What is uncertainty and why does it matter?

What is uncertainty and why does it matter?

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. Uncertainty, where we do not know the probabilities of either likelihoods or outcomes, is different to risk, the implications of which are explored in this paper through five different ways of thinking about uncertainty, derived from highly diverse literatures encompassing societal, political, cultural, practice and individual perspectives. The paper continues by examining how these perspectives relate to four domains: finance and banking; critical infrastructures; disease outbreaks and climate change; natural hazards and disasters. Reflecting on these experiences, the paper argues that embracing uncertainty raises some fundamental challenges. It means questioning simple, linear perspectives on modernity and progress.

It means rethinking expertise and including diverse knowledges 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. The paper concludes by asking whether we can learn from those who live with and from uncertainty – including pastoralists in marginal settings – as part of a wider conversation about embracing uncertainties to meet the challenges of our turbulent world.

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