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The historical roots of precautionary thinking: the cultural ecological critique and ‘The Limits to Growth'

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Although, at first glance, the precautionary principle looks perfectly sensible and self-evident, it is based on a way of thinking that has a history of its own, which goes back to the 1960s and early 1970s. Precautionary thinking should mainly be seen as a reaction: it is an answer to the self-confidence mainstream society had in the ‘progress' of post-war civilization. It is an antithesis, which materialized when especially Western civilization was stirred by stories and facts about pollution and the degradation of nature and part of the Western societal elite was disquieted by the reality of the sovereign nation-state which – in their view – was powerless to deal with the ‘world problematique'. In this article we argue – from a historical perspective – that the precautionary principle is part and parcel of the cultural ecological critique, which was brought centre-stage in the early 1970s by among others ‘The Limits to Growth', the first report to the Club of Rome. Here we want to elucidate these historical roots with a special attention to the Club of Rome, and want to discuss the present state of affairs concerning the precautionary principle.

Document Type: Research Article


Affiliations: Environmental historian, Free University Amsterdam, The Netherlands

Publication date: June 1, 2005

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