In anxious times, what can we learn from the way different people respond to uncertainty?

Published on 2 May 2019

Nathan Oxley

Impact Communications and Engagement Officer

The recent outpouring of public concern and media coverage of climate change shows the depth of anxiety and concern about an uncertain world, where human beings and other parts of nature are connected and affect each other in complex ways, amid repeated patterns of domination, injustice and control.

Uncertainty defines our times. Whether it is in relation to climate change, disease outbreaks, financial volatility, natural disasters or political settlements, every media headline seems to assert that things are uncertain, and increasingly so.

A frequent response to uncertain, anxious visions of the future is to try to assess the risks of bad things happening, or to weigh the costs and benefits of different kinds of change. But responses to climate change – as with many other areas of life, from diseases, disasters and unstable markets – can’t always be measured in terms of calculable risk. Often, we’re faced with less controllable problems or possibilities, where we don’t know the likelihood of outcomes, or where there is disagreement over the values or options that should be pursued. At other times, we’re taken by surprise as unexpected events or consequences unfold.

These other forms of uncertainty – sometimes named ambiguity, incertitude and ignorance – are often neglected by decision-makers and those who advise them, or treated as if they are calculable risks, leading to flawed decision-making. And ignoring them can mean we miss opportunities or ways to expand the scope of what’s considered possible.

Uncertainty is real: so what?

All this has implications for many areas of life: our social arrangements, politics, culture, practices and perspectives. In a new working paper, ‘What is Uncertainty and Why Does it Matter?’, STEPS co-director and IDS researcher Ian Scoones explores the literature around these diverse areas. In the paper, he builds on this literature to consider five ways of thinking about uncertainty, exploring how they relate to finance, infrastructure, disease, climate change, hazards and disasters.

Taking uncertainty seriously in this way means rethinking our assumptions about expertise, and underlines the need to include diverse forms and sources of knowledge in deliberations about the future. It means understanding how uncertainties emerge in social, political and economic contexts, and how uncertainties affect different people, depending on class, gender, race, age and other dimensions of social difference. And, if uncertainty is not reducible to probabilistic risk, it means a radically different approach to governance; one that rejects control-oriented, technocratic approaches in favour of more tentative, adaptive, hopeful and caring responses.

Practical ways of responding to uncertainty

The differences between risk and wider forms of uncertainty are more than just a matter of words. Many people around the world live with the practical realities of uncertainty, adopting flexible, adaptive and creative responses to problems and change.

For example, pastoralists – living daily with the movement of animals, fluctuating policy, politics, prices and markets, and environmental change – have developed sophisticated ways of dealing with uncertainty, blending modern communications technology and transport with more tried-and-tested practices, crossing borders, looking for opportunities and connecting with new markets. Elsewhere, in megacities, drylands and vulnerable coasts, people are building alliances and exploring creative ways to understand the uncertainties they face, from developing new products or exploring new fishing or farming methods.

A conference at the Institute of Development Studies in July will explore these questions and more. For updates and further material on this theme, subscribe to the ESRC STEPS Centre’s email newsletter

The views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author/s and do not necessarily reflect the views or policies of IDS.

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