The Sustainability Approach on the High Seas

How can sustainability be conceptualized regarding the great uncertainty of ocean change?



In (international) politics, marine affairs represent a relatively new policy area and the solution of marine environmental problems still have a low priority in many states.

 While in the last decades various measures and initiatives on an international and regional level have been taken, there is still a lack of governance structures on the high seas. More than 60 per cent of the high seas are still not under sovereign jurisdiction. These parts belong to the global commons of humankind, like the atmosphere, the Antarctica or outer space. In 1968, Garrett Hardin coined the term ‘tragedy of global commons’. He argued that individual actions in exploiting an ‘open access’ resource will often bring collective disaster – for example over-exploitation of fish stocks. His proposal to enclose the commons through privatization or nationalization is not applicable for the high seas beyond national jurisdiction. Instead, the function of international cooperation is necessary to provide governance regimes as a substitute for world government. In the last decades, several global commons regimes and conventions have established a framework of rules consistent with sustaining the ecology of the commons.

WavesIn this context, the term ‘sustainability’ has become a key concept. Since its classical definition provided by the Brundtland Commission in 1987, the concept has received much international attention and has become the globally dominating leitmotif for shaping international environmental and developmental relations. Notwithstanding these efforts, there is still no common definition of the term that has been used in a variety of contexts, ranging from questions of security to sustainable fisheries management, a sustainable society with a steady-state economy, the distribution of resources and intra- and intergenerational responsibility.

 Against this background, the research project will focus on a detailed analysis of the term sustainability: How has it been defined and what does it exactly mean in ocean affairs? Who is concerned with sustainability in the maritime context and what do different actors understand by the term? Which international maritime conventions have taken into account the sustainability principle and which institutions are involved in implementing it? How can sustainability be conceptualized regarding the great uncertainty of ocean change? What does the process of sustainability mean for institutionalization?

 Methodological Approach

The analysis will cover the ten years after the World Summit in 2002 in a diachronic analysis of documents to look at how the sustainability concept has subsequently been developing in maritime affairs. The study will be divided into two sequential parts. In the first part, data that refer to sustainability in international conventions, institutional and decision-making processes will be collected through lexicometric analysis. The term ‘sustainability’, for example, is employed in political discourse as an empty signifier designating all kinds of ocean-related problems. Drawing on linguistic insights, it is possible to generate broader meanings of what is said in texts by referring to methods such as intertextual and contextual analysis.

Critical Discourse Analysis (CDA) understands discourse as ‘an element of social life which is closely interconnected with other elements’ (Fairclough 2003: 3). Emphasizing the social character of texts, the dimension of their external relations will be of primary concern in terms of methodology, i.e. the question of how elements of other texts are ‘intertextually’ incorporated and interpreted, how other texts are alluded to, assumed and dialogued with (Fairclough 2003: 36, 47). First coined by Julia Kristeva in the 1960s (Allen 2000), the basic idea behind the term ‘intertextuality’ lies in the poststructuralist idea that arguments do not originate in the thoughts of individual people. Speakers do not create their thoughts in the first instance, but are embedded in a complex socio-linguistic history.

 Specifically, intertextual analysis sheds light on the interrelation of texts with present and past discourses, but at the same time draws attention to how texts may transform society (Fairclough 1989: 184-185). To study large collections of machine-readable texts the method of corpus linguistics will be used.

Once central signifiers, their frequency and co-occurences have been classified, in the second part the lexicometric analysis will be followed by qualitative scrutiny. To substantiate the results of the lexicometric analysis, the second part will be based on the evaluation of expert interviews to be taken with personnel from selected international institutions, government agencies, intergovernmental (IGO), nongovernmental (NGO) and marine research organizations.

The project aims at developing practical suggestions on how sustainability for the uncertain future ocean can be conceptualized and what its effects might be for responsible decision-making. In addition to the production of new scientific knowledge, a further goal is to provide policy recommendations for more effectively combating unsustainable practices in the oceans as well as arousing more public attention for ocean affairs.

 Project Financing

The research project is financed by the cluster of excellence ‘The Future Ocean’ at the University of Kiel. As part of altogether 11 main research topics the project belongs to topic R01: Our Common Future Ocean. The common target of the topic, that brings together researchers from the disciplines of ethics, economics, political sciences, law and natural marine sciences is to develop a concept of ocean sustainability.

 The working language is English.


Allen, G. (2000): Intertextuality. London, New York: Routledge.

Fairclough, N. (1989): Language and Power, London: Longman.

Fairclough, N. (2003): Analyzing Discourse: Textual Analysis for Social Research, London: Routledge.

Hardin, G. (1968): The Tragedy of the Commons, Science, 162 (3859): 1243–1248.