Is Smog Democratic? Environmental Justice in the Risk Society

By Bovenkerk, Bernice | Melbourne Journal of Politics, Annual 2003 | Go to article overview
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Is Smog Democratic? Environmental Justice in the Risk Society

Bovenkerk, Bernice, Melbourne Journal of Politics


Sociologist Ulrich Beck states that 'poverty is hierarchic, while smog is democratic' (1). In this article, it is argued that this claim is misguided. The environmental justice movement has shown that environmental risks are unevenly distributed across class and race and, therefore, that environmental problems ore a distributive justice problem. However, a theory of environmental justice needs to address issues of recognition of group difference as well as issues of redistribution. This entails paying more attention to genuine participation of marginalized groups in environmental policy making. Moreover, a theory of environmental justice needs to take into account the special features of environmental risks and hazards such as the issues of: who is responsible for them; whether they are taken voluntarily; and how, and by whom, risk evaluation and analysis are carried out.

Keywords: risk society; environmental justice; genetic engineering


Is smog democratic? This question refers to the famous remark by Ulrich Beck that 'poverty is hierarchic, while smog is democratic'. The 'democratic' aspect of this formula points to the notion that smog is ubiquitous; it affects everyone equally and is, presumably, a matter of concern to everyone. The first aim of this article is to show that in the reality of everyday life this is not the case. But if smog is hierarchic, just like poverty, should we treat environmental problems as a distributive justice problem? My answer to that question is also no; at least, not exclusively. The second aim of this article is, therefore, to argue that there are some features of environmental problems, and environmental risks in particular, that call for a rethinking of traditional theories of justice.

The German sociologist Ulrich Beck is the founding father of the notion of risk society. According to Beck, in late modernity our society is changing from an industrial to a risk society. He distinguishes three stages of modernity: simple modernity; second, or late modernity (the transition stage between industrial and risk society); and reflexive modernity, or risk society (3). Industrial society, or simple modernity, was a society of scarcity in which the distribution of scarce goods was central. The most important issue in tiffs society was finding a legitimation for the unequal distribution of socially produced prosperity. However, in modern Western societies real material need is reduced by technological progress. At the same time, these technological developments have unleashed dangers of unknown proportions. Beck thinks that the dangers in this second stage of modernity are different in kind from the dangers of the industrial and pre-industrial era (4). For example, where risks used to have a local or personal character, the new risks are global; they affect the whole of humanity. Examples are nuclear fission, radioactive waste and the risks associated with genetic engineering. Also, new risks are not easily stopped and are not reversible. Finally, they are not readily visible and their causes are not easily found. So, typically, nobody can be held personally responsible for producing risks. They are a part of the normal functioning of all social institutions together and so appear unstoppable. For Beck, this means that in late modern society no longer do we need to legitimate social inequalities, but we need to legitimate the risks resulting from technological and economic developments. In fact, these developments themselves increasingly become the object of criticism. Beck calls this the 'reflexive character of modernity'; modernity 'is becoming its own theme' (5). He therefore characterizes reflexive modernity, or the risk society, as 'an epoch in which the dark sides of progress increasingly come to dominate social debate' (6).

Whereas the traditional industrial society was concerned with the distribution of social inequalities, reflexive modernity is concerned with the distribution of risks.

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