Forty years after the „Imperative of Responsibility“ – Ethics of technology choice in times of eroding planetary boundaries

Event Type
Event Series

Location / Date
Bonn, 25.04.2019 until 11.12.2019


The German Development Institute / Deutsches Institut für Entwicklungspolitik (DIE) within the framework of the Bonn Alliance for Sustainability Research

Forty years ago, Hans Jonas’ main writing “The Imperative of Responsibility” was first published (in German: “Das Prinzip Verantwortung”). Starting from moral theory he derives fundamental thoughts about a responsible approach to dealing with new technologies, and mainly - in today’s wording -“disruptive innovations”. Starting point of his work is nothing less than that technological progress has amplified the reach of human action to a degree that it requires a new philosophy of responsibility. All previous ethics were related to near-range relations between people, in terms both of time and of space. They substantiated the reasonable co-existence of human beings in given societies and territories. Technological progress has changed these starting conditions fundamentally. Actions brought about at a singular point in space and time may have far-reaching or even global consequences that might be irreversible. This leads to Jonas’ imperative “Act so that the effects of your action are compatible with the permanence of genuine human life” (Chapter 1/V). Or phrased the other way round: “Act not destructively for future generations and the totality of their life conditions”.

As Jonas perceives a large and increasing gap between humanity’s capability to act and the ability to know, his ethical assumption is that in view of possibly very far-reaching consequences of new technologies, the only responsible approach is “in dubio pro malo”. In his wording: “It is the rule, stated primitively, that the prophecy of doom is to be given greater heed than the prophecy of bliss” (Chapter 2/II). Analyzing potentialities and risks of technologies, you should always consider the possible worst case as a likely option and act accordingly.

Jonas’ thinking was influenced by the arms race during the cold war and the risk of a nuclear overkill. In addition, the emerging environmental movement in Germany and beyond was part of the setting under which his book was written. Conversely, it can be assumed, that also Hans Jonas’ work has influenced the (German) environmental movement and the attached research. For instance, in hardly any other industrialized country, rejection of nuclear energy usage has been as strong as in Germany, as has been the refusal of other post-war disruptive innovations, e.g. genetic engineering and carbon capture and storage as a means to mitigate climate change.

40 years have passed, since the first publication of “The Imperative of Responsibility”. A good moment to reflect, whether the imperative “Act so that the effects of your action are compatible with the permanence of genuine human life” can still be translated into a “in dubio pro malo” approach. Since 1979, the number of people living on the globe has increased by 3 billion and the percentage of absolutely poor diminished from 40% to 10%. Planetary boundaries are being transgressed not by single catastrophic events in a novel technological system, but by the progressive erosion of ecosystems to satisfy the needs of a growing and increasingly well-off world population.

Under these circumstances: Do we need a new “ethics of responsibility”, more open approaches to radical innovations, combined with novel modes of technological impact assessment and foresights? These are the guiding questions of a proposed series of lectures and panel discussions in the anniversary year 2019. The following sequence is proposed:

Thursday, 25 April 2019
The “Imperative of Responsibility”: Understanding Hans Jonas’ main philosophical work

Hans Jonas’ ethic of responsibility significantly influenced environmental thinking and policymaking. In Germany, it stimulated the extra-parliamentary ecological movement and the formation of the Green Party. Internationally, Jonas’ imperative: “Act so that the effects of your action are compatible with the permanence of genuine human life” found entry into the final reports of the Brandt-Commission 1980 and the Brundtland–Commission 1987 with its seminal definition of sustainability as “as development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”
The first lecture will introduce the audience into the thinking of Hans Jonas and how it is embedded in the historical context of his time.


  • Andreas Stamm, German Development Institute / Deutsches Institut für Entwicklungsforschung (DIE)


  • Christian Wiese, Martin Buber Chair for Jewish Thought and Philosophy, University of Frankfurt, Frankfurt/Main


  • Jakob Rhyner,Scientific Director Bonn Alliance for Sustainability Research, University of Bonn

Wednesday, 22 May 2019:
Gene editing – A responsible means to assure food security of a growing world population on limited farmland and under changing climate conditions?

Since more than 35 years, genetic manipulation of organisms has been studied scientifically to change characteristics of organisms faster than and sometimes different from what can be reached by traditional ways of breeding. A number of countries, mainly USA, Brazil, Argentina, Canada and India have rolled out large-scale cultivation of genetically modified organisms (GMO) of soya, corn, cotton and rapeseed. In Germany GMO crops are rejected by consumers and the majority of farmers. CRISP-CAS9 (or Gene Editing) is a rather recent technology that does not imply introduction of foreign genetic material but a targeted manipulation of the genetic information in a given organism. In July 2018, the European Court of Justice ruled, that gene editing has to be treated in exactly the same way as older techniques of genetic engineering. This implies that research and development (R&D) is strictly controlled and patents can be granted to the developers. Some experts argue that the outcomes of CRISP-CAS9 is not fundamentally different to what can be achieved with traditional breeding and that the process allows saving time and resources. In addition, they claim that gene editing is easily compatible with agricultural bio-diversity and other concepts of organic farming.

Is the decision of the European Court in line with the imperative of responsibility, in Hans Jonas’ concept? On the other hand, is it responsible to reject a technology that could help feeding a growing world population and make food crops more resilient to the impacts of climate change?


  • Justus Wesseler, University of Wageningen
  • Christoph Then, Testbiotech e.V.
  • Harald König, Karlsruhe Institute of Technology, Institut für Technikfolgenabschätzung und Systemanalyse (ITAS)

Wednesday 19 June 2019:Carbon Capture and Storage – A responsible bridge to a low-carbon future?

Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS) is considered by many research groups working on climate change mitigation as a necessary element of a (more) sustainable energy future. For instance, WBGU in its 2011 “Great Transformation” report concludes, “CCS is a necessary mitigation measure for countries that continue to use fossil energies, if anthropogenic global warming of more than 2°C is to be avoided.” More recently, the “1.5 degrees Special Report” of the IPCC comes to the conclusion that “In the majority of low-stabilization scenarios, the share of low-carbon electricity supply (comprising RE, nuclear and CCS) increases from the current share of approximately 30 % to more than 80 % by 2050, and fossil fuel power generation without CCS is phased out almost entirely by 2100.” In addition, even assumed all power generation could be done with renewable energies, CCS might be a crucial technology to avoid GHG emissions in industrial processes, reaching 7% of all GHG emissions in the case of Germany.

However, in Germany, one of the globally leading energy and engineering R&D hubs, large-scale CCS research was discontinued in 2014, following a complicated legislative process, very much driven by worries about possible dangers related to the technology.

On a panel in May 2019, we want to discuss the opportunities and risks of CCS as a climate mitigation technology. The focus will be on the “ethics of responsibility”. Would it be responsible to bet on a technology that may imply a residual risks (e.g. of leakages) in the near or more remote future? Is it, on the other hand, responsible to discontinue the development of a technology that many climate researcher consider important to contain global warming?


  • Robin Batterham, University of Melbourne
  • Eve Tamme, Senior Advisor - International Climate Change Policy, Global CCS Institute
  • Evelyn Nyandoro, Manager for the South African Centre for Carbon Capture and Storage (SACCCS), South Africa (via Skype)

Wednesday, 16 October 2019: Digital revolution – Towards a bright future or mass unemployment and Orwellian societies?

The digital revolution has changed human interaction significantly since the launching of the first personal computer end of the 1970s and the first smartphone in 1996. Today, even in African LDCs, most people have access to a mobile phone, 80% of the world population are using the internet. Around 25 billion devices globally are connected in the “Internet of Things”.
What are the promises and perils of “Industry 4.0” and artificial intelligence, globally and in different world regions? Possible impacts are not mainly related to the environmental dimension of sustainability but to the decent work agenda (quantity and quality of jobs), the global division of labor and to issues of data security and privacy.
The last panel before the summer break shall discuss these issues, focusing on the issue of what scientific methods and instruments we have at hand to predict developments in a fast moving technology field with all-embracing effects.


  • Balaji Parthasarathy (International Institute of Information Technology, Bangalore, India)
  • Stephan Lingner (European Academy of Technology and Innovation Assessment, Bad Neuenahr)

Wednesday, 30 October 2019:
Climate Engineering: Buying time to contain global warming?

Radical de-carbonization can still allow containing atmospheric GHG levels to a degree that may allow keeping global warming to less than +2°C above pre-industrial times, perhaps even below +1.5°C. A growing number of researchers, however, see a clear risk that GHG emissions may not be reduced at the required speed. Climate engineering and geo engineering are discussed as a possibly necessary complement to deep de-carbonization. Carbon dioxide removal (CDR) techniques may remove CO2 from the atmosphere; Solar Radiation Management (SRM) techniques reflect a small percentage of the sun’s light and heat back into space.
A study published by the Royal Society in 2009 recommended that priority should clearly be given to increased efforts to reduction of GHG emissions, but that at the same time “Further research and development of geoengineering options should be undertaken to investigate whether low risk methods can be made available if it becomes necessary to reduce the rate of warming this century.”

Considering the lead-time to reach a point, when geo-engineering techniques might be applied on a large-scale without running into unpredictable risks: Should R&D efforts be scaled-up now, and how could this be done on multilateral scale?

Wednesday, 6 November 2019 (1):New societal models as a response to global challenges?

*** Diese Veranstaltung ist abgesagt. ***

Counting on technological innovations can be seen as a rather path-dependent way in the search for ways of mitigating environmental problems and meeting global challenges. Since around the turn of the century, answers that are more radical are promoted, first from social movements in various parts of the world, and in the past ten years in the scientific community. The hypothesis is that even with a technology-driven modernization of the economies, an absolute decoupling of economic growth from the depletion of natural resources and sink capacities of eco-systems cannot be achieved. In addition, other challenges cannot be addressed adequately either, in the frame of a "growth oriented society" such as inequality and the decoupling of increasing material welfare from personal satisfaction and happiness. What is required are strategies aiming at steady-state economies or even de-growth, related to changing consumption patterns and new values and life-styles.

The first event in November will discuss these more radical paradigms and ask whether and how they can contribute to a more inclusive answer to global challenges beyond  disruptive technological innovations. How could both approaches be combined in an intelligent way? The panel will focus on the question whether a fair transition towards a sufficiency-oriented society is possible in a globalized and interlinked world.

Wednesday, 20 November 2019 (2):Technology Assessment: German and international approaches

Whatever the stance towards disruptive innovation to meet global challenges, it is worth reflecting about existing approaches to technology impact assessment and related forecasts. Since around three decades, the German parliament receives scientifically founded advice to assess technological developments and possible impacts. Other countries have similar offices for technology assessment in place. A background discussion in November aims at learning about the various approaches and to discuss, whether, given the scale of global challenges and outreach of mitigation technologies, TA should be significantly scaled-up and organized multilaterally.

Wednesday, 11 December 2019:Stocktaking and lessons learned: 40 years after - What does Hans Jonas teach us today?

The final panel of the proposed series shall wrap-up lessons learned and take a fresh look at Hans Jonas´ book, with leading question whether the significant global changes since the first release the would imply necessary adjustments in ethics of responsibility.


  • Jürgen Nielsen-Sikora, University of Siegen, Hans-Jonas Institute, author of the first comprehensive Hans Jonas biography (2017), Siegen
  • Imme Scholz, German Development Institute / Deutsches Institut für Entwicklungsforschung (DIE)
  • Erika Krämer Mbula, University of Johannesburg, South Africa


Während unserer Veranstaltungen werden z.T. Foto- und/oder Filmaufnahmen gemacht, die für Zwecke der Veranstaltungsberichterstattung und allgemeinen Öffentlichkeitsarbeit in verschiedenen Medien veröffentlicht werden. Sie haben jederzeit das Recht, die Foto- oder Videograf*innen darauf hinzuweisen, dass Sie nicht aufgenommen werden möchten.

Event information


25.04.2019 until 11.12.2019


German Development Institute / Deutsches Institut für Entwicklungspolitik (DIE)
Tulpenfeld 6
53113 Bonn


Andreas Stamm
Telefon +49 (0)228 94927-174
Fax +49 (0)228 94927-130


Please register via E-mail at



Bonn Alliance for Sustainability Research