Producing and Managing Environmental Risk in the Scientific Community

In recent history there has been a noticeable shift from the risks of external dangers, such as natural disasters, famines and floods, to the manufactured risks created by humans (Giddens, A. 2002, p26). In other words, a change from risks concerned with what nature can do to us to a more ecocentric concern of what we can do to nature. Industrialisation was very much the turning point in this process, with damages to the environment being what Ulrich Beck refers to as a “wholesale product” of this era (1992, p20). Because there was no previous experience of anything like industrialisation, no predictions could have been made by the experts as to what the consequences would be, allowing the risks to evolve unknowingly to the public. However, with scientific observations over a period of time, the effects of these technological developments on the atmosphere became apparent. The extent of which can be seen today, with contemporary environmental risks such as global warming, nuclear power and climate change being dominant in the media.

As these environmental concerns become increasingly important in today’s society, more and more debates are occurring questioning who can be held responsible for the production as well as the management of these problems. Potential guilty parties include groups such as the state, the government- who are arguably responsible for the effect that climate change may have on humans as it is the people who elect them. There are also beliefs that NGO’s are accountable to manage the risks, and also the consumer, who perhaps has an individual moral responsibility for managing the environmental problems we face today.

In many ways, the liability can be placed upon the scientific communities. Whereas once the scientists’ aim was to improve the standards of living by means of exploiting and transforming nature, a more ecological science has today emerged with the philosophy that humans are a part of the natural life systems and therefore must live in harmony with their environment (Pepper, D. 1996, p240). This concept was made popular by Beck in his 1992 theory of a risk society. In this, he underlines throughout the impact that scientific research and technologies has had on the environment, claiming that science is “one of the causes, the medium of definition and the source of solutions” for environmental risks (1992, p155). Beck accuses the various scientific communities of not working together in order to analyse the potential threats of technologies effect on the environment. He blames this on the fact that the different denominations of science all have conflicting opinions on the matter (1992, p29), and obviously have different ways of thinking. One example he uses is the generalisation that natural scientists discuss environmental issues in chemical, biological and technological terms, with no social or cultural implications, referring to humans as mere “organic matter”. Also according to Beck, natural scientists encouraged the ignorance of risks, denying their existence to some extent and are still suppressing the idea today(1992, p70). Robert S. Chen adds to this, writing that natural science tends to focus on the ‘what if?’ aspect of determining consequences, whereas social science focuses on the ‘so what?’ questions (Chen, R. 1983, p1). Chen proceeds to blame social scientists for their bad efforts in the initial understanding of the technologies developed by the physical sciences.

Frequent disagreements and contradictions among different scientists prompt the public to start questioning their reliability, and whether they can simply just accept scientific findings (Giddens. 2002, p31). Beck also argues this point, stating that in response new scientific knowledges working to manage environmental risks are not being taken seriously. One example of this is the changing claims it makes in research. As Beck describes in World Risk Society, “the successes of science are what refute its original claims of safety” (1999, p58). In some ways, it can only be expected that as time progresses so will scientific research modify and improve itself, often contradicting its original statements in the process. However, it is also understandable that such rapid changes in scientific teaching can cause much doubt, such as the previous claims of ‘global cooling’ in the 1970’s which have since completely turned around to predictions of global warming today (Giddens, 2002, p29).

Furthermore, scientific research today no longer questions the development of technology, but is facing the problems and management of the very same technology. This is what Beck has referred to as ‘reflexive modernization’, in that science is reflecting on new knowledges and using these to change the way we act and think, specifically towards the environment. “Scientific civilisation has entered a stage in which it no longer merely scientizes nature, people and society, but increasingly itself, its own products, effects and mistakes” (Beck, 1992). This can be seen as revealing scientific insecurities and imperfections, the “demystification” of the sciences (Ibid.).

There are also issues of trust in respect to the methods in which risk is measured. According to Beck, risks can be measured in two ways; the first being the probability of hazard (how likely it is to occur) and secondly the quantifiable measure of how much damage would be caused (1992, p30). He argues that no matter how improbable an accident may be, the risk is too great when the accident means total destruction. He provides a good example to support this later on, referring to the Chernobyl accident in Ukraine, 1986, adding that although ‘safety’ and ‘probable safety’ may seem to have very similar meanings; they are in fact worlds apart
(Beck. 1999, p60). There are criticisms also which question whether there actually are ‘safe’ levels of risk, and should scientists (or perhaps which group of scientists) be allowed to determine these. Beck questions how and when these levels can be deemed as no longer acceptable (1992, p29). These scientific investigations are mainly made on assumptions of probability and quantifiability, as actual accidents have generally not yet occurred on which to base predictions. However, it could also be argued that scientists will use the new levels of safety as experiments, with the excuse that any problems with this method will be solved by later scientific advances. In this way, any accidents which do occur can be dismissed as part of a “technological learning-curve” (Irwin. A et al, 2000, p82).

Beck also explains that although traditionally science may have been very much a reliable and equitable source, science has always “abandoned foundations of experimental logic” and instead married itself to businesses, politics and ethics (1992, p29). David Pepper supports this in claiming that science has become corrupt, giving biased views on the subjects of nature and environment (1996, p272).

Another way in which science has indirectly had an impact in the production of environmental risks is gaps between scientific and social rationality (p30). Beck states that a lack of communication between science and society means no progress can be made, as scientific concern relies on social expectations to determine what is acceptable at the time, and likewise the social perception of the environment depends on scientific discussion. The two are interdependent. Too often science will base its research on assumptions, and ignores the questions of society. They need to take an ethical point of view on the matter. This is maintained by Pepper, who declares “science is never independent of its social context”. The research conducted by science cannot be fully understood without first understanding the society in which these risks work (Pepper. 1996, p240-241). He also describes science as the “culture filter” through which society perceives and understands the environment, so there is also a scientific responsibility to provide relevant information in an effective way. Difficulties of this involve the fact that research often develops at a rate too fast for the public to absorb the necessary information. This prevents people from giving feedback to the scientific communities on the information they had been given, so it is impossible to know whether the information was useful or not (Warrick. R, Riebsame. W, 1983, p46). By creating a bond between the scientific and social communities, they can each learn from each other, particularly aiding in social learning so that the public can be reflexive and change their lifestyles to support the environment (Cloke. P et al, 1999, p308).

Some arguments have been outlined putting forward ideas of how the scientific community is in some cases liable for managing these new risks. So the question remains as to the extent science should be responsible for the management of contemporary environmental risks.

A common suggestion relating to the scientific management of new risks is the use of media coverage. Today, media is everywhere and can strongly influence the opinions and concerns of the public. It is involved in the “risk translation” in the news (Cloke. P, 1999, p305), effectively controlling our interpretations of scientific research. Many argue that this manipulates the audience’s opinions, which to some extent may be true. However, if science and the media can cooperate fairly, it could create space in the media for scientists and various other specialists in the field to be subject to “much wider and more democratic debate” (Ibid.). This is particularly important as it encourages questions and sparks public interest, “public discussion of modernisation is the key” (1992, p161). The media is also today representing more and more the voices of local ‘non-specialist’ people, together with scientific expertise, creating a broader spectrum of opinions and ideas (Rose. H, 2000, p64).

Effective management of environmental risks requires relationships to be built within the scientific community. Risks need to be explained by all the different sciences in order to fully understand the effects they will have on the environment, atmosphere, biodiversity and humanity alike (1992, p160). However, it is also vital to build trust between society and science in order for the two communities to successfully manage the environmental risks. There are some mistrusts towards scientists, previously mentioned, which will have an effect on this relationship. Beck proposes that if the sciences accept and deal with their past mistakes, they will be able to maintain their credibility against the non-specialised sphere. He predicts that this positive embrace of risk and responsibility will create the opportunity for the mistakes to transform into opportunities for “expansion and development” (1992, p159).

Many people, presented with the equation that science and technology have produced the risks we now face, have become anti-technology, and claim that technology provokes new risks (Virilio. P, 2008, p32). Although given the evidence to date, this opinion is understandable; we must consider that there are ways in advancing in technology sustainably.

Some may argue that there is not enough evidence to suggest that humans are causing or at least having an impact on new environmental risks. However, I agree with Giddens’ idea of a ‘precautionary principle’, which basically states that action should be taken to combat environmental risks regardless of the insecurities within the scientific proof (Giddens, 2002, p32). The risks are no longer tied to their place of origin; they will begin to effect people everywhere, and on a much broader time scale. The full impacts of our actions today may not be visible for generations to come. The forecasted ecological disasters will ignore nation borders and the various socio-economic classes, as Beck speculates (p22-23), and therefore attempts to deal with the new risks will have to be tackled by everyone as a whole. In his respect, for the management and required changes to occur, we must recognise the need to act firstly on social change, supporting vulnerable societies who are more susceptible to the new risks (Torry. W, 1983, p225). This will require economic development and aid in some of the poorest nations, preparing them to be able to support themselves in the face of new risks.

Giddens supports this, stating that governments need to stop pretending that they have no responsibility for the management of the environment and collaborate (Giddens, 2002, p34). Beck suggests that risk and responsibility are actually intrinsically connected (Beck, 1999, p6), and therefore if you are at risk (which as we have just examined, means everyone), then you have a responsibility over the management of the environmental risks.

In order to be able to effectively prevent and minimise environmental risks, we need to profoundly change the ways in which we use the natural environment which we rely on and the physical systems within it (Cloke. P et al, 1999, p308).


Adam. B, Beck. U, Van Loon. J (eds). (2000) The Risk Society and Beyond; Critical Issues for Social Theory. London: SAGE Publications.
Beck, U. (1992) Risk Society. London: SAGE Publications.
Beck, U. (1999) World Risk Society. Oxford: Blackwell Publishers Ltd.
Chen. R, Boulding. E, Schneider. S (eds). (1983) Social Science Research and Climate Change. Holland: D. Reidel Publishing Company.
Cloke. P, Crang. P, Goodwin. M. (1999) Environmental Knowledges and Environmentalism: Introducing Human Geographies. London: Hodder Arnold.
Giddens, A. (2002) Risk: Runaway World. London: Profile Books Ltd.
Pepper, D. (1996) Modern Environmentalism. London: Routledge.
Virilio. P et al (2008) Pure War. New York: MIT Press.


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