“The point is not that technologies are bad (although certain technologies may be inherently destructive, centralizing or otherwise dis-empowering). Rather, the evaluation of powerful new technologies requires broad social discussion and preparation. Society must be informed and empowered to participate in decision making about emerging technologies” —Pat Moony, Erosion, Technology and Concentration (ETC) Group, 2003.
Nanotechnology refers to the manipulation of matter at the scale of atoms and molecules, the fundamental building blocks of the material world. At the nanoscale, scientists can start affecting the properties of materials directly, making them harder or lighter or more durable. In some cases, simply making things smaller changes their properties—a chemical might take on a new color, or start to conduct electricity when re-fashioned at the nanoscale. Nanoscale particles tend to be more chemically reactive than their ordinary-sized counterparts because they have more surface area.
Nanotechnology is seen as central in developing hydrogen fuel cell storage capacity, and more efficient solar cells and batteries while nano coatings on windows increase solar absorption and prevent heat loss. Indeed nanotechnology is now a multi-billion dollar industry and has been hailed by many as the next industrial revolution. However the commercialization of this technology has advanced in the absence of government oversight, hazard assessment testing or an understanding of the repercussions of released nanomaterials to human health, the environment, or the political and social impact this will have globally. We are making the same mistakes with this technological rollout in the 21st century that the chemical industry made in the second half of the 20th century.
In 2007 a coalition of concerned groups drew up the Principles for the Oversight of Nanotechnologies and Nanomaterials
The Project on Emerging Technologies at the Woodrow Wilson Center has a comprehensive database on the use of nanotechnology in consumer products. Visit http://www.nanotechproject.org/
California Department of Toxic Substances Control has an extensive resource on nanotechnology and links to many organizations. Visit the California DTSC web site.
A small community of scientists are advancing the Principles of Green Chemistry within nanotechnology design and attempting to integrate these design criteria within the global nanotechnology roll out. The Safer Nanomaterials and Nanotechnology Initiative at Oregon University, USA is focused on green nano research and development and is compiling a knowledge database on environmental and health impacts of nano-bio materials. Visit http://greennano.org/
The Action Group on Erosion Technology and Concentration raises critical questions about the social ramifications of corporate control of nanotechnology and synthetic biology. The transformative impact of these new converging technologies will be pervasive and transformative, as all previous industrial revolutions have been before this one. We need to consider who the winners and losers will be and ask fundamental questions about the framework in which these new technologies develop. Will corporations increasingly patent new life forms? Will traditional agriculture and commodity crops be replaced by new synthetic biological pathways that will cause massive job losses and poverty in rural based/less industrialized countries? The ETC Group is calling for an international convention on new and emerging technologies that would examine not only the environmental but the social and political impacts of this new materials revolution. They emphasize that no patents should be given on artificial life; no self governance or voluntary oversight should be conducted; and no environmental release of new organisms should be allowed absent full and transparent examination of possible impacts.
Visit www.etcgroup.org for comprehensive critiques on synthetic biology, nanotechnology and genetic engineering.
The Council for Responsible Genetics website (http://www.gene-watch.org/programs/patents/update.html) fosters public debate about the social, ethical, and environmental implications of genetic technologies.
Genetic Resources Action International Genetic (GRAIN) is an international nongovernmental organisation that promotes the sustainable management and use of agricultural biodiversity based on people’s control over genetic resources and local knowledge. Visit the GRAIN website (http://www.grain.org)
The Third World Network is an independent nonprofit international network of organizations and individuals involved in issues relating to development, the Third World and North- South issues. They monitor the effect of international agreements as they relate to farmers, indigenous people and the global commons. Visit the Third World Network website (http://www.twnside.org.sg/)