Unformatted text preview: From Hubris to Humility:
Interrogating the Relationship Between Technology and Sustainability in the Risk Society The rapid technological developments of the past decades undoubtedly improved people’s lives in many aspects. Nevertheless the gift of technology comes with a price. We are living in a moment of transition from the classical industrial society to a new modernity. Ulrich Beck introduced the notion of the risk society to describe this emerging postindustrial society (Beck 1992). The notion of risk is not new, but in the new era it occupies a central position. According to Beck, technoscientific developments are bringing with them fears and insecurities, from the destruction of the natural environment as a longterm consequence, or an unanticipated nuclear or chemical accident as a rapid consequence. These risks are particular of the contemporary world because they cannot be predicted and because their consequences could be fatal for the planet as a whole. What is the Risk Society and Why
is it Important?
is In the process of transformation from classical industrial society towards a second age of a new modernity, many theorists place risk at a central position, as a defining characteristic of the modern society. The transition from industrial modernity towards a new status quo, where risk holds a fundamental position, involves a reflexive modernization of society. In reflexive modernity, the main characteristic is fear and insecurity on a global scale from low probability/high consequence technological risks; Concomitant with this insecurity is a bourgeoning shift in perception regarding the technoscientific experts who design and engineer these risks (in a forprofit economic structure). Thus, contemporarily, the traditional values of industrial society—faith in progress and trust in the technoscientific experts who engineer this progress—are replaced in the face of new types of risks, that institutions of knowledgecapital and the state, both create and fail to ameliorate. Beck’s focus is on manufactured risks, as a consequence of industrial overproduction, which is the product of human ingenuity. For Beck, humanity is experiencing, for the first time, a phase where the personal risks (of industrial society) are replaced by a global risk of extinction of all life, from the unknown and ‘unintended consequences’ of nuclear, chemical or biomedical catastrophes. According to Beck, the reason for the emergence of the risk society is social consensus towards progress (born of consumer culture) coupled with a disregard for the environmental and social impact of the progress in industrial society (i.e. little consideration for sustainability in industrial modernity—just performance and profit). Thus, the risk society is not an option, but a reality born of human hubris in modernization processes—in techno
scientific engineering—that are blind and deaf to potential environmental and social consequences and dangers, in name of producing profit and the technologies needed to feed our consumer society. An important characteristic of the risk society thesis is the fact that industrial society, as I alluded to, is concerned with wealth production in the production of social ‘goods’.
In the risk society we come to understand that the production of ‘goods’ ever increasingly, needs to be balanced against the unsustainable reality that we concomitantly produce social and environmental ‘bads’ handinhand with goods, and that the potentially destructive force of the bads that our technology produces today calls into question the sustainability of Earth’s ecosystems and social systems. This shift in the balance towards the negative side of progress has brought changes in the way sociologists see the issues of technology and the environment; specifically, that nature is not any more independent of society, but is seen as part of it. As Beck puts it: “Risk society means an epoch in which the dark sides of progress increasingly come to dominate social debate.” Sociologists see this relationship.
Now it is time, in order to foster the development of sustainable technologies that reduce the potential for the production of environmental ‘bads,’ for engineers, designers and planners to acknowledge this relationship—you are, after all, the knowledge capital upon which further progress depends. The importance for you to understand and reflect on the nature of risk contemporarily, lies in the fact that contemporary risks are not readily known to us (though our hubris tells us we can account for and predict all outcomes of our engineered technologies), and the damage attributed to these potential threats cannot be predicted or limited.
The risks associated with technological advancements are manufactured, invisible and unintended, an effect of techno
scientific achievements. As such, those risks are not calculable, nor can their consequences be measured in a scientific laboratory. According to Beck, society becomes a laboratory and the experiments are conducted on all of us. Examples? For example, in 1974, about 45 years after their initial discovery and production, the chemists Rowland and Molina hypothesized that the cooling agent CFC destroyed the ozone layer and, as a result, increased ultraviolet radiation on earth.
The chain of unforeseen secondary effects of this lead to climate change which calls into question the sustainability of earth’s ecosystems, as well as human
When the coolants were engineered, no one could know, or even suspected that they would be contributing so significantly to the potential unsustainability of our future. Another important aspect of the risk society, that you may have taken from the previous example, is the distribution of risk. Contemporary risks are not local or national, but independent of space, time and demographics. In the preindustrial era, for example, the risks associated with a farmer using a scythe to work his crop, were located within the particular time and place he was working, and impacted him alone. He could cut off his foot with it, but when he returned the scythe to the barn wall in the evening, the risk was gone. Contemporary manufactured global risks, described by Beck, are increasingly borderless, and impact upon the lives of people, animals and plants independent of their location. A nuclear disaster, manufactured and engineered by human ingenuity in the name of progress, is not confined within the borders of a nation, and the point of impact is often independent from the point of origin of the disaster (Beck, 2000).
From this perspective the risk society takes a different, more global and universal dimension and becomes “world risk society.” Example of contemporary risk: Chernobyl.
Nuclear technology is engineered to safely and efficiently produce energy for the betterment of humanity.
That we can harness the atom to meet our energy needs is viewed as progress. Although the probability of accidents are considered low the consequences of them, should they occur, are high.
And, the impact of these failures of technology, are not limited to a particular time, place and demographic.
The impact of the Chernobyl disaster was quite large and not confined to the City of Prypiat, Ukraine in which the plant was located. The impact was distributed, virtually unseen across great distances, impacting numerous nations. Furthermore its impact was not located in time, but across time.
With generations not yet born at the time of the accident being impacted.
Of course, when conceived and designed, no one could have predicted the scope of such failure, let alone the magnitude of the failure, and the impact that their technological advances would have on unborn children. Despite the largescale character of risk in the contemporary world born of technological advancement, like nuclear, chemical and biomedical catastrophe, it does not necessarily mean that governments and private corporations fully realize the dangers that accompany innovation and progress. And if they do, they often seem to willingly ignore these risks, because their raison d’etre is defined by classical economic metrics.
Beck contends that knowledgeproducing institutions refuse to take responsibility for the potentially catastrophic consequences of a risk event. Although they acknowledge the reality of catastrophe, at the same time they deny its existence, or drastically minimize their role in it. For example, Topakas (2011) notes that large oil companies Exxon, Shell and BP routinely deploy texts/discourse, via their promotional material, asserting their concern about climate change, and that a responsible and sustainable (i.e. reflexive) strategy is needed to address these issues. Herein Topakas notes that the companies are attempting to promote their transparency and corporate social responsibility, but in many instances their stance is not clearly defined. Further, even though they frequently use strong statements with a high level of commitment on the issue of climate change, and they acknowledge the problem and its severity in their discourses, they do not seem to clearly acknowledge their own accountability in causing the problem. In this regard, they are simply trying to legitimize themselves in the face of bourgeoning social recognition of the problem of climate change.
However, they expose themselves as unreflexive by not directly acknowledging their role in manufacturing the problem. Further, Topakas notes that from a problemsolving perspective, all the companies expressed two basic solutions:
1) Pass the buck to the government in order for the problem to be dealt with; and 2) Highlight the vague technological means they are purportedly undertaking to reducing emissions and develop alternative energy sources. Typical examples of this discursive frame include the following: Shell is arguing that “technology will need to play a big role” and an international policy framework “will encourage the technology and investments needed” (2008). Similarly, ExxonMobil stresses that they are “working on technologies with the potential for nearterm impact on emissions” (2008). Interestingly, this emphasis on technological means for tackling a problem created by technology itself is in accordance with Beck’s views on the position of technology in the risk society. This attitude is, according to Beck, a particular problem in the risk society. Technoscience manufactures products that beget unintended consequences, and then relies on the same techno
scientific expertise and loci of technology to manufacture their way out of the problem. For Beck, this is represents a ‘crisis of legitimation’ and a threat to democracy itself, since science and technology—through the decisionmaking powers handed to the scientists—ignore the consultation and the consent of citizens, whose lives are directly influenced and threatened by the decisions made. Thus, according to Beck (2005: 5960), the monopoly that scientists and engineers have over the diagnosis of hazards is called into question by the ‘reality crisis’ of the natural and engineering sciences in their dealings with the hazards they produce.
This is especially troubling when we consider that concomitant to their attempts at proffering (vague forms of) sustainable development, the aforementioned oil companies continue with their unsustainable ‘business as usualtype’ practices.
Or, put simply, loci of technoscience jeopardize their authority as experts when they refuse to fully acknowledge the risks associated with the hazards they produce. Or the fact that the technologies that they now produce cannot really be tested for the largescale, dislocated risks associated with them. So what does this all mean regarding our awareness of risk and how we deal with it?
Well, just like I, as a sociologist, cannot force society into a test tube, engineers cannot let nuclear reactors blow up around people to test their safety.
Thus, theories of nuclear reactor safety are only testable after they are built, not before hand. Consequently, we no longer find the progression of: first laboratory, then application.
Instead, testing comes after application, and production precedes research (to a certain extent).
A telling example of society as laboratory arose in wake of the Exxon Valdez disaster:
Prior to the 1989 oil spill, engineers developed response models, and contingency plans for containment and collection that reflected a ‘worst case scenario’ disaster that would spill between 74,000100,000 barrels of oil. Davidson (1990: 79), in his interviews with industry engineers after the spill, noted that these experts often said to him: ‘this spill just overwhelmed everybody…no one was organized to control a spill of this magnitude.
A spill of this magnitude was: 257,000 barrels spilled. And even their estimates of being able to capture 100,000 barrels after the spill proved grossly overestimated: They were able to recapture 3,000 barrels.
If you think this lesson regarding risk prediction, preparedness and worst case scenario response was learned, just ask engineers working to cap the deepwater horizon spill how that went. This type of technoscientific logic—a logic born of complex, new and large scale technological innovation—
fails the test of working towards sustainable development, especially if, through human hubris, technoscientific experts continue to believe that they can account for all contingencies.
Beck (2005: 127) calls this mental state one of “unknown unawareness. ”
In Beck’s risk society, the authority of the engineers and other technoscientific experts is undermined by this hubris. Is There a Way Out of the Risk
Society? Despite the pessimism of the risk society, Beck sees an ‘enlightenment function’ in global risks, and offers suggestions for the avoidance of the uncertainty regarding unsustainable risk production in contemporary society. Beck suggests a democratization of science, where the cooperation of the producers and consumers of science is facilitated. In other words, the decisionmaking power should be democratically divided between the scientists and the citizens (Beck, 1996a). In fact, stakeholder consultations is a key principle in numerous guidelines regarding sustainable engineering practices. In previous eras society had an unwavering faith in technoscientific expertise.
In risk society, our burgeoning understanding of the risky ‘unintended consequences’ of scientific endeavors—and the hubris associated with claims to be able to predict and account for risk, even in the face of continued environmental degradation by the hands of our own manufactured progress—has eroded such faith. As such, more and more, the reflexive public are demanding to be let into the process.
Thus, the realm of science and technology and industry—areas that were once strictly the domain of ‘experts’—are now being opened up to the general citizenry, and becoming politicized. Increasingly, nonindustrial, nonscientific actors apprehend and interrogate the actions and motives of these previously unquestioned institutions (we see this in activist and environmental justice movements, like in wake of Love Canal for example).
The work of technoscience is now being critically interrogated as not simply objective and altruistic endeavour towards social betterment, but instead as a forprofit highly politicized, subpolitical industry. For Beck, then, the risk society is one in which the ‘dark sides’ of progress increasingly come to dominate public debate.
The realization of the impact of these dark sides, as the reflexive ‘enlightenment function’ of risk society, will need to beget new political and social movements to counteract these forces; to advocate for sustainable development practices in the technosciences and for the inclusion of lay stakeholders, and the voice of nature, into the debate. But, how can we get a firm handle on these risks when technoscience cannot control their production (and is often times inculcated in, or responsible for, their constitution), and humanity can often not even sensually perceive them until it is too late?
Put another way, how can we actively become reflexively modern (academics, engineers, citizens)? For Beck (2005), in an era where risks are increasingly unseen and escape human sense and identification technologies, we must be self
critical about this state of affairs and acknowledge our ‘unawareness’.
Like in simple modernity, we are still unaware as a people, however the unawareness that characterized simple modernity was that of ‘unknown unawareness’ (Beck 2005: 127), or ignorance. To achieve reflexivity; to truly endeavour to move towards sustainable development, we—technoscientific experts and the general citizenry alike—must replace hubris with humility. If we do this, we will exhibit, what Beck calls ‘known or reflected unawareness’ (Beck 2005: 126).
That is, as a reflexive population—a population who question and apprehend loci of power and expertise—we acknowledge that we do not know things, and in the age of ‘unintended consequences’, sideeffects and unseen risks, we become compelled to decode this state of affairs for the sake of our environment, ourselves and our children. Understanding the world today as a risk society, is our reflexive turn; our turn towards sustainability.
When we understand the nature of risk production in contemporary society, as a fundamental aspect of techno
scientific wealth production, we can truly get a handle of ‘what we are’ as a society, and we may not like what we see.
However, this insight—that technoscience is not simply altruistically focused on human betterment—provides us with the critical reflexivity need to apprehend these risks and demand better of ourselves as we work to determine ‘where we are going’ in the future. ...
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