Critical aspects of risk theory facing environmental conflicts
Sociology ISEG, Technical University of Lisbon & SOCIUS Lisbon, Portugal
The concept of risk is a useful key for discussing the relationship between technology and the environment, where the nexus is derived from the fact that risk is the outcome of human actions. In the reworkings of the idea by writers such as Lagadec and Beck - whether confined, as in the case of the French sociologist, to those technological developments which have a potentially catastrophic impact or expanded, as in the case of the German sociologist, to a full description of contemporary societies -, the concept of risk has cleverly brought the discussion of technology's new dangers to the environment into the realm of the social sciences. There are, however, three major problems. First, the broader, macro-sociological interpretation of risk failed to make a clear analytical distinction between risk itself and closely-related concepts such as uncertainty, ignorance, danger and threat. Secondly, in late modernity we are experiencing a change from the logic of wealth distribution in a society of scarcity to the logic of risk distribution, which neglects ecological conflicts set in motion before the nuclear and biotechnological risks emerged. Thirdly, there is a problem at the heart of the idea of risk as the product of human action, which is generally interpreted as "manufactured risk". On the one hand, the term "manufactured" is not the most suitable term for highlighting the unexpected results of processes which we set in motion unintentionally. On the other hand, natural disasters cease to exist, giving way to the social amplification of risks, and even making man entirely responsible for all "evils". In discussion of these three problem areas associated with the concept of risk, I will seek to show that the sociology of technology and the sociology of the environment need to question each other on the relations between human beings and contingency, at a time when the vanished Goddess of Fortune is mutating into new forms.