Beck against the future

In: Uncategorized

28 Apr 2010

A recent post on the Political Climate blog reminded me of the immense influence of Ulrich Beck, a German sociologist of risk, on the discussion of the relationship about humanity and the environment. The article accurately sums up Beck’s central argument as follows:

“modern industry solves the old problem of scarcity, but in doing so it creates a new problem, in the form of widespread environmental hazards. It is these hazards, which modernity itself has created, and dealing with them, that defines reflexive modernity.”

This argument is wrong on several counts:

  • It is not true that the problem of scarcity has been solved – even in the West.
  • More prosperous societies are in a stronger position to tackle environmental hazards.
  • Contemporary societies are not defined by such hazards. If anything what characterises the developed world today is its intense anxiety about growth and towards environmental risks.

Beck is also mentioned in the recent Big Potatoes manifesto on innovation (p33). Evidently Beck sees innovation, contrary to the authors of the manifesto, as running amok rather than slowing down. The German professor argues that innovation benefits companies but humans generally suffer as a result of it.

Although Beck’s views are profoundly mistaken they should be tackled precisely because they are so influential.