Nature matters: caring and accountability
Nature matters: caring and accountability

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Nature matters: caring and accountability

2.3.1 The risk society

The shift from an anthropocentric concern around issues of human poverty in industrial society towards a more ecocentric concern around environmental issues in the ‘risk society’ has been expressed by the German sociologist Ulrich Beck. His 1992 book Risk Society: Towards a New Modernity suggests a shift from the safety state of industrialised society, where conflicts were manifest in struggles amongst socio-economic groups, to a society where conflicts arise from issues of uncertainty. The following is a summary of Beck’s arguments written by John Dryzek (1997, p. 149):

Ulrich Beck (1992) has argued that issues of environmental risk, especially risk related to chemical pollution, toxic wastes, nuclear energy, and biotechnology, call into question the very foundations of industrial society. In industrial society, Beck argues, we happily put issues of economic organization and technological change off-limits to conscious and collective human control. For this reason, Beck believes that industrial society was only ‘semi-modern’, in that it only partially fulfilled modernity’s promise of rational social development. Beck’s emerging ‘risk society’, in contrast, puts these issues firmly on the agenda. To Beck, the politics of industrial society was mostly about conflict between social classes, and redistributive issues reflecting this conflict between capitalists and workers. In contrast, the politics of the emerging risk is organized around the environmental risks which industrial society has generated, but with which it has shown itself incapable of dealing. Nobody is immune from these risks; unlike industrial society’s main hazard of poverty, the rich have no immunity from the hazards of risk society. As Beck … puts it, ‘smog is democratic’.

Dryzek goes on to describe Beck’s ideas in the context of a wider argument concerning the need to be wary of eco-authoritarianism and instead develop greater ecological democracy.

SAQ 2 The risk society and accountability

What are the implications of the ‘risk society’ for encouraging greater accountability?


From Beck’s point of view, risks begin where nature ends. This means that whereas with industrial society the natural environment provided (or not, as the case may be) resources to be controlled, risk society is an evolutionary step in which the changed environment arising from industrialisation presents a political challenge to further modernisation. In industrial society, the environment is viewed from an anthropocentric stance; in post-industrial risk society, the changed environment is viewed with reverence. There is an acknowledgement that we as humans are ultimately unable to control nature. This brings out the importance of formulating greater accountability for harm done to the environment, but also the difficulties inherent in designing appropriate formal measures of accountability. Given the more dynamic relationship amongst values (instrumental, intrinsic and personal), creating measures of accountability will be an ongoing form of continual dialogue and alteration.

Some of the problems associated with Beck’s analysis are as follows.

  1. It is deterministic – society is seen as following a set evolutionary path from ‘industrial’ to post-industrial ‘risk’. Are all societies like this? Should all societies be like this?

  2. It overstates the case for an environmentally aware post-industrial society. Beck might be biased by his own German context, in which green politics has historically been relatively strong.

  3. The notion that environmental risks are somehow evenly distributed (as highlighted in the last sentence of the Dryzek quotation above – ‘smog is democratic’). As illustrated by the emergence of the environmental justice movement in the USA, and numerous examples of less developed countries having to pay the environmental costs of industrialisation elsewhere, environmental risks are unevenly distributed both socially and geographically.

  4. The assumption that change in the risk society is driven primarily by ‘new social movements’ rather than existing social pressure groups, which may be more influential.

  5. The assumption that change might come only through a radical restructuring of industrial production. This would not be agreeable to those environmentalists who are inclined more towards a reformist strategy within the present economic and political system.

Activity 12 Problems with Beck’s analysis

Note down which of the above concerns you think are particularly important in relation to developing appropriate environmental accountability, and give some reasons. Compare your answer to mine below.


In my view, problem 1 is particularly significant. Assuming that a risk society is an inevitable universal outcome of social development implies that an instrumental evaluation of nature (associated with industrialisation) is itself inevitable as a stage towards discovering or appreciating the need to be more accountable. This assumption appears to deny the possibilities of alternative forms of development associated with different value systems. Many traditional cultures with underpinning spiritual belief systems have arguably developed quite persuasive systems of being accountable for harm done to the environment.

I also think that the uneven distribution of environmental risks (problem 3) is a key ethical concern. Questions and decisions regarding what is right or wrong for the environment can be addressed only in relation to the rightness or wrongness as perceived by different stakeholder groups (including those representing the exclusive interests of the natural environment).

Box 11 provides an extract from Beck’s summary of his concept of the risk society in terms of a different form of citizenship.

Box 11 The risk society: towards being an ecological citizen

I should like to point to two implications of this thesis. The first is that risk society is not about exploding nuclear submarines falling out of the sky; it is not, as you might assume, one more expression of the ‘German angst’ at the millennium. Quite the opposite. What I suggest is a new model for understanding our times, in a not unhopeful spirit. What others see as the development of a postmodern order, my argument interprets as a stage of radicalized modernity. A stage where the dynamics of individualization, globalization and risk undermine modernity and its foundations. Whatever happens, modernity gets reflexive, that means concerned with its unintended consequences, risks and foundations. Where most postmodern theorists are critical of grand narratives, general theory and humanity, I remain committed to all of these, but in a new sense. To me, Enlightenment is not a historical notion and set of ideas, but a process and dynamic where criticism, self-criticism, irony and humanity play a central role … Where for many philosophers and sociologists ‘rationality’ means ‘discourse’ and ‘cultural relativism’, my notion of ‘reflexive modernity’ implies that we do not have enough reason (Vernunft).

Secondly, previously depoliticized areas of decision-making are getting politicized through the perception of risk, and must be opened to public scrutiny and debate. Corporate economic decisions, scientific research agendas, plans for the development and deployment of new technologies must all be opened up to a generalized process of discussion, and a legal and institutional framework for their democratic legitimation must be developed.

To me, technical (or ecological) democracy is the utopia of a responsible modernity, a vision of society in which the consequences of technological development and economic change are debated before the key decisions are taken. The burden of proof regarding future risks and hazards and current environment degradation would lie with the perpetrators rather than the injured party: from the polluter pays principle to the polluter proves principle. Finally, a new body of standards of proof, correctness, truth and agreement in science and law must be established. So what we need is nothing less than a second Enlightenment which opens up our minds, eyes and institutions to the self-afflicted endangerment of industrial civilization.

(Source: Beck, 1998, pp. 20–1)

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