World Risk Society (Beck) and Climate Change

In a recent court case, the Queensland Land and Resources Tribunal has announced a decision in favour of Xstrata expanding its Newlands coal mine.  The Tribunal concluded that the Queensland Conservation Council had not shown there was a causal link between the mine’s emissions and the harm caused by global warming and climate change.  For some commentary on this decision, see an ABC report or Andrew Bartlett’s piece.

This reminded me of some of my favorite quotes of the German sociologist Ulrich Beck.  He states that we are entering a world risk society where “dangers are being produced by industry, externalised by economics, individualised by the legal system, legitimised by natural sciences, and made to appear harmless by politics.” Further, the “transition from the industrial to the risk epoch of modernity occurs unintentionally, unseen, compulsively in the course of a dynamic of modernisation which has made itself autonomous on the pattern of unintended consequences.”

He goes on … “The difference between industrial and risk society is first of all a difference of knowledge – of self-reflection on the dangers of developed industrial modernity. The risk epoch imposes on each of us the burden of making critical decisions which may effect our very survival without any proper foundation in knowledge.”

I have found these quotes to be really profound and I re-read them every few months and see different nuances in them each time.  We need to make our own decisions without good evidence as the complexity and ambiguity in society has clouded the links between cause and effect.  Will the expansion of this mine contribute to global warming?  Maybe not much but at what stage do you say enough? 

So how self-reflective are institutions being in relation to the dangers of global warming?  Not very considering by the sound of it.  If “the hazards to which we are exposed date from a different century than the promises of security which attempt to subdue them,” new forms of decision-making are required.  This could either be at the community level, national or international.  But for world risks like global warming, the intervention needs to be relative to the system so it needs to be big!  Including developing countries, local communities, the US, etc.  All of us need to be involved if we are to turn the Good Ship Earth around – or at least halt its progress down the current slippery slope.


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