A trajectory of risk consciousness

What social and political conditions have encouraged a risk perspective on life? The question does not denigrate the contribution risk consciousness makes to addressing legitimate concerns.

The pervasiveness of risk consciousness and aversion comes from deeper anxieties about life. They are part of broader historical forces impacting on our sense of self and how we view the world. From the early 1990s onwards a series of books highlighted a profound shift in our view of the modern world and notion of progress embedded in the Enlightenment ethos.9 The increasing disenchantment targets the Enlightenment's limitless optimism, the arrogance and over confidence of science and industrialism, the fear that technology is out of control, the speed and scope of globalization and its unintended effects, or unconstrained pollution. This has coincided with the decline of traditional ties that provided values and models for action and readily understandable identities for individuals, whether through religion, ideology or a fixed community setting. Those value bases anchored people, giving them a purpose and direction allowing them to negotiate life's travails. The erosion of tradition and taken-for-granted relationships and responsibilities breaks continuities and establishes uncertainty within which individuals have to assess lifestyle options them-


The paradox is that the freedom of choice projected as liberation, especially in the commercial world, is then experienced as frightening. When little can be taken for granted, like ties of community, ideology or other forms of solidarity, it is difficult to know which information to trust and what to predict. This loosening of ties feels like swimming in the rapids with free-floating anxieties.

Periods of transformation and transition can involve a mix of heady expectation and worry as the foundations are reassessed before they move to a more settled pattern. Within this setting, trust in oneself and others erodes. Everything is uncertain. Francis Fukuyama defines trust as 'the expectation that arises within a community of regular, honest and cooperative behaviour, based on commonly shared norms, on the part of other members of the community'.11 An absence of trust in humanity shapes our perception of risk. It is a symptom of the cleavages which have made us fearful and risk aware. Misfortune cannot be blamed on acts of God so the blame must lie elsewhere.

Risk consciousness rises when conditions of uncertainty and the perception of powerlessness increase. Unable to control pressing issues, from environmental degradation, crime and health hazards to the imbalances created by globalization, the 'system' is to blame for what is wrong. This affects public perceptions and the emotional frame which guides perceptions independent of the reality of risk, so negating objective risk calculations. The sense of powerlessness, vulnerability and impotence begins to shape self-identity. The responsible individual as potential maker, shaper and creator of the environment becomes a passive individual, always on the receiving end. The world is negotiated as a dangerous jungle with risks lurking in the undergrowth beyond the control of humanity. The author of circumstance becomes the victim of circumstance. Resilience, alertness and self-responsibility lose sway and by making claims we assert our authority and identity.

How responsibility and accountability is defined is determined by social and political norms. If we focus on the fragility of people it shapes norms of accountability. People who believe they cannot cope will find it difficult to be responsible for their behaviour.

Blame is credited to an external force and the sense of responsibility is distanced from ourselves. It legitimates the growth of litigation and shifts individualism defined as self-sufficiency and personal responsibility to a rights-oriented individualism. 'The expansion of the right to compensation is proportional to the shrinking of individual autonomy.'12

Ironically this raises a further paradox, as the science that now allows us to assess and calculate risk is the science that we blame for causing risk in the first place. The capacity to absorb the speed of change is difficult, which is why the notion of the precautionary principle has gained currency. That principle suggests we are not merely concerned about risk but are also suspicious of finding solutions. It is best not to take a new risk unless all outcomes can be understood in advance. Judgement remains the key in deciding where to act with caution and where to give leeway for experiment.

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