Risk Society and the Cost of Doing Nothing

James Murray reflected insighfully on risk last week over on the BusinessGreen blog.  We’re naturally risk-averse adults, but we won’t take the plunge and deal with climate change in the face of overwhelming evidence that the cost will be dire if we don’t.  How to overcome the childlike feeling of invincibility that keeps society from turning rhetoric into real action?  James’ suggestion, via his mother the school teacher:

The only answer – as any teacher who has had to face down 30 boisterous eight year olds will tell you – is to try and make the promise of reward and threat of reprisal as real and consistent as possible, until the realisation dawns that the risks associated with breaking the rules just aren’t worth it.

I had the pleasure of meeting James for a pint in London last year; he emphasized then too that ‘what all this comes down to is cost.’  Not just real, bottom-line, short-term cost; but the perception of cost based on the believed promise of risk.

Consistently managing perceptions to empower action sounds a lot like a task for the meta-brand of green.

But here’s the rub: risk can never be made ‘real’ because it is, inherently, based on assumptions of scenarios that have not come to pass… scenarios that are always projected subjectively and colored by the interests and biases of the projectors.  Climate science is a consensus, yes, but argument about what to do with it will always be political.  ‘Nature’ itself is anything but natural — it’s an abstract concept we bring to life through images and words; the argument to defend it becomes dependent on our selectivity in framing.

My favorite living German social theorist, Ulrich Beck, has argued extensively that this subjectivity is part of a larger abstraction going on with modern risks — terrorism, climate change, global financial meltdown, etc.  Unlike classical risks (I might fall off a ladder, my neighbor might steal my cow), modern risks happen to everyone and are perpetrated by nobody in particular.  That makes taking responsibility and placing blame an impossible act which becomes mired in subjective political struggle.  The only solution Beck sees is for a society of cosmopolitan individuals to mobilize themselves in allegiance to a common good over personal short-term gain.

The brand challenge here is not just an issue of effectively framing the problem — of making the risk real to the right people and assuming they’ll act accordingly.  It’s a matter of simultaneously offering solutions which give those people the nuts-and-bolts, identity-building tools to respond.  Toos that both mesh with their circumstance and motivate viable change.  And that comes down to a lot more than just cost.

© Ryan Cunningham 2008

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1 Response to “Risk Society and the Cost of Doing Nothing”



  1. 1 Reimagining the Why « preparsed Trackback on January 28, 2009 at 12:58 pm

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thoughts at the collision of business, brand and creativity

I'm Ryan Cunningham. I help companies and culture play nice with each other. At CREATURE we call this Brand Strategy, a term that carries a nice halo of reliability and structure. Here, I'm just another guy who thinks about the world and writes it down from time to time.

The result is a pile of knowledge to be used in, and for, the future. Feel free to sift through the heap for useful connections.

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