When we refer to the concept of risk multiple definitions come to our mind. Risk is a potential loss, usually consequence of some decisions. Or it can be the action of suffering harm or damage, the exposure to hazard or danger as well as a thrill or source of pleasure (LSE Handout, 2017). Risk can be seen both as a physical attribute and as a social construct, and has a normative and descriptive function at the same time (Renn, 1992). In addition, risks can vary. They can be natural, technological, cultural or human-made.
According to Ortwin Renn’s risk governance theory, three are the constitutive elements of the concept of risk, namely undesirable outcomes, possibility of occurrence and state of reality (Renn, 1992) and all risk concepts share the principle that the “causes and consequences of risks are mediated through social processes”. Contrarily, Niklas Luhmann argues that the key point in considering the concepts of risk is the distinction between risks and dangers, with the former involving potential losses while the latter actual losses. Hence, the academic literature shows us how the controversial concept of risk has a wide range of meanings.
The concept of risk has changed radically from the 16th century onwards. From a purely commercial aspect of life, it has assumed the definition of a modern phenomenon linked to substantive changes (the birth of new risk environments) and the belief that we can control and manage risks (LSE Handout, 2017). Given this variety of definitions and typologies, it is clear how risk has become in modern society a poly-centric concept.
The obsession to regulate risk perfectly shows that this concept has become nowadays pivotal. The European Commission reflects this hysteria of avoiding risks by rendering illegal a product until its producer has clearly demonstrated its safety. This is exactly what happened in “Pfizer Animal Health SA v. Council 1999 E.C.R. II-1961” where the European Council removed the authorisation of the product.
Governance has become central in a social context developed by the belief that we can control and manage risk. Governance is about social ordering, social control and risk management (LSE Handout, 2017) and appears at multiple vertical levels, respectively local, regional, national, supranational and global. Governance refers to a “complex of public and/or private coordinating, steering and regulatory processes established and conducted for social (or collective) purposes where powers are distributed among multiple agents, according to formal and informal rules”. In a society in which there is a strong aspiration to control the future (Giddens, 1999) and manage risks (Beck, 2006), risk governance seems to be the main priority. Risk governance is a regulatory process strongly embedded in the social context in which it takes place and involves the definition and management of risks. By the management of risk we mean the “process whereby decisions are made to accept a known or assessed risk and/or the implementation of actions to reduce the consequences or probability of occurrence”. In other words, it involves decisions about what is risky and decisions whether to regulate or not (LSE Handout, 2017).
When Ulrich Beck came across the concept of risk in 1986, his theoretical and practical meaning differed from what the academic literature referred to. In his view, risk means the anticipation of catastrophe, calculable uncertainty and it is characterised by a “narrative of irony as it attempts to anticipate what cannot be anticipated”.
The Second Modernity of Ulrich Beck
Beck’s social theory is constructed upon the premise that ” risk is the modern approach to foresee and control the future consequences of human action, the various unintended consequences of radicalised modernisation. It is an (institutionalised) attempt, a cognitive map, to colonise the future”. Therefore, risk can be viewed as the guiding principle of modern society, as the moral and practical ethic that drives society. We are in fact living in the world risk society, where we are “increasingly occupied with debating, preventing and managing risks”. We are then facing a new kind of modernity, a second modernity which is reflexive in the sense that it is “confronted with itself and forced to deal with itself”. It is a social and cultural process in which the fundamental assumptions and antinomies of the first modernity, defined by Beck in terms of a national society and rapid industrialisation, are questioned. And the consequence of living in this second modernity is the development of a more uncertain and insecure society (Sørensen, 2017).
According to Beck, in the present World risk society, risks are mostly man-made, consequences and negative effects of human actions. New risks are then man-made disasters (Beck, 1992), from which nobody can protect itself. Their nature is primarily transnational and their distribution unequal. As Bech’s argues, “catastrophic risk follows the poor” due to the higher probability that global risks as climate change or financial crisis will damage more regions where ” population growth, poverty, inequalities between classes and genders and corrupt, authoritarian governments all overlap”.
Moreover, the principal ontological feature of these risks is that they will always be found between “social staging and real physical threats” (Beck, 2009). Risk is never known objectively since our perception of it is always amplified by the preexisting ideas, aspirations and fears of society. As Van Loon put it? they become real through society. Society’s ideas determine our perception of risks. And, in turn, these risk perceptions influence the development of society.
In the scenario pictured by Beck, science plays a pivotal role in the creation of risk perspectives (Beck, 1992). It is, in fact, through science that new risks are evaluated based on their tangible features. We cannot, in fact, see or feel global warming, climate change or radiations. In other words, expert practices and technologies are indispensable for rendering risks observable to society (LSE Handout, 2017). The experience of the new risks is therefore in Becks’ theory a “second-hand non-experience” (Beck, 1992) and this results in society being highly dependent on science. In fact, the society of the Second Modernity has been overcome by the wrong belief that experts and science bring only the truth.
According to this thesis, risks are socially constructed in relation to the social, political and economic environments in which they occur (Tierney, 2014). Hence, they are created by the “organisation of modern society, economic life and concentrations of populations and wealth”. This is exactly why China can be defined as a risk society. The massive technological and profit-oriented reform that China undertook in 1978 created an incredible amount of risks that led, in the following decades, to a consequential lack of trust and credibility among the Chinese public (He, 2012). Hence, the reform pioneered by Deng Xiaoping can be defined as a two-side coin. The nature of these risks perfectly recalls Beck’s conception of human-made risks and the necessity to cope with them that Beck emphasised in his theory. Consequence of this lack of trust and credibility have been the 33 000 environmental accidents occurred only between 1991 and 2001 (He, 2012) and the government’s inability in managing “frauds, fake products, improper academic behaviour, illegal land transactions and pollutions, and dis-functioning civil services”.
This is when the 5-year plan (2011-2015) came in. The lack of trust and the necessity to develop intuitions capable of managing the risks generated since 1989 have been one of the reasons for its establishment. Hence, “China is currently undertaking a number of real world experiments to design and implement new institutions that can cope with the complex problems of high environmental risks, low trust and lack of credibility”.