Friday, July 25, 2003

The Greenpeace Report, Part II: NanoWars

It is said that military leaders are perpetually fighting the previous war. The same can be said of the rainbow warriors, Greenpeace, whose recently released opening shot at nanotechnology is really a battle plan for the environmental activist group's previous conflict against genetically modified foods.

It's clear that Greenpeace is choosing to ignore some important landscape differences between the old GM foods battlefield and the theater of operations in the coming war over nanotechnology. In its report, Future Technologies, Today's Choices, Greenpeace misidentifies the conditions under which the science of nanotechnology is now growing.

Greenpeace has decided that the label "nanotechnology" is merely the latest incarnation of an industrial system that allows the very few and very mighty to hand down decisions from on high for the sole purpose of enriching themselves at the expense of the masses. Greenpeace does not see nanotechnology for what it is: a broad label for a very sophisticated kind of science or process that can help accomplish any number of technological goals. Whether those goals include environmental cleanup or more-efficient killing machines is the choice of the broader society.

Doug Parr, Greenpeace's chief scientist, writes in the report that if there are unintended consequences of a new technology, "it is unreasonable to expect collective responsibility if the decision to proceed with the technology was made by an elite few." He goes on to write, "… the interests of those who own and control the new technologies largely determine how a new technology is used."

Who are the "elite few"? He really doesn't say. I suppose that's a wink and nod to his intended audience, which I assume already knows who these elite people are. Later, the report states that nanotech "materials and processes being developed are technology-pushed rather than market-led."

Well, meanwhile, in the world of real nanotechnology, the few products that have been successful in the marketplace (take a look at my previous post) are those that fill a consumer or market need. The oft-repeated examples of stain-free pants and sunscreen are successful not because they are products dictated from on high, but rather are driven by consumer demand.

That's not to say that the "elite few," if given the chance, wouldn't love to tell consumers what's good for them. If by "elite," Greenpeace means the nanotech scientists hatching their evil plans at university and government labs, the group could take comfort in knowing that many of these scientists remain frustrated that investors and consumers are not immediately opening up their wallets to any contraption that emerges from their head and into a prototype.

Greenpeace's report is correct when it asserts that "some new materials may constitute new classes of non-biodegradable pollutant about which we have little understanding," and that "little work has been done to ascertain the possible effects of nanomaterials on the living systems, or the possibility that nanoparticles could slip past the human immune system."

Nanotech researchers will be the first people to admit this, and at institutes like the Center for Biological and Environmental Nanotechnology at Rice University, they're eagerly learning the answers to these important questions. If they discover that horrible things happen to the body when nanomaterials are introduced, yet these materials are still placed on the market without consumers' informed consent, then I'll be right there alongside Greenpeace in demanding their removal. In the meantime, let the discovery process continue.

The Greenpeace report does establish a good framework for the debate over societal implications to nanotechnology, especially when it poses important questions that we all should be asking. Among them: "Who is in control? Where do the benefits fall? Who takes responsibility for resulting problems?"

But Greenpeace's implied answers to these questions again can be applied to the old GM foods battlefield, but not universally to nanotechnology.

"Who is in control?" Well, right now, consumers are. They decide what they'll buy, thus influencing what investors will pay to develop. Genetically modified foods, in contrast, were in many cases thrust on consumers without their informed consent. The report contrasts this with the mobile phone industry, where consumers gladly ignored the unknown risks associated with them in favor of the convenience they provided. Mobile phone buyers know what they're doing, know that there is a shortage of research on their long-term health effects, and went ahead and supported the industry, anyway. A cabal of elite companies did not force feed it on anybody.

Where do the benefits fall? That's a political question that has no correct answer. If you believe that it's a bad thing for small companies to become so successful at selling to consumers that they turn into big companies, then you've already answered the question before it's even asked.

Who takes responsibility for resulting problems? I'll translate this question for you: "Who should the angry mob blame when the technology is perceived to have gone awry?"

Throughout the report, a distinction is drawn between "science" and "society," without any definition of who or what those entities are, leaving us with the assumption that they are inherently at odds, rather than enjoy a symbiotic relationship – one influencing the other through changing consumer habits, varying states of war and peace and the pace of scientific discovery. When Greenpeace talks of a possible "dystopian future" where "the shift of the control of nanotechnology" turns toward "military needs," it dismisses the well-established give-and-take relationship between military and consumer technology.

Of course, the message here – with wording tailored to the audience – is that "war is bad." Yes, of course. War is bad. Our military and political leaders should really get together and try to stop all wars. Now, what does that have to do with nanotechnology?

Nanotech is a process, a tool, a way of building and improving practically anything we want. The focus of our worldwide discussion of "societal implications" should be about the way we want to build our society, and not about the inherent evil or goodness of the hammers and nails we're going to use to build it.

Greenpeace asks, rhetorically for internal consumption: "Is the future of nanotechnology then a plaything of the already-rich?" Well, not if the ultimate goals involve better, cheaper, nonpolluting products and energy available to everybody. If that is what consumers, leaders and scientists decide, then nanotech is there to help. The nanotech battle should really be fought for the hearts and minds of consumers and voters, and not against the technology itself.

Greenpeace begins with the assumption that average people are powerless against invisible forces that secretly control society's agenda (it's where the political left always meets the right), without acknowledging that these "forces" cannot remain entrenched in the face of a society that rejects them. America is obese? Don't blame McDonald's. The Golden Arches can't survive without a public willing to march into their death chambers.

You want nanotechnology that doesn't make a mess of what's left of our planet? I think that's a great idea. Let's bring on the global discussions over how we're going to get there. But it's not a question of "good nano" or "bad nano." It's a question of how we're going to use nano.


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