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Is opposing nanotechnology really being Friendly to the Earth?

Friends of the Earth Australia has published a special issue of their magazine titled Nanotechnology: Small Science, Big Questions! (4.3 MB PDF). It includes over 17 short pieces opposing or questioning the endeavor.

On the upside, the group does appear to appreciate the magnitude of the changes that will eventually come from the more advanced nanotechnologies, including atomically-precise manufacturing. On the downside, they focus strongly on potential negatives, both near-term and long-term. The last article states: “…Friends of the Earth [Australia] is calling for an immediate moratorium on all commercial research, development and release of nanotechnological materials and products.”

A detailed critique appears at David Berube’s blog NanoHype.

One key point to keep in mind. The publication makes it clear that the group’s agenda is not just environmental, but political as well:

We recommend an assessment process to ensure the development, application and control of nanotechnologies do not reinforce or create new forms of socio-economic inequalities, concentrations of wealth and power, means of social control and oppression, or weapons of destruction.

I agree that it would be good to try to head off social control, oppression, and (maybe) new weapons, but the other goals look unrealistic and maybe even undesirable, depending on what was tried. Though there may be some leverage in reforming the intellectual property regime, and possibly the laws governing corporate liability.

Regarding the environmental implications of nanotechnology: it was the promise of super-clean production and thorough environmental remediation that first drew me to this field, and it remains an inspiration. The benefits could far outweigh the downsides if we work hard at making that happen. —Christine

5 Responses to “Is opposing nanotechnology really being Friendly to the Earth?”

  1. cynthiapilnicki Says:

    Is opposing nanotechnology really being Friendly to the Earth?

    nice..

  2. Mike Treder Says:

    Christine, you’ll also find an extended review of the FoE nanotech magazine issue on our blog — http://crnano.typepad.com/crnblog/2006/07/foe_size_does_m.html

    When you say that “the benefits could far outweigh the downsides” if nanotech can bring about “super-clean production and thorough environmental remediation,” does that take into account the downside potential of a nano-based arms race? Unless we can avoid that situation, which for numerous reasons will almost certainly be unstable and lead to devastating war, then all of nanotechnology’s environmental, medical, and other benefits fade into insignificance.

  3. Christine Peterson Says:

    Hi Mike — Thanks for the additional link.

    What I wrote was that “The benefits could far outweigh the downsides if we work hard at making that happen”. Such work will indeed need to include attention to military issues as well as environmental ones.

    Thanks again,
    –Christine

  4. Eric T. Says:

    This brought a few questions to my mind: (1) Is there any way to create and enforce laws on nanotechnology that minimize the arms race issue; (2) would there be any way to implement a power balance such as that seen during the Cold War; and (3) looking at today’s global political situation, is there any way to predict global power bases a decade or two from now to even make (2) a viable option? And when we factor in terrorist groups and the current and future success (or lack thereof) of the war on terror, we can’t rule out the issues of instability and unpredictability as they relate to this field; obviously, a nanofactory in the wrong hands could have incredibly dire results. Thus, it would appear to me that nanoterrorism (I’m sure someone’s already coined that term…) is a greater threat than any that Friends of the Earth mentioned, especially considering that a moratorium at this point would just push the research underground, where criminal elements would have just as much access as they do to the commercial sectors.

  5. Mike Treder Says:

    Eric, I agree with you about the threat of ‘nanoterrorism’, and, of course, about the inadvisability of an attempted moratorium on R&D. Re the latter, see http://crnano.org/PR-shutdown.htm

    On your question about: “…any way to implement a power balance such as that seen during the Cold War?” — See my essay on “War, Interdependence, and Nanotechnology” at http://futurebrief.com/miketrederwar002.asp

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