Saturday, 5 December 2009

Feature Article: Dealing with an uncertain future

Humans have been always afraid of nature and its capricious impact over their lives. That is why, through science, we have been relentlessly trying to control and manipulate nature on our behalf. We have become so worried about us that, since the advent of modernity, our biggest concern as human beings has been to protect ourselves from an external and hazardous world. Humans are afraid of the unknown, and the future is for us nothing but a stranger whose actions we cannot foresee.

“The notion of risk becomes central in a society which is taking leave from the past, of traditional ways of doing things, and which is opening itself up to a problematic future” claims the British sociologist Anthony Giddens. In Modern societies the calculation of risk, that is to say the dangers we may or may not have to face in the future, has become a major concern. Everything is apt to be insured against potential risks. Our cars, houses, refrigerators, computers, toasters and, more importantly, ourselves are items likely to be protected from possible upcoming threats.

The welfare state, whose responsibility is to protect citizens in every domain of their lives, is a good example of how the 'perfect' human artificial shelter should be. Modern institutions in modern societies are meant to care for the individuals, and the individuals’ trust towards the system depends on how safe they feel within society. Some states fit more in the welfare category than others. Scandinavian countries are a good example of how the state has successfully taken over almost every domain of life. In fact, Scandinavians seem to be very happy about having delegated most of their duties to the state.


We have, as a matter of fact, become extremely successful in having control over the future. So is the case that the sense of culpability has shifted from external actors to us. Good examples of this argument are natural disasters. In the past nature was to blame after the devastation created by a tsunami or an earthquake. These days human beings – what we call experts - are to blame for not having predicted the disaster. We are no longer afraid of what nature can do to us because we have become the designers of our own fate. Therefore we should be also regarded as responsible for the potential damage we are causing on the environment and human life. This is what Giddens calls “the dark side of modernity”, the more we play scientifically and technologically with our future the higher the future risks become. These are considered by Giddens high-consequential risks and they are according to him a product of modernity and the result of globalization:

“such risks are part of the dark side of modernity, and they, or comparable risks factors, will be there so long as modernity endures – so long as the rapidity of social and technological change continues, throwing off unanticipated consequences” .

High-consequence risks do not affect the present time or the human being as an individual, they affect humanity. As Deborah Lupton mentions in her analysis on Giddens’ work, globalization has unified humankind by putting us all under the same threats. Globalization and globalized risk have created a new world scenario in which humans realize they are facing the same problems claims Giddens. This is what is new concerning modernity; since we all confront the same risks the sense of WE as humans becomes more meaningful than ever before.

Nonetheless risk is a very flexible term; I would even say an abstract one. The question that comes to my mind when talking about risk and modernity is the following: do we live in an increasingly risky society or have we become obsessed with the notion of risk? Deborah Lupton claims that Giddens himself does not mean that we live in a more dangerous society or that WE humans have become obsessed with risk. In reality, as the British professor Chas Critcher points out, if we think of the Western world, some of the most dreadful threats for human beings − like famine or disease for instance − have been almost completely eliminated. The reason why modern societies are risk societies is probably because of our awareness concerning the impact we exert over the planet.


I wonder when a risk becomes a risk; what should or should not be consider a risk? Someone has to determine what humanity needs to consider dangerous or safe, but this is not an easy thing to do. Those in charge of determining what is likely to be a threat for us are the so-called, admired and hated experts. Experts are expected to agree with each other in order to let us know which risks we have to be aware of, with dangers we need to get ready for. Nonetheless, experts rarely reach an agreement. As Giddens admits “the consensus of expert opinion – if there is any consensus – may switch even as the changes in lifestyle they called for previously become adopted”.

As a matter of fact, what it was harmless fifteen years ago seems to be highly damaging today. There have been recently many news concerning the damage that meat consumption is exerting on the environment. I was raised in a family where eating meat less than twice a week was thought to be unhealthy. Meat was generally considered a symbol of energy and strength; today is destroying our planet. As Giddens mentions, even tobacco was seen as a relaxant not that long ago. This does not mean medical science is random at all, but its changing nature creates confusion and skepticism in society. “The interpretation of risk for an individual or category of individuals”, claims Giddens, “depends on whether or not lifestyle changes are introduced, and how far these are in fact based on valid presumptions”.

There are in fact many contradictions regarding modern society and risks. Globalization has apparently made humans realize, at last, that we step on the same land and live under the same roof. But curiously we seem to be more worried about what can happen to us – and our future generations - in a hundred years than about the calamities happening right now to some unknown individuals in a remote African country. The fact is that not only experts and their disagreements play a role in the perception of risk by individuals, the media and its agenda also make some risks more visible than others. Not only is global warming a threat for humanity, but famine, also an issue affecting all of us in a globalized world. Prioritizing one or the other is something that is by and large exclusively decided by Western societies. The risk society, as Giddens explains it, make complete sense within the frame of modern and post modern societies.


The interaction between experts and society has to be based on trust. We have to rely on expert systems, that is to say we need to rely on people we do not know and we will probably never see. As Giddens points out a common characteristic of modern society is the fact that it is shaped by abstract systems. The expert system is one of them, the interaction between WE and THEM ¬− 'the absent experts' – has to be based on trust. We are part of many processes in which we never get to meet or fully understand what is going on. What do we know, as citizens, about science? What we actually get to know is the information made and delivered to us.

It is nonetheless true that nowadays we have access to many different sources and points of view over the same subject. As opposed to pre modern societies, the individual of today becomes a reflexive being and he or she decides who to trust. As professor Critcher claims trust was unconditional for previous generations whereas, at the present time, it is a conditional reality. There are many uncertainties and certainties to believe in. Either by conviction or faith you decide who to trust, you are crucial in order to believe what is truth, what is not. That is why we have become so risk centered, because we are responsible for own mistakes.

(Photos: Gabriel Fraga de Cal. © 2009)

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