2 The Risk Society Thesis: The End of the World As We Know It?

THE RELATIONSHIP BETWEEN RISK, TIME AND SPACE The changing dynamics of the relationship between risk, time and space is a central feature of the risk society thesis. Beck believes that pre-industrial and early industrial cultures were prey to forms of risk that were geographically and temporally contained (Beck, 1999: 143). Natural hazards such as earthquakes, famine and flooding are depicted as archetypal dangers faced in traditional cultures. Despite possessing substantial force and harbouring negative consequences, Beck contends that ‘natural hazards’ are temporally ‘closed’ phenomena which impact within a specific locale. Of course, natural hazards still threaten human life in many areas of the globe. However, the detrimental effects of natural hazards have been countered, managed and dissipated. In western cultures, natural hazards such as drought and famine have been all but banished (Giddens, 1991: 116). Further, the adverse effects of earthquakes have been lessened by construction restrictions in volatile areas and the production of shock-resistant buildings. From pre-industrial to industrial society, the incidence of economic and technological risks rises and accidents are recognised as the products of faulty human decisions (Beck, 1995a: 78). In the transition from pre-industrial to risk society, hazards and accidents become displaced by an aggregation of man-made risks. These socially produced risks are both more mobile and more oblique than preceding forms of danger. For Beck, the paradigmatic manifestation of environmental risk is the Chernobyl disaster (Beck, 1987; 1992: 7). In comparison with the natural hazards which typified pre-industrial life, the Chernobyl accident shattered geographical boundaries. The risks created by the reactor explosion were not tied to locale, endangering citizens far and wide. Toxins leaked from the plant not only caused ill health to citizens in Belarus and the Ukraine, but also glided over national boundaries, producing unknown effects (Beck, 1992: 7; Wynne, 1996: 62). Leaning heavily on the Chernobyl example, Beck postulates that environmental risks such as nuclear and chemical pollution remap the geography of risk. In the Chernobyl case, the safety procedure for nuclear accidents only covered a radius of 25 kilometres (Beck, 1995a: 78). On top of transcending spatial limits, Beck asserts that the perils of the risk society cannot be temporally limited. The deleterious effects of environmental risks do not necessarily occur instantaneously (Adam and van Loon, 2000: 5). Years after the Chernobyl explosion, thousands of Ukranians and Belarussians developed serious

At the same time, Beck’s risk society thesis has generated a good deal of criticism.

considered as a means of teasing out the politically repressive uses of discursive formations of risk. In conclusion, we rejoin the concept of subpolitics as a means of engaging more rigorously with the effects of manufactured risks on political organisation. THE DEATH AND BIRTH OF POLITICS In The Reinvention of Politics (1997), Beck avers that a rudimentary shift in the locus of political decision making has occurred in the last half a century. In effect, political decision making has migrated from systems of national governance into economic, technological and scientific domains. As a result, major social decisions are no longer made by elected political representatives. Instead, an elite band of unaccountable and unelected scientists, business leaders and legal specialists are responsible for fixing the boundaries of acceptable technological development. For Beck, a lack of visible responsibility for manufactured risks obfuscates important political issues and leads to public frustration. Within the present formal democratic system, public involvement is restricted to a superficial choice of political representatives, alongside hierarchically organised ‘consultation’ about the constitution of political programmes. It is important to stress from the outset that Beck does not seek to provide a systematic critique of the formal democratic process.1 Instead, the connections between risk, public concerns and political change are given precedence. The risk society thesis posits that the pace of techno-scientific change has resulted in governments assuming a reactive rather than proactive position on social risks. It has been scientists, technologists and multinational companies who have driven ‘advances’ in genetic, nuclear and biochemical technology, whilst national governments have assumed a back seat, assenting to market forces (Beck, 1995b; Ho, 1997). In his later work, Beck (1999; 2000a) fingers the globalisation of capital as the dominant force behind the transference of political power: During the first age of modernity, capital, labour and state played at making sand cakes in the sandpit (a sandpit limited and organised in terms of the nation-state) and during this game each side tried to knock the other’s sand cake off the spade in accordance with the rules of institutionalized conflict. Now suddenly business has been given a present of a mechanical digger and is emptying the


Sociology Essays - Risk Society Theory

The Risk Society Thesis

risk can be incorporated into a materially effective and unified emancipatory project is yet to be determined. At present, lack of access to power-bound spaces has left new social movements with the pressing concern of how to convert subpolitical energies into a vibrant and functional democratic system. In conclusion, for all its faults, we need to hold on to the inferences of the risk society thesis for social policy, politics and public life. Significant historical landmarks such as 9/11, the BSE crisis and the manufacture of biological and chemical weaponry warn against blithely plodding on with outmoded strategies of risk management. As global risks continue to evade the national structures of modernity, the resonance of the risk society thesis is reaffirmed. Of course, this does not detract from the academic task of deconstructing and repairing the risk society model. On the contrary, to retain explanatory potential, macro-structural perspectives must be complemented by grounded micro-level research. In interrogating, disassembling and rebuilding Beck’s work we are formulating searching questions about the world we live in, and, moreover, the one which we are destined to inhabit.