Beck, Ulrich, The Metamorphosis of the World: How Climate Change Is Transforming Our Concept of the World

Ulrich Beck, The Metamorphosis of the World: How Climate Change Is Transforming Our Concept of the World (Cambridge: Polity 2016) 200pp. £14.99 Hb.  ISBN: 987-0-7456-9021-6

Ulrich Beck’s study sets out to provide a comprehensive outlook on the nature of the contemporary world. In his The Metamorphosis of the World (2016), Beck explores his mature thoughts on modernity and climate change, whilst redefining the concept of ‘risk society’, that he coined in 1986, as an agent for the metamorphosis (Risk Society: Towards a New Modernity, trans. 1992). He contends not only that social responses to catastrophes and ‘insane events’ become revelatory, but also, that ‘climate change might save the world’ (Chapter Three). This claim is further developed into his concept of emancipatory catastrophe, which negates pessimism and brings an optimistic momentum into humanity. Beck claims that we are facing an uncertain future, and that the Anthopocene might be a harbinger of social, political and climatic disasters. However, traumatic vulnerability might also result in cross-border partnership and climate change ‘could be made into an antidote to war’ (46).

Beck opens his work by using the concept of metamorphosis to convey his claim that the world is transforming dramatically, drawing a sharp distinction between the concepts of ‘change’ and ‘metamorphosis’. He argues that the concept of metamorphosis implies that old certainties are falling away and that our ‘world’ is undergoing a deep transformation, the result of which escapes the limits of our rationality. Beck pays special attention to illustrating the process of metamorphosis. He uses the metaphor of a caterpillar, which is incapable of imagining the butterfly which it will become. Beck pairs this metaphor up with a concept he dubs Copernican Turn 2.0. He argues that we are starting from a ‘methodological nationalism’, where the idea of nation is a fixed star around which the world rotates. This is currently being supplanted by a cosmopolitan outlook, where the ‘world’ and ‘humanity’ are at the axis and nations turn around them. Such a change of paradigm implies that, due to the fact that we are a digital world at risk, nation-state borders are renegotiated and the process he calls ‘cosmopolitization’ takes place. Throughout the course of the book, Beck draws our attention to examples and aspects of this metamorphosis.

After the first part, consisting of introduction and supporting evidence and theory, Beck moves on to discuss themes in greater detail, devoting insightful chapters with debates on risk-class inequality, ‘goods’ and ‘bads’ in national and trans-national politics and digital risks. Over Chapters Five to Eight, Beck points out that there is a metamorphosis of social inequality. The metamorphosis involves a change from social classes based on wealth, to a risk-class society, implying a transformation from risk-class nations to risk-regions. He argues that nations use the power of the ‘politics’ of invisibility.  Beck explains that this process involves concentrating on the production and distribution of goods, while ‘bads’ grow with the speed of modernisation but are cut off from their national responsibilities. In this sense, the political responses to the physical process of climate change reflect a redistribution of national and international inequalities.

Beck’s book includes an examination of several examples where there is a redistribution of ‘goods’ and ‘bads’. He illustrates the fact that global climate risks create a new normative horizon by presenting a case study on the New York City waterfront, which contains clusters of prestigious industrial firms, potentially vulnerable to chemical contamination, as experts anticipate floods.

In these chapters, Beck focuses on how the production and distribution of risk reinforces the logic of class distribution. He contrasts the risk at New York City waterfront with how Hurricane Katrina acted as a social catharsis that brought to light essentially social and political risk inequalities. In Chapters Six and Eight, he further analyses the problematic responses political institutions have to offer, suggesting that ‘global risks are fundamentally characterized by the problematic of invisibility’ (99) in the context of political institutions. In Chapter Six, he also shows how nations do not take action, or manufacture ‘bads’ and make them invisible. Beck uses the example of the Integovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) to show how in the case of nuclear risks, the institutions that produce and assess the nuclear risks are the same, thus they become invisible.

Chapters Nine and Ten, are devoted to discussing how national institutions work and fail at the same time. This consists in the fact that when facing global catastrophes, national institutions fail. Beck shows how in the PRISM surveillance scandal, nations could not guarantee that personal data belonged only to the citizen, given the threat of an anonymous central power in control of all private data. He discusses how Snowden’s revelations triggered an emancipatory catastrophe, which raised more profound legal questions.

Chapter Ten is called ‘Meta-power game of politics: Metamorphosis of the Nation and International Relations’ and refers back to the Copernican Turn 2.0 Beck introduced in Chapter One. He reveals that the metamorphosis of the world entails changing the roles of the power game between nations, as the context of global risks require a cosmopolitan outlook. As the old nation-states seem to be failing in facing global risks, in Chapter Eleven, Beck introduces a methodology of cooperation between cities to face global risks in a more effective way. These new alliances have proven to be effective in the metamorphoses of traffic. Likewise, the world city perspective offers an emancipatory potential to face the conflict of interests between nation-states and cooperation towards achieving eco-cities. As much as scientists would like to advise on emergency measures, Beck strongly believes that a revival of democracy and community connections is the best way of facing global disasters.

In the short Chapter Twelve of his book, Beck briefly introduces the concept of ‘generational constellations’ to illustrate the last metamorphosis he addresses. A metamorphosis of generations is happening; he calls the elderly Neanderthals, and the young generation Homo cosmopoliticus.  He discusses how young generations, who were born as digital beings, coexist in the same time frame with older generations, who are digitally illiterate. This is a valuable insight, and one that implies that there is once again a redistribution of inequality of positions. Whilst the older generation loses its position, the younger has the chance to access the internet, study itself and interpret the world.

The Metamorphosis of The World offers an in-depth and unique analysis of the insecurities that the experience of risk generates, and presents the problematic of inequality as ‘the key issue for the future’ (197). Beck’s outlook contrasts with critics such as Timothy Morton, that focus on the ‘painful work of mourning’ (2010) and aligns itself with Matthew Taylor (2012), who claims that ‘ecophobia’ – the fear of being subsumed or destroyed by natural forces – can yield a negative but productive environmentalism that does more to tackle ecological crisis than ‘ecophilia’ does, a viewpoint which has similarities to that of Beck. The fact that natural disasters are human-made and that those constellations of generations are united in decline, offers Beck the basis for advocating for a redistribution of ‘bads’ and trans-national cooperation as the way to save our ‘world’.

Gemma Curto, University of Sheffield