Risk

Ulrich Beck is a professor at Munich University and at the LSE. He is the author of Risk Society and, most recently, Cosmopolitan Vision (Polity Press, 2006).

Preventing the vast unknown

At a conference in Great Britain on risk society a distinguished colleague confronted me with the question: "Isn't there a 'German taste' to the risk society thesis, a taste of security and wealth? Britain cannot afford to be a risk society!" The irony of risk decreed that a couple of weeks later the BSE crisis broke out in Britain. Suddenly Hamlet had to be reinvented: to beef or not to beef was the question of the day.

I have also often been asked whether someone looking at European societies from outside wouldn't have to acknowledge that the risks which get us worked up are luxury risks more than anything else. After all, our world appears a lot safer than, say, the war-torn regions of Africa, Afghanistan or the Middle East.

As true as all such observations may be, they miss the most obvious point about risk, which is the key distinction between risk and catastrophe. Risk does not mean catastrophe. Risk means the anticipation of catastrophe. Risks exist in a permanent state of virtuality, and only become "topical" to the extent that they are anticipated. Risks are not "real", they are always "becoming real". The moment at which risks become real – for example, in the shape of a terrorist attack – they cease to be risks and become catastrophes. True risks have already moved elsewhere: to the anticipation of further attacks, inflation, new markets, wars or the reduction of civil liberties. Risks are always events that are threatening. Without techniques of visualization, without symbolic forms, without mass media, etc,. risks are nothing at all. In other words, it is irrelevant whether we live in a world which is "objectively" safer than all other worlds; if destruction and disasters are anticipated, then that produces a compulsion to act.

Risk makes its appearance on the world stage when God leaves it. Risks presuppose human decisions. They are the partly positive, partly negative Janus-faced consequences of human interventions. Risks inevitably pose the highly explosive question of social accountability and responsibility. The acknowledged, decision-governed social roots of risks make it completely impossible to externalize the problem of accountability. Someone, on the other hand, who believes in a personal God, has at his disposal some room for manoeuvre and a meaning for his actions in the face of threats and catastrophes. There is, therefore, a close connection between secularization and risk. When Nietzsche announces "God is dead" it has the – ironic – consequence that from now on human beings must find (or invent) their own explanations and justifications for threatening disasters.

The theory of world risk society maintains that modern societies are shaped by new kinds of risks. Their foundations are shaken by the global anticipation of global catastrophes whose causes and consequences are not limited to a geographical location but are in principle omnipresent and incalculable.

The security dream of modernity was based on the scientific utopia of making the unsafe consequences and dangers of decisions ever more controllable: accidents could occur as long as and because they were considered compensatible. But if the climate has changed irreversibly, if progress in human genetics makes irreversible interventions in human existence possible, if terrorist groups already have weapons of mass destruction, then it's too late. Given this new quality of "threats to humanity" – argues Francois Ewald – the logic of compensation breaks down and is replaced by the principle of "precaution through prevention". Not only is prevention taking precedence over compensation, we are also trying to anticipate and prevent risks whose existence have not been proven.

The crucial point, however, is not only the discovery of the unknown unknowns, but that simultaneously the knowledge, control and security claim of state and society was, indeed had to be, renewed, deepened, and expanded. But why should a science or a discipline concern itself with what it does not even know? There is certainly a conclusive sociological answer to that: in the face of the production of insuperable manufactured uncertainties, society more than ever relies and insists on security and control; and the argument about the knowing and not-knowing of global risks cancels the established national and international rule systems. It sounds ironic, but it is precisely unknown unknowns which provoke far-reaching conflicts over the definition and construction of political rules and responsibilities with the aim of preventing the worst.

As a consequence, everyday life in world risk society is characterized by a new variant of individualization. The individual must cope with the uncertainty of the global world by him or herself. Neither science, nor the politics in power, nor the mass media, nor business, nor the law nor even the military are in a position to define or control risks rationally. The individual is forced to mistrust the promises of rationality of these key institutions. As a consequence, people are thrown back onto themselves, they are alienated from expert systems but have nothing else to rely on.

World risk society produces new lines of conflict. Central here are not Huntington's traditional religiously-grounded "civilizations", but opposing risk beliefs. We are dealing with the "clash of risk cultures" and "risk religions". The dominant risk beliefs and tendencies of Europe and the US government, for example, are drifting very far apart because their risk religions contradict one another. Europeans and Americans live in different worlds. While, as far as the Bush government is concerned, the Europeans are suffering from an environmental hysteria, many Europeans see the Americans as struck by a terrorism hysteria. The reversal of the terms secularism and religiosity is also striking. It seems that religious cultures are marked by a "risk secularism". Whoever believes in God is a risk atheist.

The actors of modernity – science and expert systems, the state, commerce and the international system, including the military, responsible for calculating and controlling manufactured uncertainties – are undermined by growing awareness that they are inefficient, their actions even counter-productive. This doesn't happen haphazardly, but systematically. Radicalization of modernity produces the fundamental irony of risk: institutions are becoming part of the problem they are supposed to solve. We are not living in a post-modern world, but in a more-modern world. It is not the crisis, but the victory of modernity, which through the logics of unintended and unknown side effects undermines our basic institutions.

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