Impossible Performance on the Part of the Grass (bits from the archives)


In 1892, British electrical engineers of the Department of Telegraphs in Calcutta, as part of an exercise, buried a piece of india-rubber cable core treated to withstand attacks by termites. After six months, when the cable was dug up, engineers found grass growing through the cable. On 1 February 1893, P. V. Luke, a member of the Institution of Electrical Engineers, wrote the following in his letter to the secretary of the institution:

What at first sight appears to be an impossible performance on the part of the grass seems less so when you come to examine the hard, sharp, needle-like points which characterise the roots of this species of grass.*

*P. V. Luke, ‘A new danger to which underground wires in India are exposed’, Journal of the Institution of Electrical Engineers, 22:104 (1893), pp. 146-147 (pp. 146-147)

‘Risk Society’ in History

In 1986, the German sociologist Ulrich Beck famously proclaimed the transition of contemporary Western society from older forms of industrial society to a distinctively postmodern ‘risk society’. In his seminal work, Risk Society: Towards a New Modernity, Beck argues that the consequences of the growth in human knowledge, and scientific and industrial development are the proliferation of risks. [1] As a result, risk society and industrial society differ in the fact that while industrial society was based on the production and distribution of goods, the principle of risk society is the prevention of ‘bads’, or risks, of modernisation.[2]

Beck claims that the nature of risks and the critical reflection upon, and confrontation with, the dangers of modernisation differentiate risk society and industrial society. In risk society, firstly, the nature of risks has changed as compared to industrial society. Risks are no longer attributed to natural or supernatural causes, but are consequences of modernisation itself. The seemingly incalculable common threats of pre-modern society — plague, famine, and wars etc., commonly attributed to external factors — were transformed into calculable risks in early industrialisation (or industrial modernity, or simple modernity). However, according to Beck, these risk calculations of industrial modernity fail in risk society.[3] The risks of postmodern society, due to their global and non-localised nature, and long-term effects, have become incalculable and are therefore no longer risks, but uncertainties.[4] Secondly, in risk society risks cannot be easily assessed due to their implicit nature and growing technological complexities. Beck argues that in contrast to the visible and perceptible hazards of industrial society, most of the risks of today escape perception, for they are confined within the realms of scientific knowledge rather than in everyday experience. As an example to illustrate this difference, he compares the hazards of foul-smelling and unclean cities of early modernity to the present-day risks of nuclear threat and toxins in foodstuffs.[5] In addition to the ‘risk society’ theory, Beck also theorises the emergence of a postmodern society that becomes reflexive due to its anxieties about risks produced as a consequence of modernisation.[6] He contends that reflexivity is a process of modernity confronting itself over the dangers of modernity.

At the heart of Beck’s argument lies the fact that technological modernisation has resulted in a move from a relatively safe and ordered industrial society to an insecure risk society. The risk society thesis, consequently, illustrates the complex relations between technological growth, modernity, risk and society as an exclusively postmodern transformation. On the contrary, thinkers of the early industrial society also discussed modernisation of society in terms of uncertainties and risks, and were ‘reflexive’ in thinking about the new risks that technological progress entailed. Beck’s description of industrial society as being modern and progressive, and of risk society as being postmodern and reflexive ignores the varying nature of risks and technological complexities that contemporaries of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries had to face while constructing new and safer technologies.

The Changing Nature of Risks

The leitmotif of the risk society thesis is the changing nature of risks and the growing importance of experts and regulation. According to Beck, in the transition from industrial society to risk society, natural hazards have been replaced by man-made risks and dangers.[7] Giddens also makes a similar point when describing risks of the risk society as “manufactured risk … created by the very impact of our developing knowledge upon the world”.[8] As compared to the natural hazards that prevailed in industrial society, manufactured risks are considered to be more catastrophic.[9] To illustrate the catastrophic nature of manufactured risks, Beck argues that most of the man-made technological forces, including nuclear power and genetic technologies, are capable of causing the extinction of human life, and that technological modernisation has made society capable of self-destruction.[10]

There would pretty soon be unanimous agreement on one basic historical fact: namely, that the second half of the twentieth century has distinguished itself — by virtue of the interplay of progress with the possibility of annihilation by the ecological, nuclear, chemical and genetic hazards we impose upon ourselves.[11]

Beck’s clear differentiation between industrial society’s natural hazards and risk society’s manufactured risks is, however, inaccurate. Urban and industrial development in the nineteenth century also posed great risks to society and the environment. The introduction of gas lighting in London and Paris in the early nineteenth century can be studied as an example of manufactured risk in industrial society. While the proponents of gas lighting saw it as a symbol of modernity and progress, gas lighting, however, brought with it many political and economic risks, and opposition. The major opponents of gas lighting were the laypeople who, in addition to being concerned about the ugliness of gaslight and uneasy about allowing the expanding industries into their personal spaces, were also concerned about the technology itself.[12] Fressoz, in his study of the gas lighting controversy, states that the opponents of gas lighting had a more accurate vision of the risks that the technology entailed. This was in contrast to the views of the experts, who considered the technology as inherently ideal and predictable.[13]

Another distinctive character of the ‘new risks’, according to Beck, is that manufactured risks, due to their low probabilities but unlimited consequences, are no longer calculable and predictable. As a result, such risks are no longer risks, but uncertainties that go beyond the methods of insurance and institutional responsibility used to manage industrial risks of the nineteenth century.[14] The management of such a risk was also central to the gas lighting controversy. The presence of a 200,000 cubic feet gasometer in Paris in the 1820s was a major concern for public safety. Although scientists and academicians in favour of gas lighting acknowledged that the explosion of the gasholder was highly improbable, opponents argued that even a miniscule chance of explosion was unacceptable. Insurance providers also, due to the unknown risks, refused to insure homeowners, which was highly unacceptable to the opponents. Consequently, the government imposed strict regulations in order to set a minimum standard of safety and regulate the uncertainties of the new technology.[15]

Risk, Public and Social Institutions

In the risk society thesis, Beck argues that in contrast to industrial society, postmodern risk society is defined by growing public scepticism of social institutions and scientific expertise. In Beck’s view, postmodern risks, due to their nature, can be identified and investigated only using the tools of science, which, as a consequence, makes scientific expertise and institutions responsible for all debates about risks.[16] However, due to the complexities of manufactured risks, governments and experts are unable to manage risk incidents and provide the public with relevant information. As a result, lay publics have become sceptical of governmental and institutional management of economic, technological, health and social risks of the postmodern risk society. [17] This, according to Beck, is in stark contrast with industrial society, where public trust in scientific expertise and social institutions was relatively stable. Beck argues that such trust was borne out of the public’s view of technological advancement as a means of prosperity.[18] However, such public trust in social institutions and scientific expertise, attributed to the industrial society, was not a given. A major example of public distrust and scepticism of scientific and institutional management of risks in the industrial society is the mass movement against compulsory smallpox vaccination in Britain from the mid-nineteenth century onwards.

Under the Vaccination Acts of 1853, 1867, and 1871, all infants were to be vaccinated against smallpox within the first three months of their life. However, many saw these Acts as tyrannical and refused to oblige. While many historians have seen this anti-vaccination movement as anti-progressive, the controversy had deeper causes and implications. Firstly, the controversy centred on the risks that the technology of vaccination involved. The process of vaccination in the nineteenth century involved the unsanitary and dangerous ‘arm to arm’ method — the deliberate introduction of impurities such as calf lymph into the child’s body — that carried the risk of exposing children to blood-borne and animal diseases. Vaccination was deplored not only because it was risky, but also because it violated the purity of the body and its fluids. Anti-vaccinators also insisted that adulterating the ‘pure’ blood within one’s body was a form of poisoning.[19]

The compulsory vaccination initiative also resulted in public scepticism of scientific and bureaucratic expertise. The bulk of the support for the anti-vaccination movement came from the lower classes. This was mainly because while the children of the better offs were vaccinated privately with lymph obtained from a reliable source, the children of the poor were vaccinated at the hospitals with lymph of unknown origin. Also, the working-class opponents of compulsory vaccination saw the Acts as forms of state oppression. Durbach also writes that the opponents of vaccination were aware of the new ideas in vaccination, and used them to argue that the state, instead of introducing impurities in the body, should concentrate on building up the constitution of individuals and create healthy bodies by promoting good diets, and provide a better living environment for the people.[20] In 1896, the Royal Commission on Vaccination appointed in 1889 finally stated that vaccination should remain compulsory; however, parents who ‘honestly opposed’ vaccination would not be prosecuted.[21] Finally, in 1907, vaccination was no longer compulsory and anyone could obtain exemption.[22]

One distinguishing characteristic that differentiates the risks of industrial society and the risk society is that risks faced by early industrial societies — earthquakes, floods and famines — were spatially and temporally limited.[23] Beck argues that although natural risks harbour severe negative consequences, they are nonetheless specifically local phenomena. In contrast, manufactured risks — nuclear reactors and chemical pollution — transcend national boundaries and have long-term consequences.[24]

In the nineteenth century, vaccination posed such risks due to its long-lasting side effects. Promoters of compulsory vaccination failed to contemplate the effects of vaccination on the malnourished bodies of urban working-class children, some of who were vulnerable to adverse reactions. The unhygienic process meant children could also contract congenial or hereditary syphilis. Syphilis was a major concern because, along with being a social stigma, it could also be transmitted to present and succeeding generations. In late-Victorian culture, syphilis was considered a threat not only to an individual’s health but also to that of the nation. Anti-vaccinators employed this sentiment in arguing that vaccination threatened the health of the entire human race.[25]

Public outrage over the water supply in nineteenth-century London is also an instance of industrial society’s understanding of risks and scepticism of social institutions. In 1828, Dr William Lambe, fellow of the Royal College of Physicians, asserted that the ordinary drinking water supplied to the citizens of London from the Thames was unfit for human use. In the same year, the Royal Commission on Water Supply began an inquiry into London’s water. The inquiry was the first significant discussion of the present and future standards of water supply in Britain.[26]

What, nonetheless, triggered William Lambe’s claims and the inquiry was the appearance in 1827 of ‘Dolphin’, a pamphlet by a journalist, John Wright. Wright’s pamphlet was an outburst against the Grand Junction water company. Like most other water companies of the time, the Grand Junction Company also took water from the tidal Thames. Although the water companies used subsidence reservoirs to purify the river water, the water still emerged turbid and discoloured. What outraged Wright was that the Grand Junction Company took its water from very close to the outlet of one of London’s great sewers. In order to strengthen his argument on how the water provided by the company was contaminated and unfit for human use, Wright included testimonials from medical men who believed their patients were severely affected by the contaminated waters of London.[27]

Wright’s pamphlet ignited widespread public outrage against the poor water supply in London. The pamphlet also provided an outlet for people to vent their growing frustrations with the poor but expensive services provided by the water companies. The matter was discussed in public meetings and newspapers, and finally in mid-1827 a Royal Commission on the Metropolitan Water Supply was established. Although the commission’s report studied the workings of the water companies, it did not lead to the reformation of water supply until Edwin Chadwick raised the issue in the 1840s. The 1827 furore and the 1828 inquiry by the Royal Commission on Water Supply did, nevertheless, force some of the water companies to establish filtration works for treating their water.[28]


According to Beck, postmodern risks, as opposed to hazards of the industrial society, are consequences of modernisation itself. The risk society is characterised by risks that can no longer be attributed to external causes. Risks now depend on industrial and political decisions and are, therefore, ‘politically reflexive’.[29] The concept of Beck’s risk society is intrinsically linked to the concept of reflexivity.[30] Beck contends that reflexivity is an unintended consequence of the risks of modernity, and is the process of modernity questioning and critiquing its own practices. Therefore, risk society is the ‘reflexive modernisation’ of industrial society, where

‘reflexive modernisation’ means self-confrontation with the effects of risk society that cannot be dealt with and assimilated in the system of industrial society.[31]

Beck claims that this process of critical reflection is the chief difference between industrial society and risk society.[32] But, similar to risk society, early industrial societies were also critical of their actions. In 1664, at the behest of Charles II, John Evelyn (1620 — 1706), an English diarist and founding member of the Royal Society, published his Sylva, which studied the state of the king’s forest reserves. He was concerned with rapid deforestation and the devastation caused by increasing numbers of shipping vessels, and grounds needed for pasture. Among Evelyn’s recommendations was the prohibition of cutting trees in certain areas, and the planting of seeds in other areas to balance any losses to forest cover. Evelyn’s ideas influenced a national movement to plant trees and rebuild natural landscape.[33]

Lowood’s study of the emergence of an innovative approach to management of forest resources in the second half of the eighteenth century in central Europe is another example of industrial society’s reflexivity. At the time, forests constituted a major portion of the local and regional economies of central Europe.[34] Wood obtained from forests was an indispensable product for private and commercial use. Following the Seven Years’ War (1756 — 1763), severe shortage of wood resulted in an impending crisis, just when rulers sought to encourage expansion of trade and industry. Efforts to reduce consumption of wood by redesigning products made of wood, and by trying to study and increase efficiency in wood burning were only beneficial on a small scale. The growing crisis required a novel approach to forest management.[35]

In order to train future foresters, a number of private forestry schools were established, and books and publications of forestry began emerging. The first writers on forestry were financial officials and chief foresters, who introduced mathematical and quantitative analysis to the management of forests. Mathematics figured prominently in the curriculum of forestry schools. The proponents of mathematics in forestry argued that mathematical sophistication would result in the establishment of new procedures and solutions to the problems of forestry. By 1800, the forester trained in specialised in mathematics and quantitative analysis was capable of calculating the quantity of wood in the forest through the use of mathematics and forestry science, instead of using methods of direct measurement. This large-scale experiment in Germany provided systematic management of forests, in order to restore the depleted and neglected forests.[36]

Industrialisation in early nineteenth century was also responsible for widespread environmental damage in Britain. Forests were destroyed for use in industries and to make space for the large-scale expansion of urban areas. Although the industrial towns of nineteenth-century Britain were provided work and opportunities to the people, they were not beautiful places to live in. There were numerous protests about the poor air and water quality, and against the filth in the collieries and lead mines. As a consequence, the government passed the 1863 Alkali Act and a Public Health Act in 1875, and urban parks were developed in order to improve air conditions and provide recreational space.[37]

Evans writes that squalid urban living conditions in the nineteenth century “gave rise to the garden city movement and to the great British holiday”.[38]The countryside, from which people moved into industrial towns for want of jobs and wealth, swiftly became a symbol for health and happiness. This new attitude towards nature also changed the way humans perceived their dominion over the natural world. The process of industrialisation began to be scrutinised, since moralists saw industrialisation as a means of achieving man’s eternal aim of taming nature. Also, according to Evans, Charles Darwin’s publications, especially On the Origin of Species in 1859 and The Descent of Man in 1871, brought humans to the same level as all other creatures, which changed the new urbanites’ perspective of nature, resulting in a growing concern for the welfare and preservation of wildlife and natural environments. [39]

Agricultural intensification from mid nineteenth-century also led to “the modern interaction between farming and wildlife.”[40] Changes in farming techniques and the massive changes to the British landscape affected many types of wildlife and their habitats. The extensive draining of marshlands in the early 1800s accounted for large-scale loss of wetland species. Fortunately, the changing attitudes that paved the way for an increasing interest in preservation and wildlife formed the basis for the foundation of natural history societies. The most prominent of the many societies formed in the early nineteenth century was the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals in 1824, which became ‘Royal’ (RSPCA) a few years later.[41] It was only during the last half of the nineteenth century that conservation of nature in the face of threats of industrialisation and agriculture came to the fore.[42] Recourse to law was seen as the best way to counter threats to nature. Consequently, in June 1869, the Sea Birds Preservation Act was introduced, followed by the 1876 Wild Birds Protection Act; and in 1888, the first local by-laws for the protection of plants was passed. Further amendments were made to the Wild Birds Protection Act, proving that the conservationist movement had gained momentum.[43]


It cannot be disputed that the risk society thesis offers insight into the complex relationships between social institutions, reflexivity and the production of risk. However, Beck’s conception of risk society as a predominantly postmodern phenomenon has its weaknesses.

Firstly, industrial society was capable of producing manufactured risks, which Beck claims are a novelty of the postmodern risk society. Fressoz writes:

Industrialising societies of the nineteenth century could be well aware of the risks brought by innovations, and a critical attitude toward technological progress appeared in the writings of opposers to gas lighting.[44]

Secondly, the anti-vaccination campaign and the public outrage over water supply in London provide examples of the public’s growing distrust in social institutions in the nineteenth century. The emergence of public movements towards ecological conservation also contradicts Beck’s postulation of postmodern reflexivity. Evans shows industrial society’s awareness of the ecological and social risks of modernity can be inferred from the emergence of societies to deal with such risks. Although many such societies lasted for only short periods of time, the very fact that these societies were formed is indicative of the reflexivity of industrial society. Furthermore, the emergence of scientific methods to manage environmental risks, as discussed by Lowood, and the public outrage over the poor quality of water supply in London, as discussed by Hamlin, also prove industrial society’s reflexivity when faced with the risks of modernisation.

Beck’s perspective of the risk society is also unconditionally negative. While Beck sees risk as nothing but harm, he overlooks the fact that risk can also result in social progress. Fressoz, Durbach and Hamlin’s works deliberate that technological (in the case of gas lighting) and sanitary (in the case of vaccination and water supply) safety were socially constructed in an undercurrent of risk. Public doubts over gas lighting, water supply and vaccination resulted in the opening up of expertise and experts’ views to wider debate, which resulted in better risk assessment and regulation.[45]

Lastly, in applying the risk society thesis to historical practices, it has become clear that by exaggerating the differences between industrial society and risk society on the basis of the understanding and acceptance of risks, Beck produces a very straightforward historical account that does not consider the challenges industrial society faced in controlling modernisation and its risks.

[1] First published in German in 1986. The English translation was published in 1992. The 1992 edition of Beck’s publication will be used and referred to for the purposes of this essay.

Ulrich Beck, Risk Society: Towards a New Modernity (London: Sage Publications, 1992), p. 2

[2] ibid, p. 3

[3] ibid, p. 22

[4] Anthony Giddens, ‘Risk and Responsibility’, The Modern Law Review, 62:1 (January 1999), 1-10 (p.4); Also see, Anthony Giddens, ‘Risk Society: The Context of British Politics’, in The Politics of Risk Society, ed. by J. Franklin (Cambridge: Polity Press, 1998), pp. 23-34 (p. 27)

[5] Beck, Risk Society, p. 21

[6] ibid, p. 19

[7] ibid, p. 4

[8] Anthony Giddens, Runaway World (London: Profile Books, 2002), p. 26

[9] Ulrich Beck, Ecological Politics in an Age of Risk (Cambridge: Polity Press, 1995), p. 100

[10] Ulrich Beck, World Risk Society (Cambridge: Polity Press, 1999), p. 53; Also see Beck, Risk Society, p. 39

[11] Beck, Ecological Politics in an Age of Risk, p. 83

[12] Jean-Baptiste Fressoz, ‘ The Gas Lighting Controversy: Technological Risk, Expertise, and Regulation in Nineteenth-Century Paris and London’, Journal of Urban History, 33 (2007), 729-756

Also see: Wolfgang Schivelbusch, Disenchanted Night: The Industrialisation of Light in the Nineteenth Century (Oxford: Berg Publishers, 1988), pp. 27-37

[13] ibid, pp. 735-736

[14] Ulrich Beck, ‘The Reinvention of Politics: Towards a Theory of Reflexive Modernization’, in Reflexive Modernization: Politics, Tradition and Aesthetics in the Modern Social Order, ed. by U. Beck, A. Giddens and S. Lash (Cambridge: Polity Press, 1994), pp. 1-55 (p. 27)

Also see Beck, Risk Society, p. 101

[15] ibid, p. 736

[16] Beck, Risk Society, p. 4

[17] ibid, p. 4 and p. 169

[18] ibid, p. 29

[19] Nadja Durbach, Bodily Matters: The Anti-Vaccination Movement in England, 1853-1907 (London: Duke University Press, 2005)

[20] ibid, pp. 119-123

[21] Nadja Durbach, ‘Class, Gender, and the Conscientious Objector to Vaccination, 1898-19077’, Journal of British Studies, 41:1 (January 2002), 58-83 (p. 68)

[22] Durbach, Bodily Matters, p. 196

[23] Ulrich Beck, World Risk Society (Cambridge: Polity Press, 1999), p. 143

[24] Beck, Risk Society, pp. 19-21

[25] Durbach, Bodily matters, p.153

[26] Christopher Hamlin, A Science of Impurity: Water Analysis in Nineteenth Century Britain (Berkeley, University of California Press, 1990), pp. 73-99

[27] ibid, pp. 81-82

[28] ibid, pp. 73-99

[29] Beck, Risk Society, p. 183

[30] ibid, p. 21

[31] Beck, The Reinvention of Politics, p. 6

[32] ibid, pp. 19-21

[33] David Evans, A History of Nature Conservation in Britain (London: Routledge, 1992), pp. 21-22

[34] Henry E. Lowood, ‘The Calculating Forester: Quantification, Cameral Science, and the Emergence of Scientific Forestry Management in Germany’, in The Quantifying Spirit in the 18th Century, ed. by Tore Frängsmyr, J.L. Heilborn, and Robin E. Rider (Oxford: University of California Press, 1990), pp. 315-342 (p. 318)

[35] ibid, pp. 318-320

[36] ibid, pp. 319-322 and pp. 330-333

[37] Evans, A History of Nature Conservation in Britain, pp. 23-26

[38] ibid, p. 25

[39] ibid, pp. 26-27

[40] (Kenneth Boulding quoted in Chisholm 1972), ibid, p. 28

[41] ibid, p. 39

[42] ibid, p. 36

[43] ibid, p. 36-37

[44] Fressoz, The Gas Lighting Controversy, p. 750

[45] Fressoz, The Gas Lighting Controversy, p. 731; Durbach, Bodily Matters, pp. 199–207; Hamlin, A Science of Impurity, pp. 299-306