Academic journal article Environment and Planning D: Society and Space

Beyond World Risk Society? A Critique of Ulrich Beck's World Risk Society Thesis as a Framework for Understanding Risk Associated with Human Activity in Outer Space

Academic journal article Environment and Planning D: Society and Space

Beyond World Risk Society? A Critique of Ulrich Beck's World Risk Society Thesis as a Framework for Understanding Risk Associated with Human Activity in Outer Space

Article excerpt

Introduction

"The impact of the industrial way of life ... is spatially and temporally open and tends to extend across the globe, on the one hand, and to the stratosphere and the universe, on the other "

Ulrich Beck (1999, page 144)

Ulrich Beck's work has continually emphasised the global nature of the hazards threatening contemporary social life, and of the politics that are needed to address risk. The aim of this paper is to explore the risks associated with the expansion of social processes into the upper atmosphere, Earth's orbit, and beyond, as suggested by the above quote but not explored any further in Beck's own work (see also Dickens and Ormrod, 2009). Beck identifies a number of features characterising a new form of risk (eg, that the potential damage caused is irrevocable and not limited in time or space). I suggest that this new form of risk is amplified further in regard to human activity in space. However, following existing lines of criticism, I also argue strongly that Beck's work is limited in his ability to theorise either the relationship between capital and power or the human subject (Elliott, 2002; Rustin, 1994). Exploring the generation of, and responses to, heightened risks associated with activity in space exposes even more starkly the shortcomings of Beck's understanding of risk politics. I argue instead for the value of Marxist and psychoanalytic approaches to risk, which it has been argued offer well-established theoretical apparatus for understanding the causal mechanisms at work beneath the phenomena Beck describes (Dickens, 2001).

When Beck first outlined his 'risk society' thesis in 1986 (English translation 1992) it established risk as a lens through which contemporary social reality could be viewed, and set out a vision of the future of politics that was both 'coming into view' and desirable. But a number of significant critiques of his work have since emerged from both within sociology and elsewhere (see, for example, Mythen and Walklate, 2006). The most discussion has centred on whether Beck's understanding of risk is a realist or constructionist one. Beck himself has addressed this ambiguity in later work by emphasising risk as a discourse distinct from 'hazards' or 'catastrophes' (which refer to real dangers), or as a type of 'virtual reality' (see, for example, Beck, 1999, pages 135-137). Whilst this has not clarified his position conclusively, any simplistic reading of Beck as arguing either that the world has become riskier (see Mythen, 2004), or that risk merely intervenes between 'really existing risks' and our response to them (Aradau and Van Munster, 2007), is untenable. Beck is not guilty of the mistakes associated with cognitive approaches to risk communication, which seek to redress the disparity between real actuarial risk and perceived risk (for a discussion, see Wilkinson, 2010). Nor is Beck's position as far from that developed by his Foucauldian critics--who have focused on how discourses and 'dispositifs' of risk function as forms of governance (eg, Aradau and Van Munster, 2007; Lobo-Guerrero, 2007)--as is sometimes suggested. From this perspective, discourses and dispositifs can both bring into being the risks they supposedly articulate and preemptively control behaviour. The latter has become a key focus of those who have critiqued the neoliberal discourse of risk as part of the 'responsibilisation' agenda (eg, Rose, 1996).

The risks discussed in this paper present a different set of issues. In stark contrast to discourse around terrorism, for example, one of the key issues has been that risk discourses concerning outer space so rarely find their way into everyday life. It is therefore important to think about who does and does not engage with risk discourse, with one possibility being that risk is simply ignored (see Macnaghton, 2006; Wilkinson, 2010), Wilkinson (2010) also problematises the ambiguous relationship between risk and rationality: is risk discourse an extension of Enlightenment rationality, or the irrational and anxious response to disillusionment with it? …

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