Re: the Postmodern Risk Society

melanie wiber (Melanie.Wiber@ALG.AR.WAU.NL)
Wed, 6 Sep 1995 11:19:09 +0100

on this list, I offer the following topic. I have been doing research here
in Europe on changing property systems in western agriculture and have found
reference to an interesting German sociologist that perhaps everyone but me
is already familiar with. Ulrich Beck has analyzed postmodern society as
"Risikogesellschaft" or "risk-society" - the main feature of which is that
society's members are confronted with socially-created risks which endanger
the survival of the species. Our societies are characterized by "organized
irresponsibility" whereby risk producers are protected at the expense of risk
victims. He has examined how our leading social institutions, of economics
(private property, industrialization) and law (administrative law, private
law) and politics are engaged in not only producing those risks, but in
reifying risk production and making the resulting risks socially non-
existent. I quote here from the legal scholar Brun-Otto Bryde, who gives an
example of risk disappearance:
"The French, who managed in the weeks after Chernobyl to stop the radioactive
clouds at the Rhine through the simple technique of not measuring the
radioactive fall-out, certainly slept more peacefully and enjoyed their
mushrooms better than the Germans."
One of the more interesting aspects of this research is the role that
"science" (including social science) plays in risk disappearance. Risks, of
course, are dependent on knowledge. Risks must be scientifically asserted
(the hole in the ozone layer, the carcinogenic features of pesticides, the
the dangers of genetic technology) and can be scientifically refuted.
In the risk society, furthermore, you are never sure just who the aggressors
and who the victims are. You might assume that industrialists are clearly
the black hats, while farmers (salt of the earth) are wearing white hats.
But clearly, administrative law in recent years has been busily asserting the
right of society to protect itself against those environmental polluters, the
farmers, who under the pressure of contract farming might be found to be
liberally spraying their neighbors with pig manure or saturating the water
table with chemicals. Meanwhile, Greenpeace has just apologized to Shell for
overestimating the pollutants aboard their oil well platform in the North
Any comments?

M. G. Wiber
Visiting Scholar
Department of Agrarian Law
Agricultural University of Wageningen
The Nederlands