Risk Theory

Posted: October 6, 2012 in Uncategorized

Risk: a seemingly common word that pervades our lives. I spent all summer researching on risk theories, risk cultures and risk perceptions in India and China. During my internship with International Risk Governance Council (IRGC) I wrote up a paper on how Indians and Chinese perceive risk. What factors contribute to risk perception among people?

To describe my project briefly – factors such as trust, institutions, government policies, public participation, were examined. I was absorbed by sociological, anthropological explanations on the subject. From Mary Douglas to Ulrich Beck, to Ortwin Renn, all were fascinating to read.

I have never visited China, but in the course of my research, I was struck by how similar and yet different are the compulsions that Indians and Chinese face. The motivations of risk-takers and risk-givers are diverse and have a certain dynamic. There almost seems to be a supply and demand of risks – a point that I make in the paper. (The project is a work in progress, but would love to put it up when it is final.)

My research was categorized in different parts including perceptions of nuclear power, natural hazards, environmental disasters/choices, genetically modified crops, industrial accidents, health-related risks among others. I had to take a certain incident and deconstruct it, analysing the causes and effects and how risk perceptions were altered in the process. Risk cultures seem to be a function of both technology and time.

Coincidentally, tensions were hotting up at the nuclear power plant in Southern India, where the Indian government booked 8000 cases of sedition against protesting villagers. It culminated in the fall, with the death of a protestor. The case captures the confusion the government has created. The power plant operator has not made public entirely, environmental impact assessments, safety reports of the plant fuelling mistrust.

Over and over again, I found that public engagement was routinely neglected in both India and China. So when a technocratic state imposes its notions of say, energy security and independence on its people, it invariably leads to a flashpoint.

It also encapsulates the evolution of cultures. Is it culturally ingrained in certain countries to trust institutions, to trust science, to not question authority, to not demand the right to know? Whatever it is, things are changing and fast. The way risks are perceived, processed and disseminated, has got better, and some would argue, worse. Ulrich Beck, followed up on his Risk Society, with World At Risk. Both highly recommended readings. Amazing how inextricably linked, science, economics and sociology is.

I thought about complex decisions policymakers have to solve in the face of scientific uncertainty and risk, for example with respect to GMOs. Intuitive as life is, I was led to this brilliant paper, that elucidates, the distinction and scope between scientific uncertainty and risk – written by Jorge E. Viñuales. I have the great privilege of taking his class on International Environmental Law this semester at The Graduate Institute.

This brings me to the present. Diving into what seems like an exciting and hectic last leg of school till December 2012. Plunging deeper into law and development, specifically the ramifications of foreign investment on environment.

As always, the shores of the serene Lake Geneva give the much needed respite from all the course work, but my heart is away in India and all the exciting mess that is unravelling back home!

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