Ulrich Beck World Risk Society

Topics: Uncertainty, Risk, Global warming Pages: 10 (3869 words) Published: April 11, 2013
Ulrich beck :world risk society

What is "risk society" and how did it emerge?
"Risk society" means that we live in a world out of control. There is nothing certain but uncertainty. But let's go into details. The term "risk" has two radically different meanings. It applies in the first place to a world governed entirely by the laws of probability, in which everything is measurable and calculable. But the word is also commonly used to refer to non-quantitative uncertainties, to "risks that cannot be known." When I speak about "risk society," it is in this latter sense of manufactured uncertainties. These "true" uncertainties, enforced by rapid technological innovations and accelerated societal responses, are creating a fundamentally new global risk landscape. In all these new uncertain risk technologies, we are separated from the possible end results by an ocean of not knowing. Can you give me an example?

A few years ago, the U.S. Congress gave a scientific commission the task of developing a symbolic language that would make clear the danger posed by the U.S. storage site for atomic waste. The problem to be solved was the following: How should the concepts and symbols be constituted in order to communicate to those living 10,000 years from now? The commission was made up of physicists, anthropologists, linguists, brain researchers, psychologists, molecular biologists, gerontologists, artists, etc. First of all, they had to clear up a simple question: will the U.S.A. exist at all in ten thousand years? The answer was, of course, simple: U.S.A. forever! However the key problem--how it is possible today to begin a conversation 10,000 years into the future--eventually proved to be insoluble. The commission looked for examples from the oldest symbols of humanity, studied the ruins of Stonehenge (1500 B.C.E.) and the pyramids, researched the reception of Homer and the Bible, and heard explanations of the life cycle of documents. These, however, only reached a few thousand, not ten thousand years into the past. At the speed of its technological development, the modern world increases the global difference between the language of quantifiable risks in which we think and act and the world of non-quantifiable insecurity that we likewise create. Through our past decisions about atomic energy and our present decisions about the use of genetic technology, human genetics, nanotechnology, and computer science, we unleash unforeseeable, uncontrollable, indeed, even incommunicable consequences that threaten life on earth. What, then, is actually new about risk society? Haven't all societies always been surrounded by the dangers that those societies were first formed to provide defense against? The concept of risk is a modern one. It presupposes decisions that attempt to make the unforeseeable consequences of civilizational decisions foreseeable and controllable. If one, for example, says that the risk of cancer for smokers is at a certain level and the risk of catastrophe in an atomic energy plant is at a certain level, this implies that risks are avoidable negative consequences of decisions that seem calculable, such as the likelihood of sickness or accident, and thereby are not natural catastrophes. The novelty of the risk society lies in the fact that our civilizational decisions involve global consequences and dangers, and these radically contradict the institutionalized language of control--indeed the promise of control--that is radiated to the global public in the event of catastrophe (as in Chernobyl, and also in the terror attacks on New York and Washington). Precisely this constitutes the political explosiveness of the risk society. This explosiveness has its center in the mass-mediated public sphere, in politics, in the bureaucracy, in the economy, though it is not necessarily contiguous with a particular event to which it is connected. Political explosiveness can be described and measured neither in the language of risk, nor...
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