The Bhopal Disaster and World Risk Society

As an addendum to my post of the Bhopal disaster, I would like to bring into the discussion the Risk Society theory that is, in my view, fundamental to the understanding of contemporary society in the global context.

What do the Bhopal industrial disaster, the Chernobyl nuclear reactor meltdown, the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, the epidemics of mad cow disease, and the widespread use of genetically modified crops have in common? According to German sociologist Ulrich Beck , they all indicate the rise of a world risk society.

According to Beck (1992), the world risk society is a product of modernity. Since the industrial revolution, one of the major large-scale societal issues was the reduction of scarcity. The solution was to develop and use technology to produce enormous numbers of goods and increase the general level of wealth for the populations of industrial societies. This was successful: scarcity is hardly a problem in post-industrial societies (core areas). If anything, abundance is. Generally speaking, people no longer starve in developed countries, quite the contrary, obesity has become a problem.

However, this mass production of goods has been accompanied by the production of “bads” or, in other words, risks. Beck defines risk as “a systematic way of dealing with hazards and insecurities induced and introduced by modernization itself. Risks, as opposed to older dangers, are consequences which relate to the threatening force of modernization and to its globalization of doubt" (1992: 21). As such, risks have several characteristics that distinguish them from dangers in previous periods of human history.

Life has always been dangerous and hazardous for human beings. But for most of human history, the dangers came from what Beck calls natural risks , such as floods and epidemics. In preindustrial societies, such risks were attributed to supernatural forces (gods or spirits).

With industrialization and scientific progress, such superstitious beliefs lost a great deal of credibility. Industrialization created obvious problems of its own: pollution and other urban poverty-related conditions, what Beck calls manufactured risks , risks that are human-made. However, such obvious risks were dismissed and it was assumed that, as more wealth was produced, living conditions would improve for all and technology would solve whatever problems would remain.

In late modernity, contemporary risks are still manufactured risks but in addition, they threaten the very existence of the human species . For instance, it is now clear that late modern societies consume unsustainable amounts of natural resources. Should large countries such as India and China reach similar levels of consumption, the future of humanity would become dreadfully uncertain.

And yet, the production of wealth still takes precedence and the globalist ideology encourages such a trajectory of high mass consumption. Similarly, even though the Cold War is over, the threat of nuclear catastrophes either at the hands of terrorists or as a result of civilian accidents (as in the case of Chernobyl) still looms. In other words, risks are now global in nature.

Contemporary risks are invisible and often hard to measure. We do not see or taste the toxins and antibiotics in our food. We do not really perceive dramatic climate disruption. It is hard to measure risks because many involve a latency period. How many people were really affected by the Chernobyl accident? It is impossible to know: people living in the area were certainly directly affected and the effects of radiation carry over several generations. We also know that radioactive particles did spread all over Europe. How many people’s cancers were related to Chernobyl?

Ozone Hole Do we actually feel the effects of the hole in the ozone layer? Because such risks are invisible or imperceptible, they are open to debates and scientific experts find themselves questioned by the larger public. And since the effects of risks can be felt across space (globally, away from any identifiable point of origin) and time (for several generations), it becomes difficult to determine who is responsible for any risk-related disaster and what the exact causes are.

Contemporary risks involve social inequalities. As Beck (1992:35) puts it “wealth accumulates at the top, risks at the bottom.” The global poor are exposed to more risks than the global wealthy, which include not just extremely rich individual, but the quasi-totality of the population of core areas. Additionally, the wealthy (in terms of income, power and education) have access to more information on how to avoid risks.

In other words, under conditions of global uncertainty, information becomes itself a source of wealth that is unequally distributed. However, contemporary risks involve what Beck calls a boomerang effect: those who produce risks or try to avoid them always end up being affected as well because those risks have a global impact.

Contemporary risks are borderless. Borderlessness as a central characteristic of globalization. No European country could protect itself from the after-effects of Chernobyl.

As a result, contemporary risks create a global community of fate by creating global problems that will require global solutions through transnational cooperation, further undermining national sovereignty.

Contemporary risks create winners. Managing risks or offering protection from risks is big business. New medications and treatments can be developed to deal with disease created by risks. New chemicals can be added to our food to counteract the effects of the present chemicals. However, such solution, because they are individual, are inherently inadequate.

Contemporary risks generate new social conflicts. These social conflicts may not be between social classes divided by levels of wealth but between categories of people with different views on how to eliminate risks: among others, the globalist solution puts its trust in capitalism and its capacity for technological innovation, the fundamentalist solution would be to turn back the clock and return to imaginary safer times, the anti-globalization movement would call for a return to the local.

It is then clear that the concept of risks will be a very useful analytical tool that I will use to examine different phenomena. Risks are not simply technological or environmental in nature, they are social. They impact the social structure as a whole. For instance, economic globalization has already generated global financial crises that certainly constitute global risks. In other words, risks have become an integral part of our lives. (More posts to come on this topic)

5 thoughts on “The Bhopal Disaster and World Risk Society

  1. Hi SocProf,

    Excellent post… congratulations!

    I’m a PhD student, and the issue of my academic work it’s about risks and accidents.
    I’ll send you my last paper (in Portuguese, sorry!) about social theory of risk. Can I use the e-mail of the blog to send the paper?
    When you have some free time you can check other discussion about risk in another blog.
    The site is that:

    If you like this subject we should writing one paper, may be with another colleagues, about globalization of risks and accidents. What do you think about that? Now I don’t have any free time, because I need to finish another work until the end of September, but in October we can talk about that.

    See you!

  2. Joao, please do send me your paper (the blog email is fine).

    Risk society is, I think, one of the most powerful theories to analyze contemporary society.

    And your idea of a paper is a good one. Let’s talk again about this in October, when you have more time.

    Good luck with the Ph.D!

  3. Pingback: characteristic of public goods

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