March 27, 2013, by Brigitte Nerlich

Competitive risk promotion: A historical assessment

This is a guest blog post by Adam Burgess, who specialises in the sociology of risk (University of Kent, School of Social Policy, Sociology and Social Research)Pills, by Sarah Macmillan

I’d like to take up where Brigitte left off in her blog post about the antibiotic apocalypse and very schematically draw attention to what I would describe as a process of competitive risk promotion that I’ve observed over the years and which made me interested in the ‘risk society’ and its curiosities. Sally Davies’ comments on antibiotic resistance are an appropriate starting point. Not only did she boldly elevate her concerns about new bacteria over climate change, but she also struck out in a different direction, reflected in the BBC headline to the story claiming that antibiotic resistance presented ‘as big a risk as terrorism’. Thus she made her case for attention through setting the risks posed by antibiotic resistance directly against two of the current ‘big three’ global risks (omitting obesity) and making a case for risk promotion.

All this is also of relevance to the issue of climate change, which has found itself not only competing in a difficult risk market but also being singled out for an inclination towards over-dramatisation by critics. I don’t want to claim that risks posed by climate change do not exist but, rather, that risk promotion around climate change is part of a much wider phenomenon of projecting open-ended risks into the future.

Some historical background

The process is partly an outcome of the way in which, since the 1980s, a myriad of risks have been grappling for public attention as pervasive and open ended. I first became interested in risk through the reaction to AIDS in the UK back in the late 1980s, when TV adverts and posters of glaciers and tombstones were pervasive and leaflets came through every person’s door with the message that this disease knew no bounds. It struck me back then how what we might understand, in effect, as ‘alarmism’ was articulated in the probabilistic, amoral language of risk. But, in another sense, ‘alarmism’ it was, as the distinction between who was actually ‘at risk’ and who wasn’t was consciously blurred. This is where Ulrich Beck’s insights into modern risks become useful; not as real trends but as larger…pervasive…without bounds. I don’t think ‘catastrophism’ captures the sense of things well, or at least we should understand that it has become implicit rather than explicit (unlike during the 1970s when a certain environmental catastrophism prevailed).

We then had a succession of food ‘panics’ that began to recast political culture and routinise the over-, rather than underplaying of potential threats. The mobile phone radiation issue of the late 1990s was very much a product of this era, capturing what Brigitte describes as the ‘mundane becoming threatening’. Unlike antibiotic resistance, this was however an artificial, anticipatory alarmism where the media pursued what they imagined might be ‘the next smoking’ and ministers were now – after BSE or mad cow disease – so petrified of being caught having underplayed a risk that they overplayed it instead.

The risk market, politics and the media

The process was rather random, with nobody in control. Ministers, even Prime Ministers, could be compelled to jump through media hoops, even responding to the pet concerns of newspapers by declaring their support for their campaigns against MRSA or supermarket plastic bags, for example (as Gordon Brown did for the Daily Mail’s campaign). Certainly the risk market place was becoming overcrowded. Other developments at an international level complemented the problem. International charities developed an aggressive, ultimately competitive style over whose cause was more deserving. Propaganda around international conflicts developed a mode of overstating the strength and threat of the enemy rather than directly denigrating them. In a sense this was when the environmental catastrophism of the 1970s became an international policy norm. Uncertainty was routinely sidelined.

Against this historical background I don’t think there is anything particularly distinctive about how climate change has been ‘hyped’ (that is anything particular about climate change ‘alarmism’); it seems to me that different individuals and agencies responded in broadly similar terms to the pressures and signals which they encountered to state the problem in the most dramatic terms possible – just like every other risk.

Comparing risks and the phenomenon of large numbers

More recently I have detect a trend to substantiate these claims with a – very large – figure, of how much this will cost us. This is particularly clear with the new lifestyle risks which have come to the fore, as they’ve had to push against their more established competitors and are particularly beset with the problem of long term impacts that lack any clear edge.

Turning to the sense in which all of this can be seen as problematic, one of the ironies is that setting risks against each other is, at least on paper, a good idea. Risks need to be compared with each other and against their own costs and benefits if we are to make sense of them and decide upon any course of action. We have to make sense of what are, after all, projected problems based on past data trends, or even just statements or projections. Instead, problems are so often assumed to be self-evident once they’re revealed to have an impressive-sounding scale – perhaps larger than the ones you’re already worried about. How many times have pronouncements on climate change simply been ominous declarations of the – hitherto unrealised – scale and seriousness of the problem?

Explaining risks

I detect a striking reluctance to accompany alarming projections with balance or even basic explanation. Nobody seems bothered to try and square the obesity epidemic with still-rocketing life expectancy, for example. This is made worse by the increased political reluctance to make an argument separate from the authority of expertise. Returning now to Sally Davies’ and her case for antibiotic resistance, I was actually quite taken with what she had to say, as she at least went beyond simply ‘bigging up’ her own issue, but began to flesh out an argument and did so with some conviction. The headlines of course then bigged things up, as they are want to do.

[Image credit: Pills, by Sarah Macmillan]

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