risk society

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German sociologist Ulrich Beck's term for the present situation (which in Beck's view began to take shape in the aftermath of World War II), which in his view is defined by the expansion of uncontrollable risks, i.e. risks which have no straightforward or direct cause and therefore no obvious or easy means of attenuation (climate change is the best-known example of such a risk). Beck is particularly concerned with new types of risk that have arisen—or may arise in the future—as a consequence of human action. The issue is not so much that the world has become inherently more dangerous than it used to be, although that is in fact one of the implications of Beck's thesis, but rather that the nature of the threats we face now has changed—they have become, in Beck's terms, ‘de-bounded’ in spatial, temporal, and social terms: risks are no longer bound by regional or even national boundaries, but are frequently global in scope; risks may have long latency periods such that the actual cause of particular threats may lie in the distant past or as is the case with nuclear material may stay with us for thousands of years; and because of these spatial and temporal unboundings it has become difficult to assign responsibility in a legally relevant fashion. Although global in scope, risks plainly do not affect everyone and every part of the world equally—e.g. as catastrophic as Hurricane Katrina was for New Orleans in 2005, it caused nowhere near as much misery as hurricanes routinely cause in much poorer countries like Haiti, which lack the resources to defend against natural disaster, and what damage it did cause was the fault of failed human-made structures rather than nature. As the case of Hurricane Katrina made abundantly clear, the real problem with respect to risk is that decisions affecting the types of threat we face and the possible responses that might be made to address them have become ‘sub-political’, consigned to the essentially unaccountable realms of bureaucracy and business where the people most affected by these decisions are unable to have any direct input.

Further Reading:

U. Beck Risikogesellschaft: Auf dem Weg in eine andere Moderne (1986), translated as Risk Society: Towards a New Modernity (1992).

Subjects: Literary Theory and Cultural Studies.

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