Besides the Chernobyls, Brent Spars and other man-made disasters of our time, German sociologist Ulrich Beck's thoughts are turning to love. David Walker reports
Look at a map, preferably one in a good atlas that does not split the European continent between Slavic, Soviet East and known quantity West. From Kiev to Munich it is a straight line, not much in between by way of physical obstacles. Russian tank commanders will have traced it often, but so, in April 1986, did millions of Germans - and others, suddenly anxious about wind speeds, rain clouds and the physics of nuclear particles.
Among them was Ulrich Beck, and he was unsurprised at the news of the Chernobyl disaster. It confirmed too much of his grand thesis. "The latency phase of risk threats is coming to an end. The invisible hazards are becoming visible. Damage to and destruction of nature no longer occur outside our personal experience in the sphere of chemical, physical or biological chains of effects; instead they strike more clearly our eyes, ears and noses..."
Put in parochial terms, Chernobyl gave sociology a new lease of life - if not here in Britain then certainly in Germany, where it had never faded quite as much. Chernobyl, and all it represented - the ubiquity and imminence of environmental risk - demanded theory. And Ulrich Beck was in place to supply it.
Beck is a professor at the Sociology Institute at the University of Munich and best known for his coinage "risk society". Die Risikogesellschaft is the title of his hugely successful book (in academic terms - it sold some 60,000 copies) published in 1986 and translated into English in 1992.
On its strength Beck has a reputation among English-speaking social scientists. Recently he swung into wider public consciousness as an exotic member of Tony Blair's circle and a contributor to Institute of Public Policy Research seminars on risk, one of the late 1990s hot topics.
He has been available to attend because he recently accepted a research professorship at the University College of Wales at Cardiff, which will bring him to Britain for regular stays. Strange to our ears, he praises the level of "global" thinking in this country. "Somehow you are having a very interesting debate on globalisation, also in sociological terms, which we did not have in Germany."
"Here, the SPD (the German Social Democractic Party) is practically non-existent in such debates. The situation with you is quite different, with Tony Blair, thinktanks and intellectuals engaging with, for example, the future of labour, as business firms and exonomic systems reorganise on a global scale."
To us that may sound a somewhat inflated judgement on New Labour. It is noteworthy too that Beck does not flag up British environmental thinking as especially profound. British sociologists - with the exceptions, perhaps, of Tony Giddens and Zygmunt Bauman - lack his reach. For his work - which unlike much non-Anglo Saxon social science survives translation with wit and style - makes a largely moribund discipline relevant as he seeks to unify and understand ecological catastrophe, pollution, the future of work and I love.
Love? Beck is 52. That means, in Germany, he is very much a 68er, an active participant in the university movement of the late 1960s. The 68ers, he now says, got much wrong, but they did spawn the environmental movement, along with what he calls one of "biographical reflection", which played out in the 1970s and 1980s as people in Germany strove to understand their lives in political terms.
Beck is an environmentalist, he says, only in the sense that ecological processes are part and parcel of late modernity, in which cognate themes are scientific rationality and individualisation. His work, looked at in one light, is a meditation on science, the Enlightenment and striving for individual fulfilment.
Chernobyl was a defining moment for him. It confirmed that science had simultaneously become saviour and enemy, protector and despoiler. His concern has been with the burgeoning arena within which private insurers fear to tread - nuclear risks, genetic risks, contaminations that persist through decades if not millennia.
Beck's sociology of science has none of that relativistic flavour that is characteristic of thinking about science by social scientists in Britain. It is like love, you can't live with it, but you cannot live without it either.
He puts it like this in his book of essays entitled Ecological Enlightenment: "Under the conditions of the overdeveloped productive forces at the turn of the 21st century, science is often enlightenment and anti-Enlightenment, truth and concealment, liberation from inherited constraints and confinement in self-created objective constraints. Advocates and critics of science constantly attack each other with one or the other of these two sides. We have to understand that it does not work with or without science."
The way out of this catch 22 lies in considering variable what has so far been considered constant: the sciences themselves, in their methodological self-image and their division of labour and institutional structures. Only one who can see and remove the beam of irrationality in the eye of science can oppose the mote of irrationality in the eye of the critics of science. Just what is "irrational" anyway? Protesting against the devastation of the environment or the risks of nuclear power or the manipulation of human genetics?
Down that road lies a growing sense of powerlessness - "helplessness international" - he calls it. The political parties, including the Greens, do not have much to offer. Perhaps, he wonders, more freedom and more democracy are incompatible with more environmental protection.
Beck is no revolutionary. What he wants, concretely, are insurance systems that encompass risks and where risks are uninsurable, the industries and research institutes producing them should be closed down by commercial pressures. Legal norms need to change, in order to apportion responsibility; to the genetics researchers, to the drugs companies, to the doctors, to the patients.
Victims have to prove too much, he argues: it is time the onus of proof shifted to the research institutes and the industries producing new products and processes. "Establishing correlation standards as the foundation for the legal recognition of damage" would accomplish a great deal.
In Germany he has been hailed as a successor to Jurgen Habermas; as a contemporary theorist, a "public intellectual", mixing it in public debates. The fuss surrounding the German government's repatriation of spent nuclear fuel for reprocessing has, typically, seen him popping up as a commentator and critic.
But what of love? In Die Zeit the other day a columnist built a delightful piece around a glimpse he had had on the banks of the Rhine in Bonn just by the parliament building of a couple on a bench canoodling - I think that is the best translation. He meditated on the incongruity of love and politics, especially in federal Germany, where sex scandals are almost unknown and politics generally lacks, as he put it, any erotic spark.
Beck - increasingly a frequent visitor to Bonn since his appointment to Helmut Kohl's Commission on the Future - would not agree. He knows what motivates that couple. It is love, our secular religion, a compound of transcendence, experience, salvation, truth.
Love is not just bound up with politics but - here is the excitement of his theorising - also with the polluted water of the River Rhine flowing in front of that couple. Love and the physical environment may sound like odd bedfellows; that they can convincingly be linked in a theory of society is what makes Beck's sociology compellingly relevant to us all.
Here is Beck on love: "Perhaps poverty can be eliminated and inequalities reduced; perhaps military and technological risks too. Love, in contrast, cannot be targetted, invoked or coerced into existence, nor can any institution resist it." What that couple are up to goes to the heart of one of the key processes of modernity. "The era which has fallen in love with love, at the peak of its technical and rational prowess, is abandoning itself to perhaps the last kind of happiness that resists rational powers, evades the grasp of modern thinking."
But not entirely. Love and the processes of "individualisation" are a powerful social dynamic. "The old kind of relationship involved suppressing the woman's initiative, but also gained its resilience from this fact," he wrote in The Extraordinary Chaos of Love, co-authored with his partner Elisabeth Beck-Gernsheim. "The new kind has to cater for two separate biographies, or at least the claim to them. Perhaps the resulting squabbles and misery are only the product of an unfortunate interim stage."