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.
Ulrich Beck, The Metamorphosis of the World, Polity Press, Cambridge, 2016
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