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The social roots of risk: How vulnerable are we?

From the Black Death to Hurricane Katrina, getting to the bottom of where risk actually comes from.

The following is an excerpt from "The Social Roots of Risk."

In retrospect, it seems puzzling that researchers have devoted so much time to studying how individuals and groups perceive risk and so little time to exploring where risks come from in the first place.

Much of the research of the past 30 years proceeded on the assumption that risks simply exist "out there" and that they can be analyzed, assessed, and subsequently managed, but it did not delve into the origins of risks themselves.

It would seem more reasonable to examine how different risks come into being in order to determine what can be done to eliminate or avoid them, than to take their existence as given and try to manage them.

Risk-related scholarship has largely assumed that risk is a natural consequence of human interactions with nature and technology or, in a slightly different variant, that risks are an inevitable by-product of the pursuit of benefits that are important to societies and communities, such as greater industrial productivity and improved human health.

These ideas make intuitive sense. Cities originally developed along rivers to take advantage of shipping opportunities, for example, which also resulted in exposing residents to the risk of flooding. New chemicals brought advantages such as higher agricultural yields, while their production exposed workers to chemical hazards. People are attracted to environmental amenities such as coastlines and river basins, which in many cases can leave them vulnerable to natural hazards.

This "risk as a by-product" way of thinking seems very straightforward, but it leaves open important questions about risk, such as why flood risks and chemical hazards are so much more severe in some communities and countries than in others.

Why was the earthquake risk in Haiti so large that when a large earthquake did strike, it took the lives of so many people and did damage equivalent to the nation’s entire gross domestic product for the previous year? What made Haiti so vulnerable? Elsewhere, in a wealthy, advanced industrial society with established risk and emergency management institutions, why did so many people die in Hurricane Katrina? Why did the worst industrial accident in history occur in Bhopal, india, and not somewhere else?

Where do such high levels of risk and loss come from? And how is it that some groups obtain benefits from risky activities without being directly exposed to risk, while others who are put at risk do not receive a comparable share of those benefits?

Such questions have been largely ignored by risk perception researchers and risk analysts and managers. I first introduce social science perspectives that focus not on the perception of risk but rather on risk creation, and then go on to present a framework for explaining how risk develops and grows.

Risky territory

Ulrich Beck, a German sociologist, is perhaps the best-known social theorist to attempt to explain how risk is produced at the societal level. Beck’s book "Risk Society: Towards a New Modernity" generated a great deal of interest when it was originally published in 1986 in German and then in English translation in 1992.

Since then, the idea that present-day society is a risk society has given rise to a virtual scholarly industry. Along with collaborators that include Anthony Giddens and Scott Lash, Beck has succeeded in moving the notion of the risk society into everyday social and political discourse and in the process has become one of Europe’s most widely revered theoreticians and social analysts.

Beck’s original arguments were compelling, but it also didn’t hurt that the Chernobyl nuclear disaster occurred the same year "Risk Society" was published, making his arguments seem prescient. Although much of Beck’s writing is maddeningly impenetrable, the core argument that explains the emergence of the risk society is relatively straightforward.

According to his formulation, the risk society in which we now live is the culmination of a long-term process of stagelike social change. Western societies and their institutions have passed through a traditional or pre-modern stage that was followed by early modernity, a transition that was marked by the rise of industrial society.

During roughly the second half of the 20th century, a transition to late modernity took place. In contrast with the social structures around which early modern society was organized, such as bureaucracies and social classes, late modern society is organized around information and communication and is characterized by the rise of individualized selves that are disembedded from the social structures that characterized early modernity.

Under these conditions, individuals are challenged to create new biographies and identities and also to reflect on the social order and their positions within it. This transition also gave rise to the risk society, a new and distinctive societal form.

Whereas in pre-modern and modern societies human beings faced hazards and dangers arising from natural forces, in late modern society they face new kinds of risks to which they are exposed as a consequence of human decision making.

The risk society has come about as a consequence of the dynamics of late modernity, including the development of technologies such as nuclear power. Pollution, hazardous chemicals and wastes, and the threat of nuclear war are also examples of risks produced by late modern society. Owing to the rise of the global economy, the risks of late modernity are also global, and their effects are potentially catastrophic, uncertain, and ultimately unknowable.

As Beck puts it,

New kinds of industrialized, decision-produced incalculabilities and threats are spreading within the globalization of high-risk industries. . . . Along with the growing capacity of technical options . . . grows the incalculability of their consequences. 

The risks that have emerged as a consequence of late modern social institutions are distinctive in other ways, including their wide spatial distribution and ability to affect both current and succeeding generations. Many risks are beyond the control of societies and their institutions, in part because those who create risks are able to avoid responsibility and in part because new risks extend beyond the boundaries of nation-states.

In "Risk Society," Beck acknowledged that disparities exist in risk exposure, both within societies and among regions and nations worldwide, but at the same time he also stressed the leveling effect of the risk society, arguing, for example, that "poverty is hierarchic, smog is democratic," and that risks "boomerang" back onto those who produce them, so that "perpetrator and victim sooner or later become identical."

His thinking in this respect has evolved over time, however, and later work placed more emphasis (although not consistently) on the inequitable distribution of loss and harm, especially within the global system.

Beck’s most important general contribution to the study of risk is his contention that risk originates from within the structure of society itself, and specifically from human decision making. His work also contains a strong critique of techno-scientific approaches to risk assessment, and of the dysfunctional aspects of the close ties that exist between scientists and the entities that produce environmental and other risks.

Natural vs. man-made risk

At the same time, Beck’s risk society thesis has generated a good deal of criticism.

Robert Dingwall has argued that "Risk Society" was influenced more by German cultural and intellectual traditions than by a careful analysis of risks over time and across societal contexts. In his view, risk society theory cannot be generally applicable because it is rooted in one scholar’s delimited perspective, derived from one society’s historical experience. Deborah Lupton has pointed out, among other things, that Beck’s writings reveal an ontological confusion about risk, in that he sometimes adopts a realist approach to risk while at other times he comes across as a social constructionist. Sociological theorist Jeffrey Alexander has strongly criticized Beck, Giddens, and Lash for their claims regarding reflexive modernization.

Anthony Elliot has faulted Beck along various lines, for example for ignoring important dimensions of how risk is perceived, but more important, for assuming that risk is a central feature of contemporary social life and that it is increasing — a position Elliot calls "excessivist."

For purposes of this discussion, two criticisms of the risk society thesis seem most relevant. The first has to do with the question of whether, as Beck claims, the risks societies face today are so large that they are qualitatively different from those that existed in the pre-modern and modern eras.

Like Elliot, Bryan Turner challenges this assumption, asking instead,

[W]ere the epidemics of syphilis and bubonic plague in earlier periods any different from the modern environmental illnesses to which Beck draws our attention? That is, do Beck’s criteria of risk, such as their impersonal and unobservable nature, really stand up to historical scrutiny?

The devastating plagues of earlier centuries were certainly global, democratic and general . . . [and] with the spread of capitalist colonialism, it is clearly the case that in previous centuries many aboriginal peoples such as those of North America and Australia were engulfed by environmental, medical and political catastrophes that wiped out entire populations. 

The Black Death killed an estimated 30 percent of the population of Europe. In the 20th century, the waves of influenza that spread worldwide in 1918 and 1919 killed between 50 and 100 million people, or up to 6 percent of the world’s population at the time. The last century also saw the emergence of the scourge of AIDS. In 2008, an estimated 33 million people worldwide were infected with HIV, and 67 percent of those cases were concentrated in Africa, where numbers were expected to rise.

Clearly the potential for catastrophe on a worldwide scale existed both prior to and independent of the technologies of late modern society. Beck didn’t just underestimate non-technological risks like epidemics. He also appears to have been so preoccupied with the perils associated with the technologies he viewed as risky that he overlooked two of the world’s most significant human-induced threats, climate change and financial risk, as well as risks associated with terrorism.

It is especially significant that Beck took so long to ponder the perils of climate change, which scientists have been writing about for decades. He corrects these omissions to some degree in "World at Risk" and other recent work, and he also folds terrorism into the risk society framework, but clearly he is outside his comfort zone in attempting to grapple with these kinds of risks.

For example, in his commentaries on climate change in works such as "World at Risk," he still seems unable to decide whether poorer and more environmentally vulnerable societies and groups will suffer disproportionately as a result of climate change — which they almost certainly will — or whether everyone is equally at risk.

A second area of concern relates to Beck’s idea that the environmental risks that are characteristic of late modernity are unique in terms of their societal origins. Beck’s theory views technological hazards as arising out of social processes that are distinct from those of other types of hazards, such as putatively "natural" ones.

In various writings, Beck is explicit in arguing that the risks that appear in late modernity are different from the natural disasters that occurred during pre-industrial times, because the more recent are the result of collective decision making within society, while earlier perils were qualitatively different in that they were attributed to an "other," which could be God, nature, fate, or some other force external to society.

In addition to its confusion regarding the ontological nature of risk, Beck’s approach is an example of risk gerrymandering: some perils (those appearing in late modernity) arise from decision making, while earlier ones did not. In contrast, the position taken here is that the consequences of all types of disasters, both historical and contemporary, arise from decision making by organizations, political groups and other powerful actors.

Decision making regarding non-industrial risks predates late modernity by centuries, if not millennia. Lisbon was virtually destroyed in 1755 by an earthquake that was accompanied by a tsunami and widespread fires, which together killed as many as 100,000 people. In the aftermath of the quake, the Marquis de Pombal took charge of relief efforts, and during Lisbon’s recovery, in order to avoid losses from future earthquakes, he instituted new earthquake-resistant urban design and building practices.

This was a conscious decision made on the basis of observations of the earthquake’s impact. Pombaline architecture is the physical embodiment of the idea that both vulnerability and safety are the consequence of decisions about the design of urban forms. The Lisbon earthquake is also noteworthy because it engendered lively discussions among scholars such as Voltaire, Rousseau, and Kant concerning whether God or human beings were to blame for the devastation caused by disasters, and it also directly led to research in earthquake engineering.

Clearly the connection between decisions and the risks associated with "natural" hazards was understood at that time, at least by the opinion leaders of the day.

More recently, an estimated 230,000 people died as a direct result of the 2004 Indian ocean earthquake and tsunamis. This was not because it was impossible at the time to determine that a massive earthquake had occurred, or because technologies for monitoring the movement of tsunami waves did not exist, or because of a lack of knowledge regarding how to warn at-risk populations about impending threats.

So many died because nations in the affected region had not developed or implemented systems for warning those at risk, or devised institutional arrangements that would render those systems effective. Not taking action is itself a decision, which in this case led to massive loss of life.

Closer to home, it has long been known that unreinforced masonry buildings become death traps when they are subject to earthquake shaking. In the 1970s and 1980s, Los Angeles landlords, led by Howard Jarvis, of Proposition 13 fame, decided to oppose vigorously a proposed city ordinance that would require property owners to retrofit old masonry buildings that would likely collapse during a strong earthquake.

They fought against the measure because it would cost them money to upgrade their properties so that they would not kill people in a good-sized earthquake. Proponents of the ordinance were finally able to neutralize that politically influential group and obtain passage of the law after widespread building collapses during the 1985 Mexico City earthquake killed tens of thousands.

Elsewhere, the level of hurricane resistance afforded by the levees surrounding New Orleans was well understood prior to Hurricane Katrina, yet for political and economic reasons no action was taken to ameliorate the risk, and even today new levee construction and repairs leave residents highly vulnerable to another significant hurricane event.

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