Are the Germans risk-averse and anti-technology?

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Are the Germans risk-averse and anti-technology?
Are the Germans risk-averse and anti-technology?

Are the Germans risk-averse and anti-technology?

In the course of the location debate, industry and politics often complain about the German public's aversion to technology and risk. However: There is no general hostility to technology in Germany, according to a study by Prof. Dr. Ortwin Renn and Dr. Michael Zwick from the Stuttgart Academy for Technology Assessment, which they wrote on behalf of the German Bundestag’s Enquete Commission on “Protection of People and the Environment”. According to the study by Renn and Zwick, in Germany, at best, large and risky technologies are met with skepticism - by the way, by no means a German specificity. In other industrial societies, too, such technologies are increasingly requiring justification. There is no lack of acceptance, instead the authors often find inadequate communication between companies and politicians on the one hand and the public on the other. What is needed is therefore a society-wide "target discourse" on the future development of society, the expansion of participation rights, the improvement of technology and risk communication and the integration of the results obtained in this way into the political decision-making process.

Some results in the spotlight: Technology in working life, but above all household, leisure and other technical products, enjoy broad approval in Germany. However, acceptance problems give rise to “large-scale and risky technologies” – ie large-scale technical projects to which a high catastrophe potential is attributed and whose risks are seen as imposed, unequally distributed and only insufficiently controllable. This clearly shows an ambivalent attitude among the population, which expects some positive and some negative effects. The fear of technology as a job killer, but above all feared environmental problems, proved to be the causes of reservations about technology and its risks in the evaluation of the studies - a phenomenon that can also be observed internationally.

As far as dealing with risks is concerned, the authors found clear differences between individual social groups. The lay public assesses risks on the basis of their own experience and certain rules of thumb. Their criteria are the catastrophe potential, the social distribution of benefits and burdens, the controllability of risks and the question of whether risks are voluntarily accepted or imposed. In contrast, mathematically derived risk concepts prevail in science, industry, politics and administration. Here, risk is calculated as the probability of occurrence multiplied by the severity of damage.

The technology and risk debate is conducted at different levels. The media determine what goes on the agenda of public interest. They reinforce the impression of impending catastrophes and look for scapegoats. But neither disaster journalism nor damage reporting succeeds in influencing public opinion to any significant degree. Convinced opponents of technology try to create fears and mobilize fellow campaigners. Convinced supporters of large-scale plants calculate the probability of accidents and catastrophes before the public and like to speak of reasonable “residual risks”.

It is crucial that these three types of risk communication take place side by side and cannot be reconciled. The fronts are hardening and there is an ever-increasing attitude of denial on the part of the public. A self-blockade by society is to be feared.

This development is reinforced by the insidious introduction of technologies and the attempt to justify them after the fact. Although this strategy is successful in the short term, it shatters trust in politics and industry in the long term and ultimately strengthens the position of opponents of modernization. According to the study, the solution to this problem lies above all in fair, open-ended dialogue processes.

Experience gained with such procedures at local level has been available in Germany for several years. What is missing, according to the authors, is their application beyond the local area. Above all, however, it is important to ensure that the results of such discourses are given due consideration in the political decision-making process.

The initiative for the book "Risk and Technology Acceptance" came from the Enquete Commission "Protection of People and the Environment" of the German Bundestag. On her behalf, the two authors evaluated the results of studies on technology and risk acceptance. Ortwin Renn and Michael Zwick included more than 300 publications in their study. It offers an up-to-date and comprehensive overview of the perception and assessment of technology and risks in Germany.

Ortwin Renn and Michael M. Zwick: "Risk and Technology Acceptance", ed. Commission of Inquiry "Protection of Man and the Environment" of the 13th German Bundestag, Springer-Verlag, price 69.- DM, ISBN 3-540-63596-3

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