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.

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