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Tijdschrift Recht der Werkelijkheid x Jaar 2016 x
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The precaution controversy: an analysis through the lens of Ulrich Beck and Michel Foucault

Tijdschrift Recht der Werkelijkheid, Aflevering 3 2016
Trefwoorden Precautionary principle, risk society, governmentality, risk governance, environmental law
Auteurs Tobias Arnoldussen
SamenvattingAuteursinformatie

    According to the precautionary principle lack of scientific evidence for the existence of a certain (environmental) risk should not be a reason not to take preventative policy measures. The precautionary principle had a stormy career in International environmental law and made its mark on many treaties, including the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union (TFEU). However it remains controversial. Proponents see it as the necessary legal curb to keep the dangerous tendencies of industrial production and technology in check. Opponents regard it with suspicion. They fear it will lead to a decrease in freedom and fear the powers to intervene that it grants the state. In this article the principle is reviewed from the perspectives of Ulrich Beck’s ‘reflexive modernisation’ and Michel Foucault’s notion of governmentality. It is argued that from Beck’s perspective the precautionary principle is the result of a learning process in which mankind gradually comes to adopt a reflexive attitude to the risks modernity has given rise to. It represents the wish to devise more inclusive and democratic policies on risks and environmental hazards. From the perspective of Michel Foucault however, the principle is part and parcel of neo-liberal tendencies of responsibilisation. Risk management and prudency are devolved to the public in an attempt to minimise risk taking, while at the same time optimising production. Moreover, it grants legitimacy to state intervention if the public does not live up to the responsibilities foisted on it. Both perspectives are at odds, but represent different sides of the same coin and might learn from each other concerns.


Tobias Arnoldussen
Tobias Arnoldussen is a socio-legal scholar affiliated with the University of Amsterdam Law School and the PPLE honours college. Next to lecturing on a variety of subjects, he focusses on interdisciplinary legal research into the possibilities of law to deal with contemporary social problems.
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