Keywords: precaution, precautionary principle, knowledge, risk management, uncertainty, power, narrative, politics, division of labour, social solidarity, transatlantic divide, European social model, disenchantment of science
Revolution or passing fashion? Reassessing the precautionary principle
Precaution has been for years a controversial issue. Some regard it as a major regulatory innovation, others as an inherently flawed concept. Some consider it an approach still in its infancy, others believe it is a passing fashion. A narrow understanding of its relationship with knowledge and its distributional effects may explain why discussions on the US-EU divergence and on Europe's own ambivalence about precaution fail to provide a consistent picture. This paper makes a case for a broader perspective: the issue of precaution is related to the social division of labour, namely the intimate connection between knowledge and power. The modern narrative, drawing a sharp divide between (science-based) production and use of knowledge, has faced growing public criticism. The controversy on precaution mixes up tradition and innovation in an ambiguous way, gaining special saliency in Europe vis-a-vis the elaboration of its social model. If tradition is increasingly in trouble, innovation has perils of its own.