Copyright Sociological Research Online, 1997

Risk, Environment and Modernity: Towards a New Ecology

S. Lash, B. Szerszynski and B. Wynne (editors)
London: Sage Publications
ISBN 0 8039 7938 X
£13.95 (pb)
ix + 294 pp.

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Risk, Environment and Modernity offers a set of interesting and thought-provoking essays discussing the complex relationship between modernity, environmentalism and the emergence of a risk society. Despite the sometimes complex language used by the authors, this book may be of great interest not only to social theorists or sociologists studying the environment but also for all social scientists or even lay people puzzled with contemporary lifestyles and/or engaged in some social movement. The book addresses a number of issues that are pertinent not only to environmental sociology but also to other research areas such as public policy, sociology of work, sociology of the family, cultural studies, development studies and, indeed, social theory in general.

It offers a wide review of relevant literature and is up to date with recent developments in its related fields. Moreover, it has a clear structure and chapters follow 'naturally' so that the reader can follow the thread of the arguments presented. The convergence of the individual contributions does not however prevent a plurality of voices and perspectives to be heard and a number of different aspects of the relationship between risk, environment and modernity to be analysed. Indeed, this critical volume makes a significant contribution to the study of modernity and identity.

In the introduction, the editors point to the social aspects of the environmental problem and invite fellow social scientists to adopt a critical standpoint breaking away from the dominant idiom of social scientific knowledge (p. 2). The contributors to the first part of the volume address the why and how environmental threat came to be a major social issue in this specific historical period, an issue that is global and which defies the power of science and technology for its solution. Beck points to the emergence of a risk society adopting perhaps an excessively social constructionist viewpoint with respect to the nature of environmental problems while Wynne points to the indeterminate and uncertain character of scientific knowledge. Barbara Adam shows that an orientation towards the future based on the notions of prediction and control is no longer sustainable because the future is unknowable. Finally, Szerszynski proposes a view of the environmental issue in which society and nature are conceived as interrelated, ongoing forms of life.

The second part of the book addresses issues of risk and their relationship to people's everyday lives. Beck-Gernsheim discusses the impact of increasing individualisation and the language of risk on parenting and the family. Similarly, Diani addresses the consequences of individualisation at work and the new occupational identity processes resulting from high office automation. Maguire points to the growing feelings of fear and mistrust and the inability of modernist accounts to appease them while Berking discusses a new type of ethics, the solidary (as contrasted to solitary) individualism which characterises human relations nowadays.

The third part of the book deals with the politics of the environment. Eder in his chapter examines the contemporary restructuring of the public sphere and uses the notion of an identity market to analyse environmentalist politics nowadays. Jamison criticises the increasingly conventional role of environmental movements which started as collective protest but tend to become assimilated to the multinational corporation form of organisation. Hajer points to a cultural politics version of ecological modernisation which is neither "deep green" nor technocratic and Grove-White urges policy makers to vest their policies not only in technological but also in cultural knowledge related to the environment.

The editors (and contributors) of this book have adopted a reflexively critical viewpoint. Not only have they addressed critically the different sociological and policy approaches to the environment but they have also counter-examined their own arguments and assertions looking for gaps and inconsistencies. However, at the end of the book one looks for an epilogue, a conclusion, some guidelines for further research. It seems as if the whole work is in some sense incomplete, without a conclusion. Or maybe this sense of incompleteness is a feature of our modern condition of uncertain and indeterminate knowledge.

Anna Triandafyllidou
Marie Curie Post Doctoral Fellow
Institute of Psychology
Consiglio Nazionale delle Ricerche (Italian National Research Council)

Copyright Sociological Research Online, 1997