Towards a socio-ecological foundation for environmental risk research

Authored by: Ortwin Renn

Routledge International Handbook of Social and Environmental Change

Print publication date:  October  2013
Online publication date:  October  2013

Print ISBN: 9780415782791
eBook ISBN: 9780203814550
Adobe ISBN: 9781136707995


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At first glance, risk research appears to be a topic primarily for the engineering and natural sciences, which can be enriched, at best, by social science studies. However, the study of the physical consequences of human impact cannot only be related to the effects of human interventions on nature and society, but must start with the investigation of the social and cultural causes that have triggered these interventions in the first place. Humans make decisions based on mental models of what they would like to accomplish. These models are framed by social and cultural aspirations, values and norms (Adams 2003; Bell 2012; Bostrom et al. 1992). Whoever and whatever is at risk, or is affected by human interventions, has been subject to some kind of preceding decisions by another individual or a group, as long as the focus is on human-induced risks rather than natural hazards. But even with natural hazards, human decision makers are responsible for their own and others’ exposure to these hazards or for failing to assure adequate protection (Liu et al. 2007). Hence, the reasons behind human interventions that lead to risks and the consequences of these interventions are both relevant topics of interdisciplinary risk research. Based on this broader risk perspective, three areas of overlap can be identified that link the biophysical with the cultural world (Mathies and Homburg 2001; Renn et al. 2007):

basic human needs and demands with respect to resources from the natural environment (search for resources, energy, land, habitats);

the consequences of human interventions for natural cycles, processes and structures, including biological changes in and among humans (such as health risks, pandemics); and

the feedback of these interventions on cultural self-image, social structures and social processes (cultural identity).

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