Over the past half century, or in the 75 years since the end of World War II, the human community has developed at an unprecedented speed. The scientific and technological revolution led to a real breakthrough in the field of transport communications; the Internet and mobile communications not only caused a revolution, but also qualitatively changed the areas of trade, investment, etc. Globalisation, understood not only as a single system of world trade, but as a new quality of mobility and the interconnectedness of people, has become a reality that transcends state borders.
This process of global interconnectedness not only at the state, but also at the societal level could not but lead to the fact that a truly global society gradually began to take shape, united by cross-border ties, interests, and, gradually, by values. At the political level, this process led to the consolidation of the global governance concept and to the appearance of the first signs of the transformation of the world into a single, global polity. Naturally, this dynamic of events posed a serious challenge to state sovereignty.
Therefore, globalisation has increasingly become perceived not only as an opportunity, but also as a challenge. In many countries, discussions have begun about the advisability of setting a kind of limit on globalisation, about finding the optimal balance between global and national interests.
To a greater extent, these discussions and governance practices were characteristic among non-Western countries, but recently they have become increasingly popular in the West itself. The election and policies of Donald Trump provide vivid evidence of this.
But all these steps are purely political in nature. The material basis of globalisation itself, its technological basis, was not called into question by anyone in the mainstream politics. Most often, these questions were left to futurologists. Already by the arrival of the 1960s and 1970s, under the influence of the reports of the Club of Rome, a discussion arose about resource limits on human development: the fact that the world does not have enough fuel, arable land, drinking water, etc. The pronounced catastrophism of some of these provisions led to the conclusion that mankind should abandon its belief in progress as the main stimulus for development, and the idea was expressed that future generations will not live better, but worse than us, and therefore the future is not optimistic. But a campaign launched under the auspices of the UN to respond to these warnings continued to emphasise the possibility of progress, optimism and development as a key moral attitude of mankind. Within the United Nations, the term “sustainable development” arose. Although it was emphasised that mankind should take care of the environment, etc., there was no doubt about the global course for constant development.
At the same time, in recent years, first in the framework of academic sociology, and later in a wider information and cultural space, a theory began to gain popularity, which emphasised the global risk society. Its essence is that the constant complication of both technological and social ties between people on a global scale almost inevitably increases the level of risks that can accumulate and, through a cumulative effect, jeopardise the stability of the entire global system.
These risks, and the disasters they cause, can be of a different nature. On the one hand, this is an industrial risk. It is no coincidence that the theory of global risk society gained particular popularity after the Fukushima accident. On the other hand, these are natural risks associated with an imbalance in human exposure to nature. It is clear that in this formulation of the issue, there is no clear line between a rational assessment and irrationally mystical components (“nature takes revenge on man”). In this context, a kind of ecological eschatology and the associated aesthetics of catastrophism began to take shape. The sharp demand by many strata of the global society for the ideas recently voiced by Greta Thunberg surprised many mainstream politicians, and over the past two years it has underscored the real global demand for this kind of irrationalism.
Until recent months, the practical focus of this global risk society was primarily the problem of climate change and the reaction of the international community to it (from the Kyoto Protocol to the Paris Agreement), and all these problems one way or another related mainly to medium-term planning.
But the unfolding of the coronavirus pandemic has led to the issue of the natural risks of globalisation and global society emerging poignantly on the agenda of policymakers, both right now and in the foreseeable future. Accordingly, all that natural eschatology and the risks of catastrophism now confront the world in full. The coronavirus has shown that external non-political risks are indeed the number one topic in modern strategic planning. Moreover, they are quite capable of qualitatively and, possibly, irreversibly changing the existing world order.
Therefore, it is advisable to put expert analysis into focus in the formation of a global risk society and its political impacts. Naturally, it would be naive to try to create a kind of “black swan theory”, but the assessment and calculation of a new category of global non-political risks should become an object of reflection.
In fact, we see now that the problems of climate change, epidemics and pandemics, other natural and man-made chains of disasters bring to the fore the concept of a global risk society, not just in theory, but as a real alternative to existing globalisation. Therefore, it is extremely important to assess the possible consequences of these new risks for the global political system and the transformation of the world order. As a result, global strategic planning should be transformed into global risk management.
And in this context, it isn’t just the economy, exchanges, and transport that matter. The key moral question appears much more significant: is development and progress possible in a global risk society? After all, if chains of catastrophes become not an exception, but a norm of life, according to this theory of risk society, then everyone should understand that something else with almost natural probability will follow the coronavirus. And we will not have to talk about any sustainable development. As a result, should we accept as a new and unshakable rule that the future for the human community will only get worse?
Written by Oleg Barabanov