Fear Itself   /   Fall 2003   /    Interview

Interview with Ulrich Beck

On Fear and Risk Society

Joshua J. Yates and Ulrich Beck

Ulrich Beck (2012). Via Wikimedia Commons.

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 in scientific formulas. In it “explodes”—if I am permitted this metaphor—responsibility, claims to rationality, and legitimization through contact with reality. The other side of the admitted presence of danger is the failure of the institutions that derive their authority from their purported mastery of such danger. In this way, the “social birth” of a global danger is as much unlikely as it is a dramatic, indeed traumatic, world-shattering one. In the experience of shock radiated by the mass media, it becomes recognizable; to quote Goya: the slumber of reason creates monsters.

 

Fear of various dangers, hazards, and the unknown have constituted the most basic of human experiences, drives, emotions, etc. In your book Risk Society, you argue that “the driving force in the class society can be summarized in the phrase: I am hungry! The movement set in motion by the risk society, on the other hand, is expressed in the statement: I am afraid! The commonality of anxiety takes the place of the commonality of need.” Could you say more about fear as a driving force in risk society? How does fear in a risk society differ from its formulations in other kinds of societies—for example, feudal-agrarian societies? Do you agree with Anthony Giddens statement that “Our age is not more dangerous—not more risky—than those of earlier generations, but the balance of risks and dangers has shifted.”11xUlrich Beck, Risk Society: Towards a New Modernity, trans. Mark Rittner (London: Sage, 1992) 49. Anthony Giddens, Runaway World: How Globalization is Reshaping Our Lives (New York: Routledge, 2000) 52.

 

We don’t know if we live in a world any more risky than those of earlier generations. It is not the quantity of risk, but the quality of control or—to be more precise—the known uncontrollability of the consequences of civilizational decisions, that makes the historical difference. Therefore I use the term “manufactured uncertainties.” The institutionalized expectation of control, even the leading ideas of “certainty” and “rationality” are collapsing. Not climate change, ecological disasters, threats of transnational terrorism, B.S.E., etc., per se, but the growing insight that we live in an interconnected world that is getting out of control, creates the novelty of the risk society. The challenges of the global risks at the beginning of the twenty-first century are discussed in conceptual and prescriptive terms that derive from the first modernity of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The risks we are confronted with cannot be delimited spatially, temporarily, or socially; they encompass nation-states, military alliances, and all social classes, and, by their very nature, present new kinds of challenges to the institutions designed for their control. The established rules of attribution and liability—causality, guilt, and justice—break down. That means that their careful application to research and jurisdiction has the contrary effect: the dangers increase and their anonymization is legitimated. So the main difference between the premodern culture of fear and the second modern culture of fear is: in premodernity the dangers and fears could be attributed to gods or God or nature and the promise of modernity was to overcome those threats by more modernization and more progress—more science, more market economy, better and new technologies, safety standards, etc. In the age of risk the threats we are confronted with cannot be attributed to God or nature but to “modernization” and “progress” itself. Thus the culture of fear derives from the paradoxical fact that the institutions that are designed to control produced uncontrollability.

 

If, under the conditions of risk, our “...focus is more and more on hazards which are neither visible nor perceptible to the victims; hazards that in some cases may not even take effect within the lifespans of those affected, but instead during those of their children; hazards in any case that require the ‘sensory organs’ of science—theories, experiments, measuring instruments—in order to become visible or interpretable as hazards at all,”22xBeck 27 (italics in original). what happens to our ability to pursue justice in a risk society?

 

There is no easy answer to this question. Have a look, for example, at one of the most famous philosophies and moral theories of justice of our time, created by John Rawls. He conceptualizes justice in a frame of reference built on two outdated premises: first “methodological nationalism,” which means the question of justice is perceived in nation-state categories; second he concentrates his theory on the distribution of “goods” and neglects the distribution of “bads” or “risks,” which follows, as I argue in my book, a quite different logic. So the “grammar” of the social and political we live, think, and act in, is becoming historically obsolete, but nevertheless continues to govern our thinking and acting. Take the terrorist threat, for example. The violence of September 11, 2001 stands for the failure of traditional statebased concepts like “war” and “peace,” “friend” and “foe,” “war” and “crime” to seize, analyze, and propose approaches to the new moral, social, and political realities. Your question, how to redefine justice in a risk society, has not even been picked up so far.

 

What does “power” mean in a risk society?

 

In risk conflicts, the central question of power is indeed a question of definition. It is the question of who, with what legal and intellectual resources, gets to decide what counts as a “risk,” what counts as a “cause,” and what counts as a “cost.” The question of determining who is responsible, and who has to bear the burden of paying for damages, has been transmuted into a battle over the rules of evidence and the laws of responsibility. And the reason for this is because at bottom the real clash is between the idea that someone is responsible and the idea that no one is responsible.

 

Is this the reason why you talk about “organized irresponsibility” as a characteristic of a risk society?

 

Yes. Politicians say they are not in charge, that they at most regulate the framework for the market. Scientific experts say they merely create technological opportunities: they don’t decide how they are implemented. Businesses say they are simply responding to consumer demand. Society has become a laboratory with nobody responsible for the outcome of the experiment.

 

In the past, societies have managed to provide “answers,” or at least institutions that offered officially sanctioned answers, to the most difficult questions and life’s uncertainties. With the advent of modern society, the authority of traditional institutions (and their “answers”) lost credibility and were largely replaced by new institutions and “experts” who provided “modern” answers. In risk societies, part of the dilemma is that the answers of “experts” themselves have lost (to a degree, if not completely) their ability to provide certainty: where once we could have faith in the risk assessments of experts, today it seems that we must assess for ourselves the risk of trusting expert opinion. If this is an accurate depiction of our present circumstance, to whom do we turn for answers or how do we individually and collectively live without certainty, without assurance of safety?

 

The picture you paint is quite correct. But risk is a very ambivalent concept. It is not only negatively perceived and valued but also positively. In fact, the word “risk” seems to have come into English through Spanish or Portuguese, where it was used to refer to sailing into uncharted waters. The notion of risk is inseparable from the condition of modernity, of excitement and adventure. A positive embrace of risk is the very source of the energy that creates freedom and wealth in the modern world. The main question is about risk acceptance and its conditions. Risk acceptability depends on whether those who carry the losses also receive the benefits. Where this is not the case, the risk will be unacceptable to those affected. If even the benefit is in dispute—as is the case with G.M. food—it is not enough to demonstrate that the “residual risk” is, statistically speaking, highly improbable. A risk cannot be considered in and of itself. It is always framed by the criteria used in evaluating it and colored by the cultural assumptions that surround it. Or to put it another way, risks are as big as they appear. This is always true. But it is even more true in the case of manufactured uncertainties.

It is against this background that technical experts perceive the populations that surround them as irrational or hysterical, either because they seem to be making bad calculations of personal risk—as when smokers protest against nuclear energy—or because they express themselves with lurid images—as when Great Britain, seemingly invaded by German angst, demonized their genetically modified wonders as “Frankenstein food.” It’s a striking phrase, and it did serve as something of an ultimate weapon in the war of words against G.M. food. But it contained the important insight that even “objective” risks contain implicit judgments about what is right. Technical experts have lost their monopoly on rationality in the original sense: they no longer dictate the proportions by which judgment is measured. Statements of risk are based on cultural standards, technically expressed, about what is still and what is no longer acceptable. When scientists say that an event has a low probability of occurring, and hence is a negligible risk, they are necessarily encoding their judgment about relative payoffs. So it is wrong to regard social and cultural judgments as things that can only distort the perception of risk. Without social and cultural judgments, there are no risks. Those judgments constitute risk, although often in hidden ways.

 

What kinds of burdens does this place on individuals, families, and entire societies?

 

It is evident that individuals and families are overloaded with the burden to decide about the reality of risks. There is definitely a need for new institutions. Let me focus on the consequences for the economy and entire societies. Virtual risks no longer need to exist in order to be perceived as fact. You might criticize them as phantom risks, but this does not matter economically. Perceived as risks, they cause enormous losses and disasters. Thus the distinction between “real” risks and “hysterical” perception no longer holds. Economically this makes no difference. The loss of science-oriented dispute settlement mechanisms and the dominance of cultural perceptions have two main implications. They increase and enforce the cross-national diversity of regulatory standards. And this diversity can cause enormous tensions not only domestically, but also in global, regional, and bilateral trading systems. Even existing supranational democratic institutions have difficulties in reaching decisions. For example in the E.U., which has probably made the greatest progress in establishing transnational decision-making bodies, member states still accepted or rejected the clearance certificates for British beef according to their own lights. Thus the inability to manage manufactured uncertainties both nationally and globally could become one of the main counter-forces to neo-liberalism. It could end bitterly disappointing those who have put their hopes in market solutions to consumer safety problems. Recent consumer protection and product liability legislation has shown a clear tendency towards anticipating potential losses rather than being geared to losses actually sustained. Furthermore, the burden of proof seems to be shifting from the consumer to the producer in a number of fields.

 

How would you characterize the relationship between so-called globalization and risk? In what sense is risk society a “world risk society”?

 

We touched this topic before. Many risks we are confronted with are global by their very nature. Three dimensions of danger can be differentiated in the global risk society, each following a different kind of logic of conflict. These spin out or repress other themes, destroy or enthrone priorities: first, ecological crises; second, global financial crises; and third—since September 11, 2001—terrorist dangers caused by transnational terror networks. In all three of these dimensions of danger, and beyond all differences, a common model of political chances and contradictions can be seen in the global risk society.

 

How is world risk society stratified? Do some people/societies carry more of the fall-out of risk than others? Do we all somehow live in communities of fate infused with equal amounts of risk? What are the possibilities for collective action? What are the implications for national and international governance and for social justice?

 

The term “global risk society” should not be confused with a homogenization of the world, because all regions and cultures are not equally affected by a uniform set of non-quantifiable, uncontrollable risks in the areas of ecology, economy, and terrorist networks. On the contrary, global risks are per se unequally distributed. They unfold in different ways in every concrete context, mediated by different historical backgrounds, cultural and political patterns. In the so-called periphery, global risks appear not as an endogenous process, which can be fought by means of autonomous national decision-making, but rather as an exogenous process that is propelled by decisions made in other countries, especially in the center. People feel like the helpless hostages of these processes in so far as corrections are virtually impossible at the national level.

 

Isn’t this also true in the so-called “center”?

 

Yes, but there is a difference. One area in which the difference is especially marked is the experience of global financial crises, whereby entire regions on the periphery can be plunged into depressions that citizens of the center do not even register as crises. Moreover, ecological and terrorist-network threats also flourish with particular virulence under the weak states that define the periphery. There is a dialectical relation between the unequal experience of being victimized by global risks and the trans-border nature of the problems. It is exactly the transnational aspect, which makes cooperation indispensable to their solution, that truly gives them a cosmopolitan nature. The collapse of global financial markets or climatic change affects regions quite differently. But that doesn’t change the principle that everyone is affected, and everyone can potentially be affected in a much worse manner. Thus, in a way, these problems endow each country with a common cosmopolitan interest, which means the globalized public reflection of global risk conflicts produces the basis of a “community of fate.”

 

But are people conscious of this “community of fate”? For instance, do the Chinese people feel they are part of a community of fate with the European people as far as global warming is concerned?

 

They don’t in relation to global warming or human rights, but at least for the historical moment, they do in relation to the terrorist threat. Even Le Monde used the headline: “We are all Americans.” The Chinese government bridged the gulf and joined the U.S.-coalition against terrorism. Furthermore, it is also intellectually obvious that global problems only have global solutions and demand global cooperation. But between the potential of global cooperation and its realization lies a host of risk conflicts. Examples for this are evident and endless: Think of the quarrels about the “beef risk,” the B.S.E. crises inside Europe and now arising in the U.S., the ongoing risk conflict on genetically manipulated food, global warming, AIDS, the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, and last but not least, how to define and fight transnational terrorism. And yet these conflicts still serve an integrative and enlightening function, because they make it increasingly clear that global solutions must be found and that these cannot be found through war, but only through negotiation and contract.

 

Do you mean the war in Iraq—meant to fight the global risk of terrorism—has an integrative and enlightening function?

 

Yes, to some extent it is having such a function! What I really didn’t even hope for is happening now: The U.S. superpower is finally realizing that it cannot “bowl alone.” And we Europeans, too, are beginning to learn that we can no longer concentrate on what we like to concentrate on most: Europe. If democracy in Iraq fails, it is going to hurt Europe as well. In the interdependent world in which we live, there is no outside, no option to isolate oneself. So people are realizing: The terrorist threat is connecting people who don’t want to be connected and forcing them to talk and listen to each other. So we Europeans, too, must ask and answer the questions: What is our vision of the 21st century world? What is our contribution to solve, for example, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict? In order to reduce the terrorist threat, don’t we have to open our borders and invest more in the development of poor countries?

 

What are the “opportunities,” the possible “goods” of risk society? While it seems that “luck” or “good fortune” have a place in risk society, is there a place for hope?

 

There is a place for hope. In an age in which belief in government, nation, and class disappears, the known and recognized globality of danger is transformed into a source of associations, opening up new global political prospects for action. The terror attacks have brought states closer together and have sharpened the understanding of what globalization actually is: a worldwide community of destiny confronted with violent, destructive obsession. How then is politics possible in the age of globalization? My answer is: through the perceived globality of danger, which renders the apparently recalcitrant system of international and national politics fluid and malleable. In this sense, fear cultivates a quasi-revolutionary situation, which admittedly can be used in quite different ways. Again and again, one asks and discusses: what can unify the world? The experimental answer is an attack from Mars. This terrorism is an attack from “inner Mars.” For a historical instant, the dispersed camps and nations of the world are unified against the common enemy of global terrorism. It is precisely the universalization of the terrorist threat against the states of the world that changes the war against global terror into a challenge for Grand Politics, in which new alliances are forged beyond antagonistic camps, regional conflicts are dammed up, and the map of global politics is mixed up anew.

 

Isn’t this a very ambivalent hope? Aren’t you arguing that manufactured uncertainties are increasing? That there is no way back to the promised land of certainty, security, and rationality?

 

What we need, I suggest, is a “culture of uncertainty,” which has to be clearly distinguished from “residual risk culture,” on the one hand, and a “no-risk” or “safety” culture, on the other. The key to a culture of uncertainty lies in the readiness to openly talk about the approach to risk; the willingness to acknowledge the difference between quantitative risks and non-quantitative uncertainty; the willingness to negotiate between different rationalities, rather than to engage in mutual denunciation; the willingness to erect modern taboos on rational grounds; and, last but not least, a recognition of the central importance of demonstrating the collective will to act responsibly and accountably with regard to the losses that will always occur despite every precaution. A culture of uncertainty will no longer carelessly speak of “residual risks” because each speaker will recognize that risks are only residual if they happen to other people, and the point of a democratic community is that we take responsibility jointly. But the culture of uncertainty is also different from a “safety culture.” By that I mean a culture in which absolute safety is considered an entitlement that society should strive towards. Such a culture would smother all innovation in its cradle.