Ulrich Beck: ‘Ecological crisis is a breach of fundamental rights’

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A key insight from the author of ‘Risk Society’

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Lately I’ve been reading Ulrich Beck, the German sociologist who introduced the concept of “risk society,” which holds that in our time the dark sides of progress, especially “self-endangerment and the devastation of nature” have become dominant.

Beck is not (I think) a socialist, but much of what he writes deserves our careful attention. I like this passage, from his essay “Politics in Risk Society,” in the 1995 book Ecological Enlightenment.

“After all, the ecological issue, considered politically and sociologically, focuses at heart on a systematic, legalized violation of fundamental civil rights – the citizen’s right to life and freedom from bodily harm.

“This violation is not going on incidentally, accidentally, or individually, but in broad daylight, as part of the development of industry, prosperity, and technical rationality, in the glare of the mass media and in an alert democracy of citizens’ groups.

“It is only a slight exaggeration to say that the protectors of the constitution violate their trust when they permit ecologically self-destructive types of production.

“Even Thomas Hobbes, a theoretician of state and society who was certainly no forerunner of the Frankfurt School and who advocated a strong, authoritarian state, also mentions the individual citizen’s right to resist, and in words that sound surprisingly contemporary. If a state produces circumstances that threaten life, so that the citizen ‘must refrain from food, medicines, air, and whatever else is necessary for the preservation of life,’ Hobbes argues, ‘then the citizen is free to resist.’

“In the ecological crisis we are dealing with a breach of fundamental rights that is cushioned and disguised during prosperity but that has socially destabilizing long-term effects that can scarcely be overestimated.”

Well said. Let’s build the resistance.


More from my notebook ….