vrijdag 17 januari 2014

Ulrich Beck - Weltrisikogesellschaft

(ISBN 978-3-518-41425-5)

This is definitely one of the most difficult to read books I’ve encountered in the past years, due to the way it’s written. As it’s in German (and I’m not sure if this particular version has an English translation) this may be a bridge too far for some anyway, but even for people who are used to reading both German and academic papers this one may be prove challenging. Anyway, it was for me and I considered a few times to just give up, but I decided to persist and at least try to squeeze the main essence from it. This wasn’t easy due to the flowery and circular language that is frequented by words that common mortals will avoid at any cost in every day conversations (or writing, for that matter). It’s probably a typical example of a book written by an academic for other academics…

Okay, having given that warning let’s proceed to the contents. The book is a follow-up of his 1986 classic “Risikogesellschaft” and expands on the ideas presented there and an English book from 1999. It deals with risk on a global level and how is dealt with it, or should be dealt with is. Pretty much of the discussion is fairly philosophical in character and grounded in sociological theories (Beck is a Professor in Sociology, after all) which I’m not all that familiar with, so that may very well be one reason that much of the writing doesn’t appeal all that much to me. If I try to summarize some of the most important points these would include:
  • The “success” of modern society - and not its failure - has created some major risks (often as unintended side effects). These include economical/financial, ecological/environmental and terrorism, and related, some kinds of warfare.
  • These major risks have impact that transcend national borders and often have global impact (hence the title of the book: World Risk Society).
  • Trying to solve these problems/risks with common approaches on national levels is futile (trying to have an individual environment-friendly life-style is nice, but as long as not all the major countries change course rather pointless).
  • Risks are no longer dealt with only by governments and regulators, but also by bottom-up transnational organisations (e.g. Greenpeace) or top-down supranational organisations. Or even by ad hoc cooperation of for example customers who decide to boycott a certain brand and thereby effectively cause a change in policy.
  • The effects of risks aren’t necessary dependable on the fact that anticipated consequences actually materialize; if presented “well” the possibility becomes the reality which is best illustrated by the experiences of everyone who tries to travel by plane after 9/11.
  • The perception of risk does not necessarily depend on ‘scientific’ analysis and rationality, but also on presentation, knowledge and ignorance, information and disinformation, culture and religion.
  • And let’s not forget the role of massmedia.
  • The distribution of risk is in many cases asymmetrical and often in favour of the decision maker, but not necessarily so - many global risks will affect everyone in a most democratic manner. Even so, risk export happens. Often.
This only scratches the surface, of course, but that’s what I took out of it and remembered after a first difficult read through it. And I should of course mention one brilliant quote that every safety pro should take note of:
Risiko Ergo Sum.

As a whole an interesting, but very demanding, book which gives a slightly different view on risk from a totally different perspective than most safety professionals usually deal with. Some clear links to Taleb’s work too. But I’d say start with Taleb and you will have covered a good deal of Beck’s points too, in a (IMHO) more pleasantly readable way. The Wikipedia pages on Beck and his work are very informative, by the way.

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