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Unprincipled? The British government's pragmatic approach to the precautionary principle

Lookup NU author(s): Alan Patterson, Professor Tim Gray



To assess whether the British government's pragmatic use of the precautionary principle in its environmental policy decision-making is unprincipled or principled, three cases are examined: organophosphorous pesticides in sheep dips; genetically-modified crops; and bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE: so-called 'mad cow' disease). These cases were chosen because they were particularly difficult to resolve scientifically, and gave rise to heated debates over the merits of the precautionary principle approach to environmental policy. The government's decisions were, respectively: to reject the precautionary principle in the case of organophosphorous pesticides; to adopt a strong version of the precautionary principle in the case of genetically-modified crops; and to adopt a weak version of the precautionary principle in the case of BSE. These decisions were not unprincipled, but principled, in that they applied a consistent and coherent approach to the precautionary principle based on the ethical principle of 'circumstances'. Drawing on the pragmatic political philosophy of Edmund Burke, it is shown how such an approach is justifiable.

Publication metadata

Author(s): Patterson A, Gray T

Publication type: Article

Publication status: Published

Journal: Environmental Politics

Year: 2012

Volume: 21

Issue: 3

Pages: 432-450

Print publication date: 20/04/2012

Date deposited: 30/03/2013

ISSN (print): 0964-4016

ISSN (electronic): 1743-8934

Publisher: Routledge


DOI: 10.1080/09644016.2012.671573


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