Monday, April 11, 2011

The Age of Risks

The gigantic cataclysm in Japan has stirred people's conscience that we have entered into the "global risk society "*.  This means that our society is increasingly concerned about the future and has to deal with hazards and uncertainties induced by modern life. The magnitude of the disaster has no precedent in history. It had large human consequences and social costs;  the material damage is estimated in more than 200 billion dollars, around 4% of Japanese GDP.  The point of issue is whether this could have been avoided, at least not in that magnitude.

Human beings are always subject to a level of risk, such as natural disasters which are largely perceived as generated by non-human forces Since earthquakes cannot be predicted, we do not know when tsunamis will happen before the earthquake occurs. But it is established that tsunamis occur on average twice a year throughout the world and inflict damage near the source. It is if like the inner core deep inside the Earth have waken and created a rupture in the laws of natural equilibrium putting at risk the survival of many animal and vegetal species. But the other side of the Japanese disaster concerns manufactured risks, which are the product of human activity. For example, the disaster caused by the nuclear plant in Fukushima led to a decline of public faith in nuclear technology and a growing concern for sustainability.

Mankind suffers from loneliness in an ever crowded world. As the Polish sociologist Z. Bauman explained,  the paradox is that the more populated are our cities, the more we feel lonesome, frightened and quarrelsome. Without any hope in the future, without a memory of the past, our world is flattened on an unsteady present.

However, the age of risks which has put in question the sense of our existence has nevertheless triggered positive energies in terms of creativity, wealth creation, desire for freedom and rights. The Arab revolutions which rose a couple of months ago has extended from the Atlantic to the Indian Ocean. Their heroes are young people, men and women; they want food and freedom but they are not illiterate, as they gather and communicate through websites and their weapons are the modern technologies.

This 'social' tsunami has a social and political intensity which is similar to the geological phenomenon which convulsed the oceans. The human wave swept away corrupted regimes and claimed equality, dignity and freedom. This was the essence of that pacific revolution which is still pervading the Arab world.

Globalization and technology have introduced in the social fabric the concept of communicating vessels. Immigration from poor to rich areas is a 'social tsunami', and it would be vain to try to block it with populist arguments. Governments need to govern it as best as possible in the medium and long term and prepare for the tide. In the countries where natural disasters occurred,  they will engage in rebuilding houses, railways, anti-seismic construction; in the 'global risk society', they should engage vigorously in a culture of solidarity and hospitality, a diverse division of work and a diverse concept of citizenship. Those who think that erecting walls will contain the human tide, will only render it more destructive.

The main thrust of these changes is to build up progressively a new model of development based on sustainability (in the wide sense) and social justice. The logical premises exist  but the forces of resistance to change may still be very powerful.

* Risk society" is a term that emerged during the 1990s to describe the manner in which modern society organises in response to risk. The term is closely associated with several key writers on modernity, in particular Anthony Giddens and Ulrich Beck. The term's popularity during the 1990s was both as a consequence of its links to trends in thinking about wider modernity, and also to its links to popular discourse, in particular the growing environmental concerns during the period (from Wikipedia:

1 comment:

  1. I have received this comment from Emilio Di Meglio: " Bellissimo post. Abbiamo creduto per un po' di saper mitigare il rischio con complessi modelli matematici ma non era cosi' semplice".