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A precautionary tale: Y2K and the politics of foresight

Phillimore, J. and Davison, A. (2002) A precautionary tale: Y2K and the politics of foresight. Futures, 34 (2). pp. 147-157.

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In the wake of the minimal disruption to computer systems arising from the Y2K Millennium Bug, there has been a notable lack of discussion about whether the huge expenditures devoted to solving the problem were justified. The most common response was that they were worth it 'just to be on the safe side'. Furthermore, there were many related benefits in upgraded infrastructure and improved systems. We argue that in fact Y2K activity is an important if unexpected example of the 'precautionary principle' at work, i.e. acting in advance to ward off potential danger despite a lack of full scientific certainty about the extent of danger. It was unexpected because it was championed by corporations and governments who routinely oppose precautionary policies directed at environmental issues such as global warming. The paper outlines several reasons why Y2K was acted upon so swiftly while environmental issues are not, and explores what lessons may be learnt from the Y2K episode in terms of future strategies for dealing with environmental danger.

Item Type: Journal Article
Murdoch Affiliation(s): Institute for Sustainability and Technology Policy
Publisher: Elsevier Limited
Copyright: © 2002 Elsevier Science Ltd.
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