The real roots of risk

gas mask and social risk
ShutterstockPindyurin Vasily
From bioterrorism to climate change, how does a risk become a risk?

The following is an excerpt of "Community at Risk," published by Stanford University Press.

Risk and its management present the modern state with one of its most pernicious challenges. Its legitimacy largely rests on its dual capacity to authoritatively intervene and stem "external risks" to public security (foreign attack, disease, and natural disaster), while simultaneously guaranteeing the sanctity of democratic institutions and individual rights.

Over time and through a range of interventions, modern industrial states like those in Europe and the United States have indeed conferred substantial benefit on society through the reduction of these types of risks. However, this has also resulted in unanticipated "manufactured risks" that have emerged with the development of a range of technological systems, from fossil fuels to biological, chemical, and nuclear technologies.

What is more, the technocratic systems set up to secure contemporary society from risk have also frequently threatened the principles of democratic governance through their adherence to technocracy, secrecy and denialism, and nonlocal control.

The increasing association of manufactured risks with efforts to manage external threats has sown great uncertainty among the public regarding how the common good is best served. Indeed, in risk society the line dividing external from manufactured risk is, perhaps, no longer applicable.

In the United States many have therefore come to doubt the anodyne statements about the failsafe plans that the government and its trustee institutions pursue in the name of protecting public safety and prosperity. State-sanctioned risk management plans have consistently evoked polarizing disputes over which risks are and are not acceptable when it comes to personal well-being and rights.

Many scholars now argue that 21st-century United States, and postindustrial states like it, is a risk society characterized by a running debate over the promise and pitfalls of progress. According to this thesis, the central polemic for the 19th- and 20th-century political battles was the distribution of societal "goods," while a prime basis for citizen mobilization since the late 20th century has been escaping modernization’s "risks."

In this new era, the main social and political problem is therefore not simply wealth distribution but a contest over risk distribution, which is itself a by-product of the pursuit of societal development.

Risk management, technocracy and democracy

Beginning in the 1970s, in an effort to reduce the level of social and political conflict surrounding what were increasingly viewed as hazardous technologies (such as nuclear energy, chemicals, and biotechnology), the U.S. federal and state governments required that any technical and potentially risky developments they funded would be "rationally managed."

By this, they meant technically assessed for their probable costs and benefits. The National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) states that all federal government agencies must prepare "environmental impact statements." Under this fiat, the intended benefits and probable future risks of any new publicly funded project and associated technology must be assessed, and the Environmental Protection Agency must grant approval before the project can begin.

While intended to avoid social conflict, such requirements have created as much controversy as they have resolved. Uncertainties inherent to formally analyzing the risks associated with any given policy, technology, or technical systems frequently lead to public risk disputes.

When definitive knowledge is not possible and many criteria are at play, multiple positions are the rule and disputes are very likely. Conflicts like these are further amplified in democratic societies, where options for formal action are subject to legitimate political contest.

Democratic expectations clash with risk management orthodoxy for at least two reasons. First, risk management presumes that options and decisions reflect technical calculations and expert knowledge. As such, it is by design hierarchical and thus quite limited in its democratic potential.

Technical solutions to identified risks reflect "correct" search, assessment, and selection processes that are technocratically, not democratically, defined. Second, risk management plans invariably require some level of localized sacrifice. This opens such plans to public scrutiny and therefore the "politics of risk."

In risk disputes such as those that locally arose over biodefense plans (circa 2000s), local concerns are often contrasted with common good arguments, with state actors and trustees arguing that the risks are negligible or that the greater good should outweigh local sacrifice. Of course, local populations frequently disagree.

Thus, state-sponsored and/or -vetted risk interventions, justified for their capacity to stem societal threats, are regularly questioned by those who claim the proposed solutions are the real problem.

Indeed, the association of solutions with problems has severely eroded the "legitimacy of the state," as well as other associated trustee institutions insofar as their plans and promises to manage risk on behalf of society have resulted in unanticipated and manufactured risks that have frequently erupted as public risk disputes.

Disputing risk

Similar to other kinds of social and political conflict, what I term "risk disputes" are also predictable struggles over who gets to control the anticipated benefits of a given project and avoid the liabilities. In the contemporary United States, risk disputes often center on the physical threat represented by a new technology or policy.

Just as often, however, they include a focus on the performance of the trustee institutions involved, their associations and track records, and, consequently, any social trust or distrust of them. In such disputes, the public often questions them because they are understood to be both the sponsors and the benefactors of the policies, programs, and/or technologies being proposed.

In the context of community dialogue, civic groups and individuals as members of the public often ask similar questions:

What relationship does the trustee have to their community? How has the community fared in previous encounters with the same or associated trustees? What kind of social and political interests are associated with the effort? What are the moral and ethical implications of the project and those proposing it?

Local history, ongoing local social and political relations, and local value commitments frequently provide answers to these and related questions or at the very least strongly shape those answers. Such questions, and the interpretations and debates that found them, are therefore highly relational, reflecting collective issues of authority, control, equity, and trust.

Yet, in a clear majority of the risk-related literatures, such civic mobilizations are explained away with reference to "individual misperceptions," "misplaced public fears," and therefore the propensity to reflect "risk panic."

While conflicts over risk and its management might involve heightened levels of anxiety — and even fear — this terminology does a disservice to the political and cultural practices involved, reducing them to emotional, irrational reflexes. Risk disputes are a complex and vexing form of societal disquiet; reducing them to personal psychology, emotional reaction, or decontextualized forms of "cultural cognition" leaves a great deal unexplained.

Risk disputes are also, to some degree, distinct from other kinds of political contests. They are relatively new in historical terms, emerging in the 1960s and expanding in the 1970s with the introduction of a range of technologies, chemicals, and worrisome environmental trends.

Risk disputes gained prominence with the emergence of the environmental, antinuclear, and antitoxins movements, each of which called into question basic premises central to ideas, beliefs, and worldviews like progress, modernity, and nationalism.

Though initially associated with a "left-of-center critique" of the state and societal development, risk disputes have spread across the political spectrum as scientific advances and technological innovations have opened up formerly sacrosanct aspects of individual and collective life. For example, the language and framework of risk have structured debates over procreation and birth practices as well as life-extending medical technologies.

What is more, in the highly politicized context of risk society, risk as both a technology and political rhetoric has become a powerful forensic resource for those who wish to challenge established authority and its plans. Yet, risk has also served trustee institutions equally well as they have sought to justify their plans and risk interventions in society’s name.

Risk disputes are also distinctive insofar as they typically focus on the distribution of harm rather than benefit and often involve complex technical considerations. Regarding harm versus benefit, a key justification for trustee-sponsored risk management plans has historically been their capacity to mitigate threats to society.

This contrasts with plans that aim to distribute a known benefit, such as promoting progress through economic growth, jobs, and wages, and therefore societal prosperity. While it may seem a simple semantic distinction, it is much more than that insofar as risk has inflected the very idea of progress with the notion of deterioration and harm. The open question in many risk disputes is therefore not just who will benefit but who will benefit and who will suffer?

Risk disputes also characteristically involve "technical" considerations insofar as they most commonly reflect conflicts over new policies, technologies, and scientific applications. In the past, technical expertise was frequently attributed to the state and industry (the "establishment"), while those who were assumed to lack such expertise were laypersons — that is, the public (the "challengers").

This portrayal, however, is no longer entirely valid. Though the state and its surrogates typically represent the status quo and command authority, the characterization detracts from better understanding how technical expertise, as itself a form of authority, shapes public impressions in risk disputes.

Also, because formal risk assessment is itself a technology — a way of solving a problem or accomplishing a goal that relies on technical processes, methods, and/or knowledge bases — risk disputes in the United States today usually involve technical expertise on all sides of any given issue under scrutiny.

Today, so-called challengers routinely mobilize technical experts (if they are not themselves technical experts already) to stake and validate their claims or, conversely, to petition trustee institutions. What is more, contemporary risk disputes frequently involve conflicts among technical experts from both inside and outside the state and industry, and even between different branches of the state and industrial sectors.

For instance, in two of the three cases I investigated and document in coming pages, campus scientists who specialized in microbiology, molecular genetics, epidemiology, public health and toxicology, among other specialties, mobilized in support and opposition to the local universities’ biodefense plans.

Reflecting these and related trends, risk has therefore achieved the status of a politically powerful forensic resource with great rhetorical influence. As both a technical tool and a political resource — and thus a basis for lobbying and suasion as well — the discourse of risk has created an opening for collective mobilization and petition.

Through the discourse of risk, formal assessment of probable harm has been linked with less technical, value-based claims to human rights, social justice and due process, which now routinely influence trustee risk management decisions in their form, content and even placement(s).

Public versus private risks

In this section, I explain the analytic concepts deployed throughout the subsequent empirical chapters to unravel and explain local civic response in the communities I studied. First among these is the "common good."

Reference to the common good serves as a core moral and rhetorical justification that grounds disputant positions in public and private debates of many kinds. It was at the center of both agreement and risk dispute in the community cases I observed and recount in this book as well.

To understand how the common good was rhetorically deployed, it is important to note what distinguishes public from private risks, as well as what differentiates a common from an individual good. Not all risks to individuals and communities are deemed "public."

Rather, most risks are considered to be private affairs, even when they are experienced by many and are quite common. This varies greatly by society, of course, but this is the case for a wide range of issues in the United States, from unemployment to the common cold. They are indeed public problems insofar as the public at large experiences them, but they are typically conceptualized as personal issues that must be remedied individually.

Only when such private troubles reach acute proportions, such as during a recession/depression or when, for example, the common cold is deemed a serious public health threat, do they transcend the "private" realm and expand into the "public" one, where trustee institutions take them up as risk interventions in an attempt to manage the threat they pose to society.

What is it, then, that makes one problem a common threat and therefore a matter for legitimate trustee intervention and risk management as well as public dispute and another problem an individual, private concern unworthy of collective recognition?

All recognized public risks, and disputes over them, involve a sizable proportion of the general public coming to acknowledge them as a threat to the common good. But this leads to a further question: What is the common good and how does it become threatened?