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Living in a Risk Society – Change, Perpetual Crisis, Comprehension, and Policy

  • Osama Rizvi 
VUCA and strategic management. Hand puts wooden cubes with VUCA
VUCA is a term you are likely to see more of.

I came across the name “Ulrich Beck” while reading Shutdown by Adam Tooze – who has become one of my favorite authors. Ulrich Beck was an extraordinary sociologist and his contributions in his respective field are numerous and pivotal. One such idea can be found in the title of his most celebrated work published in 1986, ‘Risk Society: Towards a New Modernity’ which facilitated the embodiment of the very idea of a risk society. The world is becoming increasingly complex – as highlighted in my first article here – but the concern isn’t only about being complex. Considering the ever-increasing speed of the state of complexity, we have entered the age of polycrisis. As such the change, the ‘metamorphosis’, is outpacing our understanding of it. Subsequently perpetuating or prolonging the presence of risks and increasing the likelihood of crisis.

Increase in Complexity + Increase in the Speed of Increase in Complexity = Prolonging Risks                                                                   

Consequence: Crisis

What is a risk society? It can be defined as a society that is obsessed with the future and safety, hence there exists a perpetual and continuous concern with the factor of risk. Beck defined it as “an inescapable structural condition of advanced industrialization” and elaborated that our contemporary society is engaged in preventing risks that it has perpetuated itself – for instance, climate change. Furthermore, while in the earlier times the proletariat used to suffer (mostly) from the problems, in today’s globalized society even the rich aren’t safe from the threat (this is true only to a certain extent as the loss caused by any event is always disproportionately divided amongst the rich and the poor. This asymmetry can, most importantly, be found in carbon emissions and their deadly effects). Closely related to this concept and another incontrovertible proof of Beck’s foresightedness is the idea of “organized irresponsibility”: we as individuals collectively contribute to a problem yet avoid individual accountability. Instead, we blame it on the collectives such as rules, regulations, systems, political intricacies etcetera. This produces “risk arbitrage” where actors (individuals, groups) reap benefits by producing risk, avoid the consequences (usually disproportionate), and have no accountability.

Interestingly, and unfortunately, we can easily relate this to our contemporary world. I believe that this framework can best explain one of the key policy issues that we face as a collective community: climate change. (I intend to write a separate article on that subject using Beck’s theory). Another important point to understand, and one that remains a common focus in my articles here is that technology has also played a key role in the formation of a risky society. Social media, easy movement of goods, and services, and blurring of boundaries all of these have benefits but also downsides to it.

According to Beck, in a risk society “the ability to anticipate and endure dangers, to deal with them biographically and politically acquires importance. In place of fears of losing status, class consciousness, and orientation to upward mobility, which we have more or less learned to handle, other central questions appear. How do we handle ascribed outcomes of danger and the fears and insecurities residing in them? How can we cope with the fear, if we cannot overcome the causes of the fear? How can we live on the volcano of civilization without deliberately forgetting about it, but also without suffocating on the fears – and not just on the vapors that the volcano exudes?”.

The reader might feel familiar with such conditions if they hearken back to the times of COVID-19.

In ‘The Metamorphosis of the World’ (published in 2014), Beck once again shows unrealistic insights while explaining the difference between “change” and “metamorphosis” where the latter is a process by which even the unthinkable becomes thinkable or impossible becomes possible. Christopher Hobson puts it perfectly that the contemporary world is a place where change is outpacing comprehension and “reality exceeding imagination”. This is indeed the age of second-order thinking where non-linearity can be seen at its peak.

It is high time that we let go of the idea of thinking in binary terms and embrace the non-binary mode. Imagine the world like a wave, phase after phase; with no boxes to be seen. If there aren’t any boxes, of what use are the labels? The “isms” can’t explain it. An extension of such a mode of thought is second-order thinking that I mentioned above as well. I will cover it in my next article.

What can we learn from risk society? Out of many lessons, the first one is the promotion of avenues of cooperation and collaboration rather than of conflict and confusion. Considering that the prevalent challenges have gone global and consequently every tier of society is being affected by it, the reader must realize that ironically, cooperation has taken the back seat while conflict seems to be the policy priority of the world leaders. Clearly, we aren’t headed in the right direction. Secondly, this realization that we are living in a risk society should persuade policy-makers to be more cautious which should be reflected in policies and actions by global leaders.

Will there be dusk or dawn after the twilight the world found itself in? Only time can tell.