Leading article: Living on the ledge: the random risk society

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Perhaps it was those hamburgers you ate in 1987. But then a few hamburgers might not be enough. But how many plates of spaghetti bolognese did you eat in the late Eighties? Fifty, 100, 200? How much do you need to eat to catch it? And anyway, the scientists, their authority rapidly fading, might have got it wrong. Maybe scrapie is not the source of BSE. Perhaps it's organo-phosphates. That might mean BSE is still rampant, so beef you eat now might carry a risk of giving you the deadly Creutzfeldt- Jakob Disease.

But how does the risk of catching CJD compare with other risks that besiege us every day? It's so difficult to know how much to worry. The risk of dying from CJD is probably less than the risk of dying from smoking 10 cigarettes a day (one in 200) but more of a risk than being hit by lightning (one in 10 million). But are you at more or less of a risk from CJD than from dying of influenza (one in 5,000) an accident of the road (one in 8,000) or while playing soccer (one in 25,000)? Who knows? Certainly not the scientists. The best guess that John Pattison, head of the Government's advisory committee on BSE, could offer us was that there may in future be hardly any more CJD deaths linked to BSE - or there could be an epidemic.

This week, everyone is facing an unknown and barely calculable new risk of dying. Risk has become an inescapable part of our lives. There was a time when a risk was something you indulged in for a bit of excitement, a flutter on the side. A punt on the Grand National, a spin of the wheel - it was all meant to add a bit of spice to an otherwise orderly and predictable life. Even when Mrs Thatcher preached to us that risk was something we could choose to take. In the insecure, uncertain Nineties, most of life seems to have become a flutter. We no longer choose to take risks; we have them thrust upon us. This week, our lives have become an experiment inflicted upon us by the beef industry, with absolutely nobody in charge of the laboratory. The most ordinary of decisions - which cut of meat should one buy - has become laced with life and death chance. Our society seems to have become riddled with random risks. Calculating and managing risks has become one of our main preoccupations. That used to be a specialist job for actuaries, insurers and scientists. Now we all have to engage in it, with whatever rusty tools we can lay our hands on - sometimes the calculator, sometimes the astrology columns.

The accelerating rate of economic change driven on by global competition has made life for virtually everyone more insecure than it used to be. Even relatively young, highly qualified graduates face the risk that their skills may become outmoded before they realise it. Few employers protect their employees against the risks of redundancy. Workers have to bear those risks themselves; more middle-class people are calculating how to insure themselves against the insecurity of their income.

Privatisation and constraints upon public spending are another source of higher risk for individuals. In the post-war period, the state took responsibility for organising collective insurance against many risks - ill health, bouts of unemployment, poverty in old age. Now, increasingly, it's down to individuals to plan their personal health and pension plans; to calculate the risks for themselves and make their own decisions about how much to put by.

Yet the source of the most troubling new risks we face is something most of us would regard as unequivocally beneficial - our expanding knowledge. It is partly because we know more about the brain that we now know that people in a persistent vegetative state may be conscious and so should not have their life-support machines turned off. As scientific knowledge opens up new opportunities for us, it also makes the world more complex and unknowable, at least by any one individual. For instance, the technology now used to fly a plane across the Atlantic is probably beyond the understanding of any one person. As a result, the risk of a plane crash becomes more difficult to calculate. As technology races ahead, we are left behind panting with ignorance, increasingly unable to understand or control the machines we depend upon and so less able to calculate the consequences of their going wrong. Environmental science has encouraged us to be less parochial and short-term in our thinking. We now worry about the consequences of our actions on future generations in far-flung places. But this admirable long-termism also makes it more difficult to calculate the risks of our decisions. What is the risk that your grandchildren's environment will suffer if you use that aerosol or your car too much?

The problem this leaves us with is not just one of calculating risks but taking responsibility for them. Take the grounding of the Sea Empress as an example - who among the owner, the agents, the charterers, the crew, the pilot and the harbour master should have taken responsibility for making sure it did not run aground? How should a business, a worker and the state share the cost of insuring against the risks of unemployment in the global market? When new risks such as Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease arise, we blame politicians and demand they take action, but which of us seriously believes the hapless Stephen Dorrell is responsible for this crisis, other than in a purely totemic way? Politicians might pick up the can, but it hardly gets us anywhere. This week, the limited authority of scientists has also been exposed. Once they were confident BSE was not linked to CJD. Now they are not so sure. But for all their expertise, they cannot tell us how big the risk is or what we should do to guard against it.

What we need to cope better with life in a risk-prone society are information and openness from government and business so we know more about the risks we face, wider education to allow us to judge risks better and new mechanisms for sharing risks which overcome the drawbacks of both the traditional welfare state and private insurance markets. Perhaps the most important mechanism for ensuring ordinary citizens do not shoulder all the risks is consumer power to hold government and business to account for their actions.

The social thinker Professor Ulrich Beck of Munich University, author of a best-selling book in Germany called The Risk Society and a keynote speaker at an Institute of Public Policy research conference next week, has coined a term for the state we are in - organised irresponsibility. This week, that sounds all too accurate.