No theory forbids me to say "Ah!" or "Ugh!", but it forbids me the bogus theorization of my "Ah!" and "Ugh!" - the value judgments. - Theodor Julius Geiger (1960)

Incalculable Futures: World Risk Society and Its Social and Political Implications

In this paper, Ulrich Beck asks the question: What does living in and dealing with a global risk society mean? My summary, below.


Beck begins with an interesting case: an interdisciplinary committee of experts was asked to develop a language or symbol that could warn people ten thousand years from now against the threats posed by US nuclear waste dumps. How do we fulfill the task of warning future generations of the dangers we have brought into the world with the help of modern technologies? The question turned out to be unsolvable. Language, experts said, could be understood for up to two thousand years. The oldest known symbols are at most a few thousand years old, not ten thousand. Even the symbol of the skull and crossbones has no unambiguous meaning. A psychologist conducted an experiment with three-year-olds: when the symbol was stuck on a bottle, they cried out anxiously 'poison!', but when it was placed on a wall, they shouted enthusiastically 'pirates!'.


Risk is ambivalence, according to Beck. Global risk is the human condition at the turn of the twenty-first century. Beck views this through the concepts of manufactured uncertainty and global risk society. How can two different views - self-destruction and the ability to start over - balance each other?

The accumulation of risks - environmental, terrorist, military, financial, biomedical and informational - is overwhelming in our world. According to Beck, there are three possible reactions to this:

  • Denial, which is embedded in our modern culture;
  • Apathy, because we simply don't know everything and there are all kinds of opinions about risk;
  • Transformation of perceptions, living conditions and institutions of our modern society.


There is a constant demand for rationalization, which increases according to uncertainty and which can be responded to in two ways: by recognizing uncertainty and by ignoring uncertainty and unpredictability. Ignoring a possible catastrophe amplifies it; but that a catastrophe occurs is not inevitably the case. When unpredictable uncertainty is recognized it can become a source of creativity, the reason to experiment with the new.


The future is open, but we must pretend to know and anticipate the future. Uncertainty is, according to Beck, a basic condition for human knowledge and existence. Religion, literature, probability and scenario planning are examples of ways we use to deal with uncertainty.


The moment risks manifest themselves, for example in the form of a terrorist attack, they cease to be a risk and become catastrophes. The risk then shifts to anticipating further attacks, inflation, new markets, wars or the restriction of civil liberties. Without visualization techniques, without symbolic forms, without mass media, risks are nothing at all. Beck's point: If destruction and disaster are socially constructed, it can create a social and political compulsion to act.

Beck distinguishes threats, risks and manufactured uncertainties, which also occur in mixed forms. Diseases, short life expectancy, wars and epidemics used to exist, but not as a risk, but as a threat. Risk presupposes human decisions and human-made futures. While reliance on large-scale planning and regulation has proven to be deceptive, risk requires political commitment to accountability and accountability for the future. Finally, manufactured uncertainties depend on human decisions, created by society itself, to be observed from the outside, individually unavoidable, not in line with long-known and experienced risks and institutionalized routines, are therefore unpredictable, uncontrollable and no longer insurable. Climate change, financial crises and terrorism are examples. They don't perform in one location, but are ubiquitous. Their consequences are incalculable and cannot be compensated. That is why the precautionary principle is used.


Beck writes that both within the frame of reference of the nation-state, Mary Douglas' cultural theory and Michel Foucault's social/political theory, he sees too much manufactured uncertainty as an ally in the struggle against the reproduction of the social order and the political power structure. Beck's theory of reflexive modernization emphasizes the importance of the potentially transformative power of global risk conflicts and definitions.


Active involvement in the future, striving to reduce its uncertainty, is necessary. Specific tools have been developed to tackle the unknown that lies ahead. Traditionally, societies saw existential threat from disease, premature death, epidemics and famine as divinely decreed. Pre-modern societies, unless they rely on the voluntarism of divine omnipotence or believe in the arbitrary mutability of fortune, attempt to tame the future by inferring its shape from eternally immutable laws as described, for example, in the course of the stars. Advances in the mathematical calculation of the celestial bodies are used to predict future events; astrology provided scientific support for politics. Such attempts to manage the uncertainty of the future become obsolete with the establishment of astronomy as a science. Yet they live on in the form of forecasts and farmers' calendars.


Once the concept of contingency begins to gain ground, different approaches need to be developed. Risk refers to a future made known by measurement; and while this quantitative knowledge remains speculative, it forms a basis for rational decisions and calculations that are no longer determined by the belief or affective perception of danger. We are no longer passively exposed, we take risk actively.

Originally, risk is rooted in a premodern belief system (God-given fortune). Risk takes on a secular use in maritime trade, through engagement with the unknown that calculates and measures perceived threats. The nascent colonialism has more and more worldwide operations of European trade and travel. New threats are emerging, but so are new opportunities. This is the origin of modern insurance.

Probability assumptions underlying this must be made plausible by means of model calculations. During the 17th and 18th centuries, this general application of probability extended to ethics, replacing moral certainty with the justification of any action based on solid probable opinion. Statistically based forecasting determines economic and social life today.


As early as 1937, Keynes wrote about uncertain knowledge, such as the price and the interest rate in twenty years. At the same time, the knowledge, control and security claim of the state and society had to be renewed, deepened and expanded. Society relies more than ever on security and control over the production of manufactured uncertainties. Whether this is rational or hysterical is often unclear.

Politicians, in particular, can easily be forced to declare a security that they cannot abide by, because the political cost of inaction far outweighs the cost of overreaction. An open question is how a diabolical power game with the hysteria of not knowing can be actively limited and prevented.


The expected state of emergency is no longer national but cosmopolitan. It is the perceived risks facing humanity, which cannot be denied or externalized, which are able to awaken the energies, the consensus, the legitimacy necessary for the creation of a global community of destiny. In the global risk society, we anticipate unintended side effects of catastrophes (such as climate change and the financial crisis) and anticipate deliberate catastrophes, which have no clearly identifiable agent. How do we politically deal with this distinction between anticipating unintended (useful to some, destructive to others, such as climate catastrophes etc.) and intended catastrophes (the terrorist world is the deliberate attempt to create hell on Earth).

Global risks come from within as unintended consequences of radicalized free-market economies (financial crises) and industrialization (climate change).

The cosmopolitan moment of the risk society means, the conditio humana of the irreversible non-excludability of the distant and strange other. The global other is in our midst through risk. Man must find the meaning of life in the exchange with others and no longer in the encounter with equals. We are all trapped in a shared global space of threats - with no exit. This can give rise to very contradictory reactions. One of them involves recognizing others as equal and different.


Global risks open up a moral and political space that can give rise to a civic culture of responsibility that transcends borders and conflict. The traumatic experience that everyone is vulnerable and the resulting responsibility for others, including for one's own survival, are the two sides of the belief in global risks. The poorest, the most vulnerable, are the worst affected. We experience a state socialism for the rich, whose costs are being placed on the shoulders of the poor – nationally and globally.

Depictions of danger in the mass media can give a voice to the underprivileged, marginalized and minorities. Beck gives the example of Hurricane Katrina; I recommend Spike Lee's documentary "When the Levees Broke".


After the collapse of communism, only one adversary of the free market remains, namely the unbridled free market that undermines its own conditions. The market is not what economists have made and led us to believe, the answer, the savior of all our problems, but a threat to our very existence. Market regulation is desperately needed, an international constitution even to negotiate conflicts over answers to global risks and problems - building on consensus between parties, nations, religions, friend and foe.

Produced uncertainties, global risks are, very ambivalently, paradoxically also a moment of hope, of incredible opportunities.


Global risk-public spheres have a very different structure from the public sphere explored by Jürgen Habermas. Not all involved have equal opportunities to participate and are committed to the principles of rational discourse. The threat of the public sphere is no more a matter of commitment than of rationality. The images of disasters do not make cool heads. False alarms, misunderstandings, convictions are part of the story. They resemble the image of 'Mediapolis' by Roger Silverstone and the image that John Dewey paints in The Public and Its Problems (1927): a public sphere does not arise from a public interest in collectively binding decisions, but is set in motion when its consequences become the subject of appreciation or striving, or of fear and rejection. The perception of risk creates a public sphere across all borders. Global risk conflicts destabilize the existing order, but can also be seen as a crucial step towards building new institutions, says Beck.


Beck, U. (2014), Ulrich Beck - Pioneer in Cosmopolitan Sociology and Risk Society, Cham/Heidelberg/New York/Dordrecht/London: Springer.

Beck talks about this paper here: