Life's a gamble, it's true. But the real risks are not the ones you fear

Richard D North on the Risk Society
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Do you lose sleep about them? Is your experience of our fag-end of the century one of nervousness at the new dangers which surround us? According to The Politics of Risk Society, published this week, if you are a real modern you will be well aware that there is something new and important about the hazards of life.

The new idea of danger is to the modern age what sex was to the last fin de siecle: a familiar enough subject re-invented as a special worry. This time, however, the concern is concern itself. The authors, corralled by the left-of-centre think-tank IPPR, are not on a mission of old-fashioned alarmism. They say that the new riskiness may be redeemed by a new and fascinating response.

The phrase "risk society" was invented by a sociologist, Ulrich Beck, who is based in Munich and Cardiff. He asserts that the BSE scare, for example, demonstrates that "society has become a laboratory where there is absolutely no one in charge. An experiment has been inflicted on us by the beef industries." For beef, you might as well read "nuclear", "chemical", and "bio-engineering". You will easily get the flavour of the adventure: "We no longer choose to take risks, we have them thrust upon us." Conventional politics and bureaucracies are failing us: they are, Beck says, quoting Hannah Arendt, "forms of organised irresponsibility". They alternate between denial and cover-up.

Another contributor, Anthony Giddens (director of the LSE), writes in a vein less Continental and more continent. Giddens stresses that the new risks are not natural, but essentially manufactured. Thus, they force us to rethink industrial society. He notes that modern societies aren't more risky than previous ones, and may even be less so. It is just as well he says this, since we now expect to live relatively painlessly for a very long time, and indeed our longevity is arguably the greatest threat to our equanimity.

Giddens argues what is surely true: nowadays we are thinking more about risk. At least, we are invited to. We are in receipt of a mountain of surveys and studies which try to pin causes to effects. Butter, wine, nuclear power, sexual promiscuity, car-driving and BSE are discussed for their relation to heart disease, leukaemia, Aids, global warming and CJD. Blame is chased everywhere, and is found to be elusive, even by those personal-injury lawyers who hope to find it in the well-lined pockets of culpable capitalists and their insurers.

In the new view, the most important new feature of risks is the nature of their uncertainty. They are not uncertain as cuddly old earthquakes or volcanoes are, say, as to timing. They are often uncertain as to their very existence and likelihood. Some are wholly unexpected. We have, of course, plenty to worry about: we might release a super-bug which might flourish in the globally-warmed fields of a Sussex countryside rendered uninhabitable by an explosion in a French nuclear power station. More prosaically, we are in daily contact with hundreds of thousands of manmade substances all of whose effects we cannot know.

But do these risks offer large scope for the organisers of concern? Not really. As against the IPPR account of risks, I prefer the painstaking accounts of hazards offered in a collection published under the banner of the European Science and Environment Forum, by Roger Bate, the director of the environment unit of the right-of-centre think-tank the IEA. His What Risks? doesn't underestimate the difficulties science has in tracking down the hazard posed by industrial technologies when things go wrong, or by their inadvertancies. But it points to many successes in demystification, and these accounts of scientific detective work leave one with the impression that governments are far more likely to over-react, and to be over-cautious in their regulation, than the washed-up, secretive, pseudo-democrats of the IPPR's imaginings.

The Politics of Risk Society thinking uses the authors' anxiety about our anxieties to propose and celebrate the emergence of post-political non-systems for the perception and mediation of hazards. These are epitomised by Susie Orbach, who thinks some new self-confidence is needed in people who now face uncertainties at work and "the collapse of the health and education services". Perhaps she hasn't noticed that people get livings, education and doctoring more easily than ever in history.

The modern situation is the opposite of hood-winked innocents being duped by scientists and manipulated by politicians. We all know just enough to expect scientists to explain their thinking to us. We are just autonomous enough to demand that politicians give us something other than reassurance.

Robin Grove-White, one of the most thoughtful of the new worry-professionals, noting that this is true, says society is engaged in "locating and relocating trust and mistrust". One just hopes we look in the right places. Professor Giddens, at least, appears to: he stresses the continuing need for formal democratic processes. He perhaps senses that the location of good government remains the leathery benches of Parliament rather than the post-modern couches of therapists.

The IPPR crew are right to see that we need to develop new ways of understanding public concerns, prioritising them, and informing the political process of them. But we needn't go to the other extreme of imagining our old, formal processes, or old ideas of rational investigation, don't deserve our trust any more. The fact is, the modern age has shown us that we have big consumer demands and satisfying them requires tricky technologies whose risks are not always clear in advance. Population growth imbues the process with moral purpose. Naturally, there is unease. But we mostly face these new hazards with surprising equanimity, and as the unsurprising price of affluence. Indeed, there is, after an unprecedented period of stability, peace and prosperity, rather more ennui than anxiety about. Our expectation of safety has simultaneously made us rather petulant when things go wrong, whilst seeking adventure holidays as a relief from the way things mostly go right.

So we need to be sceptical of the wilder claims of a new generation of lawyers, therapists, academics, campaigners and good old puritans who affect to worry about out worrying: after all, it provides them good material for lawsuits, counselling, studies, fundraising and breast-beating.

`The Politics of Risk Society' published by Polity Press, in association with IPPR, pounds 12.95 paperback, pounds 39.50 hardback.

`What Risk?' published by Butterworth-Heinemann, pounds 30 hardback.