risk society

Porto Alegre after floods/ Photo: Rafa Neddermeyer, Agência Brasil


Rio Grande do Sul at the epicenter of the climate catastrophe – between civil solidarity, state action and social anomie

Anyone who has lived in Porto Alegre for less than 83 years has never experienced a situation like the one that occurred from May 1, 2024, with the massive flood that flooded the Center and several neighborhoods of the city, public and private institutions, popular housing and middle-class buildings, shopping malls, parks and squares, and which extended throughout the greater Porto Alegre, in cities such as Guaíba, Eldorado do Sul, Canoas and São Leopoldo, and went down the Guaíba lake towards Lagoa dos Patos , reaching Pelotas and Rio Grande, in the south of the state.

Torrential rains occurred in several regions of the center, north and mountains, and swept away cities, bridges and roads along the Jacuí and Taquari rivers, among other smaller ones, all flowing into the Guaíba estuary, which received 14,2 trillion liters. of water between May 1st and 7th, according to the UFRGS Hydraulic Research Institute, which corresponds to half of all water contained in the Itaipu Plant reservoir. If in Porto Alegre there was no parameter prior to the 1941 flood to measure what happened, in some cities in the interior of Rio Grande do Sul, climatic events with a large volume of rain and destruction have been repeated, indicating that the combination of the phenomenon El Niño with global warming and the local action of deforestation and extensive rural exploitation, as well as the urban occupation of flooded areas, tend to make this scenario more frequent.

The concept of risk society, developed by the German sociologist Ulrich Beck, refers to a distinctive characteristic of modern societies, in which the production of wealth is accompanied by the generation of significant and global risks, which transcend geographic and social borders; These risks often cannot be predicted or controlled effectively by traditional institutions.

According to Ulrich Beck, in his seminal work Risikogesellschaft: Auf dem Weg in eine andere Moderne (Risk Society: Towards Another Modernity), published in 1986, reflexive modernization provokes a transformation in the way risks are perceived and managed, resulting in a society that is continually confronted with the unintended consequences of its own progress.

In this context, global risks, such as environmental, technological, economic and even those related to public health, exemplified by natural catastrophes exacerbated by climate change, wars and nuclear accidents, financial crises and pandemics, illustrate how modern threats are no longer localized or specific, but rather diffuse and interconnected; they challenge established structures of governance and require new forms of global cooperation and regulation.

Ulrich Beck argued that this omnipresence of risk transforms social, political and economic relations, leading to a state of constant uncertainty and forcing individuals and societies to rethink their priorities and ways of life; the notion of security becomes fluid and risk management becomes a central task on political and social agendas.

Furthermore, Ulrich Beck pointed out that in the risk society, trust in traditional institutions such as government, science, and corporations diminishes as these entities often fail to predict or mitigate risks, or may even contribute to that occur; thus, people are forced to become more reflective and critical regarding the information and decisions that affect their lives.

The loss of trust in traditional institutions undermines the democratic order in several ways, as it depends on citizens' trust to function properly and produce social legitimacy, which results in the destabilization of the political system as a whole, opening space for populist adventurers and “saviors of the country”. In Brazil and around the world, populist leaders, almost always from the extreme right, exploit popular discontent and dissatisfaction, presenting themselves as alternatives to established political elites. Capitalize on the feeling anti-establishment, and promote a simplistic and emotional message that appeals to people's concerns and anxieties.

The spread of fake news plays a central role in this process. On social media, fake news can spread quickly to defame opponents, distort initiatives and influence people's perception of the facts. The loss of trust in institutions can lead to disbelief in information and warnings about environmental risks, resulting in complacency or denial of the seriousness of the threats, making it difficult to adopt adequate preventive measures. Furthermore, it polarizes public debate and results in ideological disputes that impede the formulation and implementation of effective environmental protection policies, delaying the response to catastrophes.

In a polarized political environment marked by distrust in institutions, governments are pressured to prioritize short-term issues over long-term concerns, leading to a lack of investment in resilient infrastructure, adequate environmental monitoring and disaster preparedness. When, in an environment of climate catastrophe like the one that has hit the state of Rio Grande do Sul since the beginning of May, there is a saturation of conflicting information, misinformation and polarized narratives, which undermine the population's trust in public agents and democratic institutions , this can lead to the perception that there is no authority, clear rules or shared social norms, resulting in a feeling of widespread disorientation and distrust.

But despite all the attempts by activists and parliamentarians linked to former president Jair Bolsonaro to discredit state action, government officials and organized civil society were able to discern priorities. And without going into the merits of the medium and long-term responsibilities of each of the three spheres of government for the tragedy, the fact is that until now they have been able to coordinate efforts to save lives, welcome the homeless, take emergency measures to guarantee the restoration of road structures, of energy and supply of water, food, clothing and medical care, and they all had to react to fake news spread on social media.

The fact is also that a huge chain of solidarity was formed throughout the state and throughout the country, demonstrating the strength and importance of civil society, in partnership with the State, to offer help, shelter, and decent conditions of existence for those who had your home or workplace submerged by water. Also noteworthy is the role of the media, through communication companies, which have provided an essential public service by assuming their role of bringing reliable information to all corners affected by the flood, and throughout the country, giving the real dimension of the tragedy. and the need for assistance to the state and the victims.

Along with solidarity, there were also reports of opportunistic criminal activity in the midst of chaos, with actions aimed at theft and robbery of abandoned homes, as well as stores and markets, both in cities in the interior and in the capital. Cases of sexual harassment and abuse were also reported in shelters, with women and children as victims. State security forces recorded at least 130 arrests in May, between the 2nd and 18th. Of these, 49 were in shelters, and 48 for theft in areas affected by the flood, in some cases in actions coordinated by members of factions linked to the illegal markets.

The action of the civil and military police, which had their vacations suspended and retired police officers called in to reinforce their workforce, with the support of the Municipal Guards, the Fire Department, the National Force, the Armed Forces, the Federal and Federal Highway Police, was in order to prioritize rescues first, and then public safety, seeking to overcome the feeling of insecurity in shelters and flooded areas, avoiding the spread of social anomie. The State Department of Criminal Investigations (DEIC) of the Civil Police created a task force to combat fake news, and publications that had more than 50 million views were taken down, as well as dozens of profiles that spread false information were disabled.[I]

In the prison system, in which several prisons were affected, the CNJ issued guidelines,[ii] guiding the local Judiciary to implement contingency plans, authorizing the holding of custody hearings via videoconference when physical presence is unfeasible, guiding the adoption of maximum exceptionality in new preventive detention orders, and the extension of the concept of domicile to house arrest, covering any safe place where the person may be.

It also advises to avoid the application of electronic monitoring as a precautionary measure, considering the difficulties in infrastructure for operation, the possible need for extraordinary travel, possible risks to the health of the person being monitored and the possibility of equipment breakdown, and the exemption from periodic appearance in court of people on provisional release, as well as the review of provisional prisons, focusing on pregnant women, breastfeeding women, mothers or guardians of children or people with disabilities, and other groups in vulnerable situations.

For all these reasons, Rio Grande do Sul is currently a laboratory of possible ways to face climate tragedies, and the way in which the process of rebuilding housing and recovering the population's income possibilities will occur will have direct consequences on the consequences in the medium and long term for public safety.

Ensure that the homeless can return to their homes whenever possible, and in the shortest possible time, maintain shelter spaces, with privacy for families, safely, and with access to public transport, so that they can keep their children at school and their sources of work and income, and preventing urban gentrification from taking over the destinies of thousands of families, are decisions that must be taken, considering the need for policies to combat poverty and the lack of life prospects.

As we have known since June 2013, the constant feeling of unease against politics, exacerbated in moments of crisis like the one we are experiencing, can take two dangerous paths: that of pure and simple electoral protest, when voters choose to any candidate, regardless of political position, as long as he proposes to “end political caste” or “let everyone go”; or the consolidation of a culture of widespread illegality, and the legitimization of social inequalities by the “law of the strongest”.

As proposed by Lucía Dammert[iii] Based on the Chilean experience, containing the scenario marked by anti-politics is a fundamental task for those who aspire to be democratic leaders of the present and the future, and in contexts of climate emergency it becomes even more urgent.

*Rodrigo Ghiringhelli de Azevedo, sociologist, he is a professor at the School of Law at PUC-RS.


[I] https://gauchazh.clicrbs.com.br/seguranca/noticia/2024/05/deic-cria-forca-tarefa-para-combater-fake-news-sobre-enchente-no-rs-clw9m89hb001d019vevf8mnt5.html

[ii] https://www.cnj.jus.br/enchentes-no-rs-cnj-emite-diretrizes-para-sistemas-penal-e-socioeducativo/

[iii] https://www.latercera.com/opinion/noticia/columna-de-lucia-dammert-dias-de-furia/VSW4VPHGEBBAJDHBVS6L2AYFEQ/

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