Monday, July 28, 2003

Subterranean Nano Blues

"Hey, lay off Greenpeace," my wife told me over the weekend. "They're not PETA, and they do a lot of good – more good than you do, just sitting behind your computer and writing."

My wife, of course, is both my biggest fan and my biggest critic and rarely pulls punches.

Aside from the fact that she's my wife (and thus, always right), she does have a very good point. Greenpeace does do a great deal of good in the world, and of course it does not just sit in an office and pontificate. Its members physically place themselves in harm's way to draw attention to important environmental issues. That's the activism my wife grew up with. She was raised by '60s radicals who today have lost none of their youthful idealism (displayed in their home is a great picture of my in-laws, circa '70s, in full hippie regalia, at a no-nukes march in Washington with my future wife by their side).

So, yeah, my in-laws must think their daughter married a total sellout. (To add insult to injury, I was also one of those liberals who was in favor of overthrowing Saddam Hussein, but of course that subject goes beyond the mission of this blog).

Like I told my friend and faithful Small Times correspondent Jack Mason, in an interview he conducted with me for an article he's writing for Salon (I'll let you know when it runs. We all need to help that excellent online magazine survive), I feel horrible over the possibility that the industry I'm covering is about to be painted with a broad "polluter" brush – especially when what is known about nanotech's potential benefits to the environment outweigh what is not known.

I have covered local environmental issues during my reporting career, and one thing that I've remained curious about is the idea of risk – the "acceptable" risks we take just commuting to work, vs. the risks associated with, for example, living near a trash incinerator or close to power lines. We make decisions every day about which risks we deem acceptable (or choose to ignore), and which ones we worry about. I've read reports from environmental watchdogs on the local and national levels that assessed various health risks associated with a NIMBY issue, and I've read some ridiculous counterarguments from the "pro-industry side" that compare these risks to the chances of exposure to random horrors by just leaving our house. Usually, both these arguments lack common sense.

What Greenpeace is invoking for nanotech is what they used in previous battles, the Precautionary Principle, which essentially says that we're better safe than sorry. It reduces the possibility of horrible mishaps by limiting scientific exploration when safety is in doubt. In general, I'm in agreement with the principle. It makes perfect sense – if the safety of a technology is in doubt.

The trouble is that Greenpeace is too early on this. Nanotech's safety isn't "in doubt." We don't know enough about the behavior of nanoparticles in our bodies and in the environment to even have a doubt. The Precautionary Principle could reasonably be invoked after we know more about specific nanomaterials under specific conditions. Then, the alarm bells can go off, and Greenpeace can do what they do best: Call attention to the potential problem and demand action.

To Greenepeace's credit, the group did conclude its report with a brief nod to the "number of environmental goods that may arise" from nanotechnology and a call for "a more in-depth analysis of environmental concerns."

A couple of excellent articles on this general topic moved in today's news cycle. Take a look at Fear of the science of the small 'is focused on the wrong things', from the Guardian, and this one from EurekAlert, Nanotechnology: sink or swim?

Now, I hope when we visit this weekend, my in-laws will let me out of the chicken coop and allow me to sleep in the house.


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