Tuesday, March 06, 2007

Risk Society

Amongst the many interesting points brought up by Gary Was, the scale of the energy demand was something that I hadn’t thought of for some time. The number of nuclear energy plants (i.e., clean energy) needing to come online every year to power growth in the United States alone was mind-blowing. Having considerations for the rest of the world seemed impossibly high.

This is a little ironic, considering that Ulrich Beck discussed many of the issues of scale by pointing out the potential hazards of nuclear technology (amongst other things) in his book Risk Society: Towards a New Modernity. In a more-recent article he stated:

“With the past decisions on nuclear energy and our contemporary decisions on the use of genetic technology, human genetics, nanotechnology, computer sciences and so forth, we set off unpredictable, uncontrollable and incommunicable consequences that endanger life on earth.”[1]

That Beck would flash into my mind while I was watching the presentation was not surprising. However, it is interesting that looking back on what I recall reading of Beck and his arguments, he didn’t discuss the issues of risk surrounding reliance on fossil fuels. This form of energy appears to have become the albatross around the neck of industrialized society; the medallion of progress that we have accepted in place of the possible risks associated with diversification into alternative (possibly risky) energy sources.

The issue of scale – when referring back to Was’ lecture – appeared throughout his talk, and brought to mind two immediate questions:

1) Since he didn’t discuss the issue of changing scale too much, does Was think it central to the issue (and left it out for brevity’s sake) or peripheral (leaving it out for that reason)?

2) How many people recognize the issue as one encompassing different temporal and spatial scales?

As for the first question, I would like to thin the answer lies closer to the former, and that a discussion on issues of scale would be not only off-topic, but rather dull to the majority of people there (quite probably including myself). Further analysis of this question would require being able to get into Was’ head, so I will leave off here.

The second question is (while possibly just as philosophical) more interesting than the first, because it draws upon implications stemming from social constructs as well as biological limitations. Some of the more obvious social constructs that limit our recognition of scale are the “invisible hand” of the market; the overarching social identity (e.g, American individualism or Japanese conformism); and the robustness of nature.

The “invisible hand” of the market is a great “black-box” explanation of all the interactions taking place to get any good (and all its constituent energy and material flows) from its sources to you. If you were to ponder where the fried egg you had this morning actually came from, you might get back to the obvious point of a chicken (unless you get eggs from a different fowl). However, this doesn’t give you any idea about the number of chickens it takes to supply even a single grocery store’s-worth of eggs over a month; the transport network needed to get eggs from farm to packaging to warehousing to your market; and any other myriad connections I cannot even begin to fathom (and all I wanted to do was enjoy my egg!). The almost-flippant tacit semi-acknowledgement of this process in the over-used, dogmatic, and therefore near-useless term “invisible hand” is a convenient way to ignore the network underlying a majority of market transactions.

Overarching social identity is also a great way of cudgeling a nation’s people into thinking between a particular set of blinders. As a person who grew up with expectations of living according to two apparently opposing social identities (US individualism and Japan’s conformism), I realized the presence of these identity pillories early on, and did my best to have an identity of individualism of my own creation. However, I didn’t realize the immense impact an American social identity had on her citizens until returning to the US after living for 14 years abroad. It was amazing to me how people didn’t seem to comprehend things I took for granted. Two examples which stand out in my mind were the implications of countries’ interactions through history and the implications of working within coalitions of different sizes.

I would argue that the idea of the robustness of nature is both a social construct as well as a biological limitation. The robustness of nature operates as a social construct, because although we know that massive engineering projects have changed the face of the planet, we still act as if the planet cannot be broken. They physical enormity of the planet gives us comfort in this way. The time scales over which impacts are fully imprinted on the earth is much longer than our biological ability to fully comprehend, making it a biological limitation. Because of these two sets of blinders, we are unable to comprehend the absolute vastness of environmental (or socio-environmental) impacts: tsunamis, drought, famine, desertification, etc.

Our biological limitation is a limiting factor that we cannot really get past (perhaps genetic engineering at some point in the future can get us over this current high-bar and on to a different level of biological limiations). Our minds can only process so much information; can only comprehend numbers of a certain magnitude; can only grasp the interconnectedness of a frustratingly few variables; etc. Due to these limitations, we came up with simplified explanations and models of the way the world should ideally work; models that ultimately fail when taken to increasing levels of complexity. Because of this exploration of increasing complexity, having computers is a godsend. Of course, computer technology created a new set of new social and technological complexity.

At the end of the day, if we were sit down and try to think about growing levels of complexity (as I have done while thinking about and writing this paper) within any field of our choosing, I vouchsafe that it would be one of the most frustrating mental exercises you could try and attempt to do. It’s frustrating (at least to me) because of the attempt in trying to maintain all the potential outcomes as they grow exponentially, along with the number and quality of connections between each new level of elements.

This discussion of complexity all comes back (of course) to being reminded about how to scale the needs of a growing planet to that which people can grasp. From there we can only wonder what people will do when faced with the enormity of the implications behind the numbers. I suppose a form of Beck’s “risk society” has arrived, and we must face it, complete with our cultural constructs and biological limitations of understanding, as Dylan Thomas wrote, “Wild men who caught and sang the sun in flight,/And learn, too late, they grieved it on its way,/Do not go gentle into that good night.”[2]

[1] U. Beck, “The Silence of Words and Political Dynamics in the World Risk Society,” Logos, 1(4) 2002.

[2] Thomas, Dylan (2003) Collected Poems 1934-1953 (London: Phoenix).

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