Sat, May 10, 2003 - Page 8 News List

Risk and civilization often go hand in hand

By Ku Chung-hwa 顧忠華

Human civilization seems to be unable to extract itself from risk. No matter how advanced a civilization is, risk follows it like a shadow, always finding various unexpected ways to ambush civilization.

The severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) epidemic has been steadily increasing recently, leading to an unprecedented state of collective panic in Taiwan. Information is chaotic and contradictory and daily life is in a state of turmoil. It reminds me of my personal experience of the Chernobyl nuclear accident which occurred while I was in Germany.

When the Germans found out through the media that radiation leaks resulting from an explosion in a nuclear plant in Ukraine would reach their country, and that it might affect one's health, panic worse than the concerns incited by SARS was instant.

Abnormal particle counts were detected in quite a few cities. People immediately rushed to empty stores of canned foods, and they were afraid of venturing outdoors. A little bit like in Taiwan today, social exchanges and consumer activities slumped. People prioritized their own safety, and some Europeans even thought the end of the world was here.

The Chernobyl accident is symbolic of the high levels of risk inherent in high technology itself. Various infectious diseases, including SARS, are another, highly threatening, risk. These two risks have a direct impact on human spiritual and material civilization.

In his book Risk Society, the German sociologist Ulrich Beck points out that "Risks of modernization sooner or later also strike those who produce or profit from them. They contain a boomerang effect, which breaks up the pattern of class and national society." Even the rich and powerful are unsafe in the face of risk.

Beck claims that modern civilized man is used to possessing wealth, but that risk only can be endured collectively. Risk is evenly distributed by another kind of "civilizational" method in which knowledge plays a crucial part. Risk perception and risk evaluation are both based on risk knowledge, and risk communication and crisis management have taken on new political meaning.

Using SARS as an example, before it has been fully determined how the virus spreads, people in Taiwan will see danger lurking behind every tree. It will also be difficult for those placed under home quarantine to avoid getting a bad reputation.

Quite a few epidemic prevention measures may be the result of overreaction, but our current knowledge does not guarantee safety. "Risk rationality" therefore implies some kind of more complete self-rescue, and behavior has become based on expert opinion and hearsay. Only the gods know how effective that is.

However, different forms of risk draw different social responses. Some risks break through the restrictions of social classes and national borders, while some create new divisions and inequalities. SARS, for example, seems to reinforce social ostracism, labeling the homeless, Chinese immigrants and AIDS patients as high risk groups.

On the other hand, if we are to block out all possible external viruses that might enter Taiwan, the nation may not only have to close hospitals, but we may even have to close the whole island off, in the greatest backlash to globalization so far.

We can also see that the further the influence of risk extends, the less predictable the resulting political effects. Similar developments can be seen in Taiwan, Hong Kong and China: if leaders are able to successfully fight the epidemic, they prove their ability to lead, and consolidate their hold on power.

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