Academic journal article Environment and Planning D: Society and Space

Surviving the Turbulent Future

Academic journal article Environment and Planning D: Society and Space

Surviving the Turbulent Future

Article excerpt

"A wise old bureaucrat once told us: 'let me control the pipes and wires and I control the city'."

Merkel and Whittaker (2010, page 133)


If 20th-century modernism clung to the hope of progress for all and mastery over future vicissitude, our times seem to be preparing for a rougher ride, without the confidence of knowing how best to forestall hazard and risk or harness the future for general well-being. The challenge is posed by recurring emergencies that now manage to penetrate even the heartlands of state security in the North, unsettled by unanticipated or all-consuming natural disasters, infrastructural failures, biological or digital pandemics, war and terror, and capitalist profligacy. Governments and experts are beginning to think the future as ungovernable, radically uncertain and dangerous, a test to established cultures of risk management based on honed technologies of prediction, prevention, and protection. There is an emerging sense that the tried tools of governance are inappropriate for the new circumstances. Thus, the tradition of forecasting based on linear projections of past trends is considered inadequate for the purpose of anticipating the surprises thrown up by a world system in disequilibrium, the 'all-protections' approach entrusted to the state and delegated experts is judged too rigid and panoptical in addressing risks that are plural, distributed, and evolving, and the legacy of comprehensive protections against mishap is described by insurers as too costly in an age of large-scale damage (Jasanoff, 2010).

A new language of anticipating and managing the future is beginning to form in states most convinced by the need to alter the calculus of control. These happen to be neoliberal polities such as Britain and the US, keen to move away from an all-protections and state-dependent culture of risk management on ideological grounds, wanting to place themselves at the vanguard of action against the opaque and turbulent future at the same time as appearing on the side of laissez-faire (Amin, 2012). The result is a set of diverging responses shoehorned into a seemingly singular narrative of risk management held together by new keywords. Thus, on the side of finessing certitude, governments, research organisations, and businesses are investing heavily in new tools to see and act in the dark. This includes relying on risk forecasting methods based on probabilistic calculation, aided by sophisticated models offering close-to-real-life scenarios due to their parametric and temporal responsiveness. It includes developing weapons of surveillance, resistance, and attack to forestall or repel threat, shrouded in alarmist talk of catastrophic endings and erosion of the liberal way of life without aggressive intervention against would-be terrorists, failed states, viruses, germs, and toxins (Dillon and Reid, 2009; Massumi, 2009; Ophir, 2010). It includes engineering new bodies, states of mind, and heroic or entrepreneurial subjectivities to tackle risk by taking risks in order to emerge victorious, more resilient (Cooper, 2008; O'Malley, 2010; Rose, 2007; Thrift, 2011).

On the side of accepting incertitude, these polities increasingly reference their liberal traditions as the means of confronting a future of permanent insecurity and unavoidable danger. Whereas the earlier 'command and control' approach worked on placing public trust in a panoptical authority, today the outpouring of government advice, expert opinion and stories of survival in the public sphere speaks of the limits of centralised risk management, the heroism of individuals who spring forth during an emergency, the desirability of personal contingency plans, the need to lower public expectations, and the indispensability of public vigilance and involvement. Through such exhortations, the uncertain future is rendered a shared societal problem, an opportunity to temper the furies of fate through individual and collective empowerment. …

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