Dilemmas of sustainability – Meta-criteria for sustainability

Which way to go road sign (©Brian Jackson/Fotolia)

The examination of the scientific and social discourse on sustainability makes it clear that in the course of its development the legitimacy of the goal of sustainable development was strengthened which means that at the same time the actors, objectives and understandings of sustainability have multiplied. A closer look at the “Sustainable Development Goals” (SDG) and their sub-objectives makes this evident since they are in part contradictory. The related lack of reflection on the concept of sustainability is all the more problematic because the concept of sustainability harbors specific dilemmas resulting from incompatible goals, criteria, interests and a variety of types of knowledge. There is also a diversity of the actors involved. The object of the project is to look at such dilemmas of sustainability, i.e. contradictions and (supposed) hopelessness that are inherent in the concept of sustainable development itself. On this basis, well-founded criteria and guidelines for sustainability knowledge will then be developed.

Research approach

The overarching question is which dilemmas of sustainability exist and how they relate to each other epistemically and strategically. Thus, the following interconnected questions will be examined in more detail: 

  1. How and to what extent are dilemmas of sustainability in sustainability research programs operationalized, if necessary, in correspondence with different understandings of sustainability? 
  2. Which dilemmas of sustainability can be identified in sustainability projects and to what extent are they connected with the understanding of sustainability within the respective project? 
  3. Which different perspectives and ways of generating knowledge impact those sciences that consider themselves as sustainability sciences?

On the basis of the answers to these research questions, empirically and theoretically founded meta-criteria for sustainability will be developed.


Whether in politics, business, science, the media or everyday life – the term “sustainability” has now found its way into everyday language and sustainable action appears to be both a positive and justified claim. However, this general acceptance of sustainability brings with it a fundamental difficulty: as sustainability refers to different goals – from healthy nutrition to climate change - and since different social groups claim “sustainability” for themselves, the term increasingly loses its sharpness and content. “Sustainability” threatens to become an empty signifier or container for highly contradictory meanings, which, while finding broad connectivity, can at the same time be strategically filled in many different ways. 

Research and project partners

  • Carl-v.-Ossietzky University Oldenburg, Ecological Economy (Project Management)
  • Carl-v.-Ossietzky University Oldenburg, Institute for Pedagogy 
  • University of Passau, Faculty of Philosophy
  • Technical University Braunschweig, Seminar for Philosophy


The project “Dilemmas of sustainability between evaluation and reflection. Well-founded Criteria and Guidelines for Sustainability Knowledge” is funded by the “Science for Sustainable Development” funding program of the Lower Saxony Ministry of Science and Culture and the Volkswagen Foundation.


Bergmann, Matthias/Thomas Jahn (2023): Dilemmata der Nachhaltigkeit - Herausforderungen für die transdisziplinäre Forschungspraxis. In: Henkel, Anna/Sophie Berg/Matthias Bergmann/Holli Gruber/Nicole C. Karafyllis (Hg.): Dilemmata der Nachhaltigkeit. Baden-Baden: Nomos, 347-362

Henkel, Anna/Sophie Berg/Matthias Bergmann/Holli Gruber/Nicole C. Karafyllis (Hg.) (2023): Dilemmata der Nachhaltigkeit. Baden-Baden: Nomos

Henkel, Anna/Sophie Berg/Dimitri Mader/Ann-Kristin Müller/Matthias Bergmann (2023): Dilemmata der Nachhaltigkeit: Zur Relevanz und kritischen Reflexion in der Nachhaltigkeitsforschung. Ein Leitfaden. DOI: doi.org/10.5771/9783748938538. Baden-Baden: Nomos

Henkel, Anna/Sophie Berg/D.Isabell Mader/Ann-Kristin Müller/Matthias Bergmann/Holli Gruber/Bernd Siebenhüner/Karsten Speck (2023): Dilemmas of Sustainability. On Relevance and Critical Reflection in Sustainability Research. A Guide. doi.org/10.5771/9783748918820. Baden-Baden: Nomos


2019/01 – 2023/03