Looking up from time to time to see the sunlight sparkle on the waters of Lake Starnberg, German sociologist Ulrich Beck wrote his book about the risks posed by mankind’s technological innovations in an atmosphere of pastoral simplicity.
The greatest threats to his peace were the children and grazing farm animals that his hostess took care to keep far away from the busy academic, writing out in the open on a Bavarian hillside.
Half a continent away from his unorthodox workplace that year, the Chernobyl nuclear accident provided a powerful boost to his theory that industrial society was being replaced by a new form of modernity.
In Risikogesellschaft, published in Germany in 1986, Beck, who died aged 70 on New Year’s Day, argued that the theme of freeing humanity from its traditional constraints was being eclipsed by a new imperative; the need to manage the risks created by mankind’s technological advances.
Mads Sørensen, an academic at Aarhus university and author of an introduction to Beck’s work said: “Beck knew very well that we can’t avoid taking risks. That risk-taking is part of life. However, some of the ‘new risks’ that were the focus of his analysis — radioactivity is perhaps the best example — have the potential to destroy us.”
The only way to avoid such risks, in Beck’s view, was, for example, to shut down nuclear power plants; the social scientist praised Germany’s plans for an accelerated nuclear exit after the Fukushima disaster. Other risks, such as climate change or terrorism, had to be managed rather than avoided entirely.
Beck pointed out that these risks were transnational, cutting across old boundaries between nations.
“There is therefore no way around increasing transnational co-operation if we want to protect ourselves against them,” Mr Sørensen said.
The book, published in English in 1992 as Risk Society, rippled through wider society as well as academia and was translated into 35 languages.
Beck was one of modern Germany’s foremost public intellectuals, turning his attention to shifts in contemporary relations, from globalisation to love. In an era when Germany’s export strength turns on its pivotal role in globalised supply chains, Beck communicated these changes to the public.
Heinz Bude, a sociologist at the University of Kassel, said that Beck brought the term globalisation close to home for Germans. Mr Bude said: “Beck was the one who made it clear to the German public — he was an optimist — that one could also profit from these changes.”
With his wife Elisabeth Beck-Gernsheim, he wrote about the impact of greater sexual equality on love, relationships and family life in The Normal Chaos of Love.
His last book, German Europe, published in 2013, assailed the German government for its timid response to the eurozone crisis. He nicknamed German chancellor Angela Merkel “Merkiavelli” and accused her of “hesitation as a means of coercion”.
Professor Helmut Anheier, dean of the Hertie School of Governance in Berlin, said: “He was in favour of the euro. He liked the fact that in the 1990s, Germany said for the greater good it is sacrificing the D-Mark. He no longer saw this political greatness in Germany during the critical part of the financial crisis.”
For many observers, the euro crisis and its aftermath continues to bear out Beck’s view that the nation-state struggles to deal with overarching political crises.
Daniela Schwarzer, director of the Europe programme at the German Marshall Fund of the United States, a Berlin think-tank, said: “There is a crisis of legitimacy: in the eurozone, the nation-state can’t change its own future alone any more.
“One of the reasons for rising populist movements is that national governments appear unable to do much and hence seem unable to respond to citizens’ concerns.”
Together with the sociologist Jürgen Habermas, Beck was one of the most significant voices in German politics during the crisis, urging German politicians to think on a European rather than a national scale.
“It is sad that there are not many important voices of his calibre to make this point over and over again, and loud, in Germany,” said Ulrike Guérot, senior associate for Germany at the Open Society Initiative for Europe, a think-tank.
She added: “Beck never ceased to think about a different, a better, a more modern, ecological and just Germany. Few are left who are that visionary.”
Beck was born in May 1944 in Stolp, Pomerania, now Slupsk in Poland. His family fled west after the second world war and he grew up in Hanover.
In the 1970s he worked as a research assistant at the University of Munich, then became a professor of sociology at the universities of Münster and Bamberg. In 1992 he returned to Munich, where he lived after his retirement in 2009.
As a visiting professor he taught in Cardiff and at the London School of Economics. Beck is survived by his wife. The couple had no children.
Jeevan Vasagar in Berlin
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