"The drb sustains a level of commentary on Irish and international matters that no other journal in Ireland and few elsewhere can reach. It deserves all the support that can be given it." X
Space to Think, a new book celebrating ten years of the Dublin Review of Books More Information 

The Metamorphosis of the World

How Climate Change is Transforming Our Concept of the World
Ulrich Beck


From Chapter 1: Why Metamorphosis of the World, Why Not Transformation?

This book represents an attempt to rescue myself, and perhaps others too, from a major embarrassment. Even though I have been teaching sociology and studying the transformation of modern societies for many years, I was at a loss for an answer to the simple but necessary question 'What is the meaning of the global events unfolding before our eyes on the television?', and I was forced to declare bank­ruptcy. There was nothing - neither a concept nor a theory

-    capable of expressing the turmoil of this world in concep­tual terms, as required by the German philosopher Hegel.

This turmoil cannot be conceptualized in terms of the notions of 'change' available to social science - 'evolution', 'revolution' and 'transformation'. For we live in a world that is not just changing, it is metamorphosing. Change implies that some things change but other things remain the same

-    capitalism changes, but some aspects of capitalism remain as they have always been. Metamorphosis implies a much more radical transformation in which the old certainties of modern society are falling away and something quite new is emerging. To grasp this metamorphosis of the world it is necessary to explore the new beginnings, to focus on what is emerging from the old and seek to grasp future structures and norms in the turmoil of the present.

Take climate change: much of the debate about climate change has focused on whether or not it is really happening and, if it is, what we can do to stop or contain it. But this emphasis on solutions blinds us to the fact that climate change is an agent of metamorphosis. It has already altered our way of being in the world - the way we live in the world, think about the world, and seek to act upon the world through social action and politics. Rising sea levels are creat­ing new landscapes of inequality - drawing new world maps whose key lines are not traditional boundaries between nation-states but elevations above sea level. It creates an entirely different way of conceptualizing the world and our chances of survival within it.

The theory of metamorphosis goes beyond theory of world risk society: it is not about the negative side effects of goods but about the positive side effects of bads. They produce normative horizons of common goods and propel us beyond the national frame towards a cosmopolitan outlook.

But the word 'metamorphosis' must still be handled gin­gerly and placed within quotation marks. It still bears all the hallmarks of a foreign body. Certainly, for the time being this word will probably have to be content with guest worker status, and it remains open whether it will ever become part of our common sense. At any rate, with this book I propose to adopt the migratory concept 'metamorphosis' into the social common sense of countries and languages. This is simply an attempt to offer a plausible answer to the urgent question 'What world are we actually living in?' My answer is: in the metamorphosis of the world. However, this is an answer that requires willingness on the part of the reader to risk the metamorphosis of their worldview.

And of course there is a second overwhelming term in the title: 'world', which is closely linked to the term 'humanity'. What is this about?

The talk of the failure of the world focuses attention on the concept 'world'. All institutions are failing; no one and nothing is decisive enough in confronting global climate risk.

And it is precisely this insistence on failure that is making the world the point of reference for a better world.

In this way, the concept 'world' has become familiar. It has become indispensable for describing the most mundane things. It has lost its aloof isolation, its Himalaya-like gran­deur, and through the back door it has crept into and ensconced itself in our everyday, most private language. Nowadays, pineapples, no less than the nursing staff for the elderly, have a global background (and everyone knows this). Someone who asks where the pineapples come from receives the welcome information that they are 'flown-in pineapples'. Correspondingly, there are 'flown-in mothers', who want to (or have to) care and provide for other people's children here and their own children back home in accordance with the rules of 'long-distance love'. Even cursory reflection shows that the concepts 'world' and 'one's own life' are no longer strangers. They are now and henceforth bound together in 'cohabitation' - in 'cohabitation' because there is no official authenticating document (whether of science or the state) for this lifelong global union.