The Risk Society: What It Means for the Idea of Progress and Saving the Planet

By Saliem Fakir · 30 Apr 2009

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Picture: Anil Jadhav
Picture: Anil Jadhav

The outbreak of the new swine flu virus in Mexico has raised alarm bells and panic across the world. It is another of those incidents pointing to how precarious our world can get when it is subject to sudden knocks and risk.

Where we thought we had tamed nature, it continuously proves us wrong.

More than one risk coming at the same time multiplies the strain, shows up our vulnerabilities and stretches our ability to respond collectively.

Some would describe this as a Kafkaesque experience - this feeling of anxiety, helplessness and perhaps disorientation with modern life and especially if everything comes at us, so unexpectedly, all at once.

What does this mean for progress?

The world is filled with uncertainty and a new model of co-existence seems necessary, if not, simply to instil renewed faith in the human project.

This also follows the erosion of the free market promise that if we let it free, we would be showered with untold abundance and happiness such that we need not look back at where we have come from. This comes from the long nurturing of a false confidence -- things can last forever as they are.

Yet, the free market promise only demonstrated how a few men and women, so arrogant and confident about their own prophetic projections, could so quickly and summarily imperil the whole world through imprudent decisions. 

It is the greatest source of anxiety in the world at present.

Here, both nature’s seeming revenge and the over-confidence we have placed in human social and economic engineering must give us a moment’s pause.

It is natural, with the preponderance of scientific and technological advancement that goes unabated, that there is a belief that we are making a progression to something great, including the inevitable escape from human limitations and frailty. These advances give a sense of continuity and perhaps invincibility; even the belief that no constraint or challenge can escape human ingenuity.

A point, noted a long time ago in an essay Robert Nisbet (a conservative sociologist from the US) once wrote: 'But only in Western Civilization, apparently, does the idea exist that all history maybe seen as one of humanity improving itself, step by step, stage by stage, through immanent forces, until at some remote time in the future a condition of near-perfection for all will exist...'

Progress without a crash only reinforces the belief in the ability to exceed our limitations.

Weakness only breeds the desire for strength. Every weakness elicits a speech of hope. Its effect is to mobilize energy and courage. An entire social collective is given renewed impetus.

It could be said that if we did not have this sensitivity to weakness we would not feel the inspiration to contest it. Ideas of progression are a natural emotional encounter to weakness. Where they go wrong is when we believe progress means invincibility. That it in itself is immortal and infinite.

Embedded, also, in the idea of progress is the belief that with progress we are able to produce the state of limitless freedom. Freedom from fear and want by having the ability to meet our needs and protect ourselves from the imposing vagaries of ill-health and disease on human function.

Freedom finds amplification within the fast evolving body of progress.

All these desires produce a passionate discourse and display of the many myriads of ways in which we hope to tame the beast of human inadequacy with ideas of material progress.

Hegel, the German philosopher, called this passion the inherent human 'impulse of perfectibility' and no doubt the human capacity for seemingly infinite forms of reason and products of intellect have given this idea credence.

Thus the modern anxiety for progress has been embodied in the way in which we have put inordinate faith in science and reason. In summary, this faith has 'authorised' scientists and technocrats to act in our best interest and this is not always the best decision.

Sometimes the very thing that is the cause of the crisis or collapse is re-entrusted to the body, which causes the body to fix it.

Knowledge is central to progress and knowledge too implies an engagement with those forces that are the sources of weakness. Nature plays a central role in this, so do other men and women competing for the same ideals of progress and advancement of their interests.

This journey to reach the heights of progress leads to that inevitable pre-emptive desire to conquer both nature and human contenders. Progress is seen as ecumenical – there for all. All we need do is submit ourselves to the power of reason and nature’s laws will reveal to us the natural order of things.

As Nisbet's essay showed, the idea of progress is an age-old idea. It is not intrinsically modern, nor exclusive to our age, although it has become more pronounced and magnified because of the rapidity with which we have made scientific and technological progress.

Once we could conquer nature and no longer fear her we became bolder in our projections and where we saw ourselves. Within this desire exists, too, the search for those things that give us the ability to control change itself. As we grow more the tree of knowledge so we grow confident in our capacity to predict the future – hoping to reach, as it were, the qualities of a savant or prophet.

Progress also has its flipside. Every progression also unleashes forces of decay and risk. This cyclical nature of progress and regression has not escaped the curiosity and enquiring minds of historians, economists or philosophers.

Gibbons wrote of the rise and fall of the Roman Empire, ibn Khaldun and Toynbee wrote on the rise and fall of civilizations, Hegel on the way historical change is brought about by an internal social conflict or dialectic, Kuhn wrote on scientific paradigms and revolutions, Kondratiev on economic cycles of boom and bust, Schumpeter, in a more hopeful note, on the idea of creative destruction, and James Lovelock that Gaia, mother-earth and biological life as a whole, may well succeed to self-regulate but perhaps at the cost of human existence itself.

Lovelock is more ominous. He argued that we might be creating the most advanced of civilizational moments in human history, but with an inherent logic and capacity for self-destruction. There is a taste of this in Cormac McCarthy’s book: The Road, a dark premonition of a world in which the earth is filled with ash and only few humans survive preying on each other. 

The most contemporary critique on ideas of progress is that by Ulrick Beck (The Risk Society); an attack mounted against the optimism we have placed in science and technology as necessarily implying human advancement and happiness.

Beck calls our society 'the world risk society'. His work contains the most developed analysis of the notion of risk for industrial and post-industrial society. Beck firstly points out that the phenomena of risk is multiple, diverse, and increasingly uncertain and within a limited range of predictability as technology develops faster than societies ability to cope with the changes that technology brings about.

In the bosom of progress lie a plethora of risks slowly undoing progress itself. Think of the recent discovery of a new viral flu strain (said to be more lethal than the Avian derived flu like SARS) in Mexico as human and animal viruses begin to cross biological species boundaries because of modern farming methods; think of the collapse of the global financial system as a result of the speculations and mismanagement of a few individuals; think of the transnational nature of climate change as a result of the pollution of a few rich nations which affects all; think of the many ways in which the universalisation of the motor vehicle, designed to give us freedom of mobility, can also impoverish us through endless clogging of highways, deaths (some 1.2 m people die of car accidents annually) pollution, wars to ensure our cars remain fuelled and the list of risks associated with progress goes on.

The three important insights in Beck's work are:

1) With the advent of modernity and the accompanying rise of industrialization, new and unknown risks have emerged that are both apparent and latent. These risks are no longer individualized or isolated but are global. As Beck notes, "Along with the growing capacity of technical options grows the incalculability of their consequences."

2) The distribution of risk follows the general pattern of inequality in society that is a result of class divisions. At the top of the pyramid, more affluent individuals and societies are least likely to be affected, while those at the bottom are likely to be more vulnerable because of their poverty. The more wealth one has, the more power one has to mitigate against risk. However, Beck argues that over time we are all likely to be affected, rich and poor. Beck argues: "Risks of modernization sooner or later also strike those who produce or profit from them. They contain a boomerang effect, which breaks up the pattern of class and national society."

3) Inevitably, measurements of risk and pronouncements about acceptable levels of risk are mediated by experts who, in most instances, occupy a monopoly or authority over the interpretation of data and the manner in which it is presented. Risks can be deliberately misinterpreted in order to preserve the prevailing order of the dominance of scientific authority or simply manipulated to instil fear only to reinforce our faith in the very authority that creates and recreates the risk society.

Beck's work provides a precise insight into the globalisation of risk that the practices and methods of production that are well suited for one group of people can easily be ill-suited and unjust to those that are not socially ready for these universal ways of producing. Beck suggests that the globalisation of risk makes the new modernity uncertain and chaotic. Beck notes:

"Globality means that everyday life is permeated by the perception of global problems. In their daily lives, people can see they are affected by questions that do not only relate to one location, but affect civilization as whole. We do not yet have the solutions to these questions, but the awareness that we live in an endangered world is present in more and more life situations."

Yet, amongst the prophets of negativity and those who speak in opposition to ideas of progress lay also threads or seeds of thoughts for a promising future – the conflict with progress also contains the mirror image of what is better; whether it can be articulated or not it is contained implicitly in the negation of the present.

Like Rousseau’s attack and opine that modernity has marched from humanity’s state of nature or Marx’s critique of capitalism and the human bondage it fosters, you find in both of them, surprisingly too, a hopeful tone of a world of equality, justice and freedom.

This is only possible if the current order is resisted or like in Marx, by speeding up its self-destruction, because of its inherent internal contradictions a better order will prevail. For Marx, capitalism’s own progress was a necessary precondition for an idyllic socialist society.

For Beck too negativity towards the risk society also contains the conditions and image of an ideal society; all that is required is democratic control over science, technology and the humanisation of expert opinion and practices.

Faith in the idea of progress in itself is a form of religion. Yet even when we attack it we seem to imply something better. The human desire and quest for a better world creates a natural tautology. In attacking what we do not see as progress we implicitly talk of another or for another idea of progress.

Progress is hard-wired in our state of nature. This is the self-contradictory nature of negativity. We can’t speak against progress without implying a better world even if we do not know or have failed to articulate what it is.

Modernity's progress was also limited to a few and held that way for a long time. Now it seems to surpass expectations and even reach a larger portion of people previously denied it. The expansive nature of the demand for progress may inevitably exhaust its potential.

But can the planet take on more of these bloated egos and needs, this greater demand for the finer things of life, this quest too for longevity? Or are we in the name of progress also producing the seeds of the 6th extinction, the destruction of humanity itself?

We may have exhausted the potential for progress, even that which is contained, as better, and is the mirror image of the negativity towards the present. Or maybe, just maybe, we have some last chance to change things. That seems to be the struggle we all have – that we must save the planet and us, but we can't seem to agree on how and who should be given the power to do so.

Fakir is an independent writer based in Cape Town.

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