Swimming with Sharks, and the World Risk Society

Last summer, I went snorkeling at a place called Kicker Rock off of the coast of Ecuador. The place is a shark highway, and is abundant in Blacktip, Galapagos, and Hammerhead sharks. Looking down through the crystal clear waters, I looked on in wonder as these ancient predators passed below me. Two days later, I snorkeled again in deeper water and felt afraid. I was in a location not known for sharks, but I could not see as far through the water. The presence of a killer shark was an unknown for me, as was what direction it might come from. For the rest of my swim, I could not shake my uneasy feeling. According to Beck, while I had a higher chance for catastrophe (Shark attack) at Kicker Rock, I had a greater perception of risk, or the believed possibility of shark attack at the second location.

Shark attacks, like terrorist attacks, capture the public imagination because of their unpredictability. Terrorist attacks can have a higher level of risk, however, because of their ability to happen anywhere in the world, not just in an ocean. According to Beck, attempts by governments and individuals to anticipate the wrong kind of risk can lead to darkly ironic outcomes, such as governments spending billions on a missile defense system and limiting civil rights and liberties. Emulating ideas expressed in Johnson’s article on Blowback, Beck believes that “Modern society has become a risk society in the sense that it is increasingly occupied with debating, preventing and managing risks that it itself has produced”. In this way, an overestimation of risk can be detrimental to those attempting to prevent catastrophe, as it can blind people to the true sources of catastrophe and can lead to actions that only increase the risk. While risk is omnipresent and the source can be uncertain, we still do what we can to prevent catastrophe while recognizing that we will have to be flexible in the face of an unknown event. Finally, we must reconcile how we react to risk with the real possibility of catastrophe.  Otherwise, we will be stuck dynamite fishing for sharks while ignoring the riptide that is sweeping our boat out to sea.

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