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Deliberating Precaution (and the Precautionary Principle) in the United Kingdom.

Research output: ThesisDoctoral Thesis

  • Margaret Dorothy Adams
Publication date2000
Number of pages370
Awarding Institution
Place of PublicationLancaster
  • Lancaster University
Electronic ISBNs9780438572218
<mark>Original language</mark>English


The precautionary principle is about making decisions in the presence of uncertainty and before there is 'sufficient scientific evidence'. Paradoxically, implementation of the precautionary principle often depends upon existing scientific knowledge and 'evidence'. In order to investigate this puzzle I undertake two environmentally related case studies, one into radioactive waste disposal, the other into endocrine disrupting chemicals. These show how scientific evidence is defined and used in precautionary deliberations. Through these, I demonstrate that science does not provide an 'objective truth' from which indisputable courses of policy action can be determined. I argue that the precautionary principle fills the vacuum created by a science that promises certainty but which continually fails to deliver on that promise. In practice, interpretations of the precautionary principle depend on the 'institutional' contexts in which deliberations take place, and on the interests of the organisations involved. As I illustrate, the 'career trajectories' of 'environmental problems' are also relevant. This is important since different environmental 'issues' have different 'careers' and hence present different opportunities for precaution. Ultimately, this thesis highlights the need to go beyond science when attempting to understand and implement the precautionary principle in environmental policy. I argue that its implementation involves creating frameworks of deliberation that are more sympathetic to precautionary courses of action, and that moral, context specific issues are at stake. The challenge for policy is not just one of making decisions based on uncertainty, but of understanding the very formation of environmental problems. In reaching these conclusions, I hope to have made a useful contribution to environmental debate and to theoretical understandings of science and precaution in contemporary policy.