separating, between the individual and the collective, humanity and nature (Moore 2016). This hegemonic, neoliberal, economic-political interpretation of organizing a modern way of life has multi-layered social and ecological consequences. These consequences make it more and more important to live in sustainable ways, whether for ethical or emotional reasons or to protect our own life and community.


Unequal distribution of concern

Regarding climate change, there is an unequal distribution of concern, also, and especially, between generations. There are local and regional groups who have to protect themselves directly from, and adapt their lives to consequences of climate change and others who can live responsibly and in solidarity – or must, depending on the national constitution and policies.

We are aware of the multidimensionality of inequality and discrimination and their genealogies (Crenshaw 1989).


Sustainability as lived solidarity and responsibility

Based on this condition, we want to contribute to develop “critical sustainabilities” (Rose and Cachelin 2018), in form of projects, together with others, to connect and support those affected, and to train, to build mental (Welzer 2011), digital and material infrastructures for solidarity and responsibility on different levels.

Sustainabilities arise through valuing the social, paying attention to production conditions of goods and services or local impacts of global resource extraction.


Sustainability is plural

We discuss and think about sustainability in plural and, in doing so, are referring, for example, to the article by the scientists Jeff Rose and Adrienne Cachelin (Rose and Cachelin 2018). The ideas and definitions of sustainability vary significantly in different communities, also “with respect to different sociocultural, economic, and political historical situations in the different world-regions“ (Meyer and Vilsmaier 2020: 99), as “the concepts of nature, of human beings, communities” (ibid.: 108) themselves are varying and are determining for the constitution of ideas of sustainability.

Sustainabilities need the voices of local concern and of cultural diverse protection tactics/strategies or knowledge to break historical inequalities, and for sustainable relationships between people and their environment that enables diverse life in the future.


Sustainability as social-ecological dilemma in specific situations

We go with Jeff Rose and Adrienne Cachelin’s approach towards sustainabilites writing it “is one that recognizes and encompasses the necessarily interconnected notions of ecological limits and social justice” (Rose and Cachelin 2018).

We work with the terminology of social-ecological dilemmas. Sustainability is accompanied by tensions and dilemmas of different perspectives regarding the future (Wals 2020). These frame and condition specific sustainability situations.

In the case of our project Sustainability without Exclusion, for example, the dilemma lies between the strategies in municipal institutions to implement sustainability policies for climate protection as quickly as possible, with the greatest possible political participation that demands sustainability equally.

The term dilemma means that there is no solution that would be morally acceptable for all, to derive a conflict-free action. Further, the term indicates epistemological or ethical issues, namely, how to deal with manifold and conflicting epistemologies or moral norms, or which ethical legitimacy becomes accepted and how.

We use this to build our transformative methodology in specific sustainability situations, in which we accompany emerging conflicts as collective learning processes in a constructive-critical manner (Wals 2020), take up dilemmas, systematize and communicate them.


Sustainabilities through multi-dimensional, transformative methodologies

The originally feminist methodological approach of intersectionality linked to sustainability dimensions, as they were worked out in the framework of the Sustainable Development Goals by the United Nations are a promising transformative start, we go for in our Sustainability without Exclusion project, for example. It includes being able to become aware of one’s own position, goals, needs, wishes and (political) options for action within sustainability transformations, by working out different experiences with the effects of climate change, as for example in our Virtual Narrative Spaces for Sustainability. These experiences allow for tracing sustainable ways of living together and deriving collective action strategies in face of a hegemonic, discriminating, unsustainable economy.



Sustainabilities emerge as social-ecological dilemma in specific situations. Their condition is inequality, as a consequence of a hegemonic economy of globalized markets.

We live sustainabilities through solidarity and responsibility and can work towards them through multi-dimensional, transformative methodologies.



Crenshaw, K. 1989. Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex: A Black Feminist Critique of Antidiscrimination Doctrine, Feminist Theory and Antiracist Politics. University of Chicago Legal Forum 1/8: 139–167. Available at: http://chicagounbound.uchicago.edu/uclf/vol1989/iss1/8

Hummel, D., Jahn, T., Keil, F., Liehr, S., Stieß, I. 2017. Social Ecology as Critical, Transdisciplinary Science – Conceptualizing, Analyzing and Shaping Societal Relations to Nature. Sustainability 9/1050.

Meyer, E., Vilsmaier, U. 2020. Economistic discourses of sustainability: determining moments and the question of alternatives. Sustainability in Debate 11/1: 98–110.

Moore, J. 2016: Anthropocene or Capitalocene? Nature, History, and the Crisis of Capitalism. In: Anthropocene or Capitalocene? Nature, History, and the Crisis of Capitalism. Edited by J. Moore. Oakland: PM press. 1–13.

Robinson, J. 2004. Squaring the Cycle? Some Thoughts on the Idea of Sustainable Development. Ecological Economics 48/4. 369–384.

Rose, J., Cachelin, A. 2018. Critical sustainability: incorporating critical theories into contested sustainabilities. Journal of Environmental Studies and Sciences 8/4: 518–525.

Schmieg, G., Meyer, E., Schrickel, I., Herberg, J., Caniglia, G., Vilsmaier, U., Laubichler, M., Hörl, E., Lang, D. 2018. Modeling normativity in sustainability: a comparison of the sustainable development goals, the Paris agreement, and the papal encyclical. Sustainability Science 13/3: 785–796.

Vanhulst, J., Beling, A. 2014. Buen vivir: Emergent discourse within or beyond sustainable development? Ecological Economics 101: 54–63.

Wals, A.E.J. 2020. Sustainability-oriented Ecologies of Learning as a response to systemic global dysfunction. In: Learning Ecologies: Sightings, possibilities, and emerging practices. Edited by R. Barnett and N. Jackson. London: Taylor & Francis. 61–78.

Welzer, H. 2011. Mental Infrastructures. How Growth Entered the World of Our Souls. Publication Series on Ecology. Volume 14. Heinrich Böll Foundation. https://www.boell.de/sites/default/files/endf_mental_infrastructures.pdf