Tuesday, April 8, 2008

The Risk Society

Under Mont Blanc in France, the European Union is building “The Large Hadron Collider”, the latest and most expensive in a series of particle accelerators designed to plumb the mysteries of physical nature. The bigger size - 27 kilometers in circumference, and bigger bucks - $8 billion, means that atoms can be smashed together at greater speeds and energy.

A legal suit was brought against this project by a group of seven people in order to stop it from going forward based on the argument that particle collisions at these previously unachieved energy levels could unleash uncontrollable chain reactions that could destroy the earth. Far fetched? Most physicists think so, but they do allow that it is, in fact, a theoretical possibility, although a very small one. One of the seven: Walter L. Wagner, had brought a similar legal suit against construction of an accelerator in Brookhaven New York nine years ago. The suit was dismissed, the accelerator was turned on, and as a Times reporter said: “ We're still here.”

Still, that fact doesn't mean it couldn't happen the next time does it? It's the scientists overseeing the creation of this monstrosity that are the ones who will try and determine what the actual risks are. In fact, because of gaps in theoretical physics, no-one really knows what the risks are. Perhaps this “experiment” will help us fill in these gaps. Do you feel better now?

Doesn't the fact that they want to see this thing built so they can smash things up and see what neat new particles are created mean that there is a conflict of interest here? Maybe their insatiable curiosity about what really happened during the “Big Bang” makes them less risk averse than your average citizen.

It reminds me a little too closely of science fiction - the recent movie - “I Am Legend” and the late Kurt Vonnegat's book “Slaughterhouse Five”. Both are stories about scientific experiments that go horribly wrong on a global scale.

About twenty years ago a German sociologist named Ulrich Beck wrote a prescient book called The Risk Society. Beck claimed that modern industrial society has undergone a fundamental change since the Second World War. We have gone from a society organized for the production of goods to one that is increasingly organized in response to its production of risks.

Of course, human society has always known natural risks such as disease, crop failure, earthquakes, floods, etc, but in the twentieth century, for the first time, our lives have come to be dominated by man-made risks. Nuclear meltdowns, nuclear winter, chemical poisons like DDT and dioxin, CFC's and the destruction of ozone, and that grandaddy of all – global warming, to name a few.

As Beck points out these man-made risks share certain characteristics: They are caused by advances in technology. The consequences of these risks are increasingly global, affecting everyone everywhere. Hence they cannot be easily escaped by having a large income or living in gated communities. The nature of these risks is often neither visible nor perceptible to the victims. This implies that they can only be understood through scientific expertise, but at the same time it is science and technology that has created the risks in the first place.

Finally, much of these risks are unknowable and incalculable. They may or may not play out in the future so we can only guess at their extent or severity. According to Beck, society has been turned into a laboratory where scientists cannot really determine the risks until they actually go ahead and perform the experiments on all the rest of us. It's no wonder then, that the priviliged status of science is under attack from many quarters.

The science of “geoengineering” has led to proposals that global warming could be counteracted by dumping mirrors into space or having jet planes spray sulfer into the atmosphere to reflect the sunlight away from the earth , and to dumping tons of iron filings into the ocean to increase ocean fertility and thus increase the global absorption of carbon dioxide. There could be catastrophic risks involved in doing these things but we won't know what they are unless we are stupid enough to try them out.

The question of the development and employment of technologies is being eclipsed by questions of the political and economic management of the risks that utilizing these technologies creates. Indeed, certain political forces are deeply involved in denying these risks because of the perceived costs of eliminating them. We see evidence of this in the Bush administration's suppression of climate science and the Harper government's decision to ramp up tar sands production in the total absence of public input.

We really have no choice but to become more involved as citizens in risk prevention since the politicians and the scientists are more than happy to use us as their guinea pigs in their quest for knowledge and power.

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