EDGE: You consult with governments or they listen to you. How does this play out, say, in an American government where the Republicans want to wipe out the forests to create jobs and the Democratic party have their issues?
GIDDENS: With respect, I don't think that's the most interesting type of situation. Let me mention two things, one of which is fairly mundane. The traditional welfare state, especially in Europe, is essentially a passive risk management system. It assumed that certain mishaps could befall you got divorced, you got unemployed, you got older and the welfare state would be there to protect you. But now in our much more open knowledge environment with the much more open lives that people lead, you can't any longer have the welfare system as a passive system. And we know that that's produced various perverse consequences. For example, passive risk management often locks people out of jobs when you want them to be in jobs. That's why in most countries, including this one, there's been a movement towards a much more active welfare system, which recognizes that you want people often to take risks, not just to be passively protected against them, and you want them to enter the labor force, for example, when there's a chance of getting a good job. That's one type of thing.
The second one, though, is what we started out talking about: the management of scientific innovation. And governments are finding it hard to bring the management of scientific innovation into democratic discourse. In the past, , governments have tended to rely on the wisdom of experts, and that's probably because the pace of scientific advance was slower, less universal, less globalized itself in the past than it is now. Now, when scientific innovations happen they impact on our lives very directly. Plus, we've got the kind of wreckage of the world that you mention. Governments they are the sphere of democratic participation, they've got to manage these things we've all got to manage them, but you must discuss them openly in the public sphere. In the BSE episode the then conservative British government made a serious mistake. They said there is no risk, and you had the minister John Gummer getting his kids eating hamburgers on television to show the safety of British beef. Tony Blair almost made the same mistake again, when he seemed to say genetically modified foods are safe and known to be safe, because no one can know if that is the case. Those are areas where the notion of risk is absolutely central to modern politics.
But I feel it's central to modern life, even though people don't recognize it, because tradition and custom, and nature itself, no longer structure our lives like they used to do. If you think of nature, it used to enter the body as it were; the body for example simply aged, let's say. Now we know aging is a much more active kind of process. Now we know that whenever you drink a cup of coffee or you stick to water as you're doing there, you're calculating risk there. You probably don't consciously take it on too much, but that's essentially what you're doing. The reason why everyone is running around with bottled water, nowadays, is all about that. So far as I can see there's no way out of that environment any more. It's like a mixture of emancipation and anxiety for us, and it causes a lot of identity problems for us. It makes it difficult to understand our relationship to our bodies, because the body is not something you simply have.
In the past I did quite a lot of research on anorexia and eating disorders, which are amazingly interesting, because although there is dispute about it, so far as we know, they only became certainly common relatively recently. And they correspond more or less with the rise of supermarket culture and globalized production of food. This takes food out of nature, because we don't eat just what is available in the autumn or the summer; you can eat anything all year around. You've then got to construct a diet and you've got to construct a self and a body. And when you've got women entering the public sphere in a society that values slimness, you've got a kind of concentration of anxieties around the body that seems to result in the generalization of eating disorders. And there are lots of other parallel things that one could discuss.
EDGE: Richard Dawkins was up here talking with a bunch of editors, and he doesn't share the same kind of alarm about genetically modified foods that the press does.
GIDDENS: Yes, but that is precisely the point. You can't just turn to experts to give you an authoritative opinion in many situations, particularly in innovations, because they disagree. Therefore, you must have both a public debate and political and legal decision-making about these things. This is particularly true when different people say completely the opposite things, even though both seem to be equally eminent scientists. I'm not saying that in the end they wouldn't find some agreement, because they might after years of research, but you have to deal with it now, plainly.
EDGE: Politicians can always get an expert to say what they want them to say, I would imagine.
GIDDENS: Well, they would be very foolish if they did, because that can rebound. The material costs on the other side of the material benefit of some of these things are so immense that everybody's due a democratic dialogue about them.
EDGE: This morning on television there was a report about the ozone hole, which is projected now to be three times larger than the United States. My brother at NASA is a physicist who tests the ozone and they take it very seriously. Is this the kind of risk issue that you're talking about?
GIDDENS: It's quite a good example, although there's more consensus probably about the widening of the ozone layer than there is over other areas of potential risk where it's debated whether risk even exists at all. That's even true of global warming, where there is a minority of scientists who still seem to say either it's a natural phenomenon or that there isn't actually a risk. The majority certainly do have a consensus about it, but if you're a lay person you can never possibly go through the technical reasoning. You have to make a judgment on the basis of the kinds of risk elements I was talking about earlier. You don't want to be too concerned about it, but you've certainly got to watch out for the dangers of these changes.
EDGE: What background led you into studying risk?
GIDDENS: It's partly historical, because I stumbled on the idea that the notion of risk is a relatively recent one. That's a bit counter-intuitive, because you'd think life in the Middle Ages was more risky than it is now, which is true. The notion of risk has nothing to do with living in a risky world. It's much more to do with how you manage the world and how you manage future time in relation to the changes that we introduce into the world.