Gidden’s Risk and Responsibility

A good story is one that grips you; it’s hard to guess what is coming next but once it has been told, the outcome seemed inevitable. The same could be said for theories about how the world is — sometimes you read something that just makes sense. You knew that’s how the world was before you read about it, but couldn’t put it into words quite so eloquently. That’s how I felt when I was reading Giddens’ ‘Risk and Responsibility’.

The story goes that we have reached the End of Nature and the End of Tradition, and we are no longer in a time of External Risk but now live in a time of Manufactured Risk. Essentially Giddens‘ piece is a discussion of the about how the threats to contemporary society are a product of science and technology, and in this sense is based within the notion of the Risk Society.

To be more specific, the advances of science and technology and the ‘domination’ over nature it allows us, means that our environmental worries are no longer about what nature might do to us, but what we are doing to nature. This may be true in the majority of developed societies, but there are still plenty of developing areas in the world for which this does not apply (and natural hazards still pose a major threat to some areas of the developed world). But let’s leave that point aside and remember the problems of anthropogenically caused climate change, pollution of the worlds water-ways, deforestation of tropical rainforest, the problem of radioactive waste, and all the other protection-of-the-global-commons-type issues. In many ways, we humans have more of an influence over our environment than it has over us. This is the End of Nature.

The End of Tradition, in Gidden’s own words, “is essentially to be in a world where life is no longer lived as fate.” Previously in industrial society, the man went out to work and the woman stayed at home with the kids. But all this has changed; we are more socially mobile and we live in a world where information (via the internet), freedom (via democracy) and opportunities (via strong economies) abound. We can do what we want to do and take control of our own lives. Again, there is a limit to this and it applies mainly to developed areas of the world, but it sounds about right doesn’t it?

Risk as a concept only originated as humans began to think they might be able to take control of their environment. Whilst nature and tradition had not yet ended their demise was on the horizon. Prior to this dangers were ‘taken as given’, as ‘acts of god’ that humans could not control. Humans had little control over external risk, but they could take steps to reduce their losses in the face of frequent hazards. External Risk originated in early industrial societies with the advent of public and private insurance — we couldn’t do much about the risk (because it was external) but we could at least mitigate against our losses.

And now, finally, we have Manufactured Risk, a symptom of the risk society. Manufactured risk is the very risk caused by our own human progress and development, primarily because of the fantastic recent advances of scientific knowledge and technological innovation. Although manufactured risk is caused by human activity, because it is new and we have little experience of it we cannot calculate any probabilities associated with it. Although created by science and technology, science and technology cannot solve the problems they’ve caused — they produce uncertainty as fast as they destruct it. And besides, problem-solving is not the goal of science, science is for generating knowledge (via puzzle-solving).

Thus, whilst science and technology have reduced the problems of external risk, they have also brought the end of nature and manufactured risk with it. The threats and risks produced in our risk society are dispersed in nature and origin. Beck suggests that from this situation emerges ‘organised irresponsibility’; whilst anthropic in nature, no individual actor(s) can be held responsible. This also seems to resonate with the idea of The Tyranny of Small Decisions that I was describing just a few days ago. Scientific knowledge and technological innovation developed in an accumulative fashion, and are used by everyone that has access to it. Who can you blame?

So this is all very gloomy isn’t it? The End of Tradition. The End of Nature. The End of the Story? What can we do about this?

Seemingly the tools we used to get us to this point won’t work to help us move on and deal with the pressing environmental problems facing contemporary society; global warming, pollution, radiation, deforestation, carcinogens… To continue the story and solve these problems it’s been suggested we need a new kind of science. Not a ‘normal’, universal, value-free, distant science, but a situated, value-laden, engaged science. It’s time science stopped sticking it’s head in the sand saying “we just produce the knowledge, it’s up to society to decide what to do with it”. This ‘new’ science been named post-normal science and will be the subject (maybe hero?) as the the story continues another time. Gripping eh?

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