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INTERVIEW/ Ulrich Beck: System of organized irresponsibility behind the Fukushima crisis

INTERVIEW/ Ulrich Beck: System of organized irresponsibility behind the Fukushima crisis

The Asahi Shimbun interviewed German sociologist Ulrich Beck in search of answers. Beck had already pointed out that we are living in a “risk society” even before the Chernobyl nuclear disaster occurred in 1986.

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From a sociological point of view, at least in Europe but in many other countries as well, in the 19th century, we developed a system of rules in order to cope with the uncertainties and risks produced by modernity. It includes the exchange of money against loss of an eye, or loss of an arm, or loss of the whole body or loss of the whole city. The relationship between risk and insurance was actually a system of norms, or you could even say a social contract of progress.

But if you run atomic industries, you don’t have to have insurance. It’s a mixture of private and state insurance. But actually, all the amount of money, which is prepared to react to this situation, is much less than what is needed. So actually, it is beyond insurance.

Q: So we lack a system that can resolve the problem?

A: We are still thinking in terms of the 19th century. But there’s a historical mistake in thinking in those terms.

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A: I’m talking about a principle, which is actually the basis of capitalism. Atomic energy and atomic industries are, let’s say, socialist industries because the state, the population, the citizens are paying if something goes wrong.

And actually, this is a contradiction to capitalism and the market economy. We have the same discussion actually in relation to the banking system; it’s quite similar. Actually, the banks should take care of possible crises, and maybe they should have an insurance principle as well. But they don’t, so actually the state has to take it. This is socialism; this is state socialism.

Q: Before the Fukushima disaster took place, many political leaders turned to atomic energy as a solution to the problem of climate change.

A: It’s macabre to compare two kinds of risks: climate change and atomic energy. So actually, if you refer to climate change as a greater risk, companies are using the resources for legitimating, which has been created by NGOs, in order to construct the necessity of renaissance of so-called green atomic energy resource.

I think this is a mistake, and it doesn’t really take the problem seriously. We have to make the distinction between those accidents which we can control and those we can compare. If we want to have long-term responsible politics, we have to get out of climate change and atomic energy as well.

I’m not saying this has to happen tomorrow; maybe there’s a long time to go. But this has to be, I think, the basic decision.

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Q: We have to eliminate risks that we cannot control. But will politicians who have been accepting the risks be able to do so?

A: In Germany, we have a very strong civil society and civil society groups and movements in relation to the environment. Actually, the Green Party was invented as a consequence of Chernobyl.

I think, in order to make the problems–the consequences of modern technology–visible in the public, you need democracy in the sense of civil society movements. If you don’t have those movements, you have a very strong direct involvement between government and business. There’s no public, there’s no transparency, there’s no public involved.

Actually, (there is) not really democratic decision-making, but (it’s) on the basis of this kind of very strict cooperation (between government and business).

Only if we open up this very much interrelated direct interaction by a new kind of democracy involvement of civil society groups, we will have the space for public discussions, we will have the space for public alternatives, and parties are getting in.

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