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Greenpeace and Nanotechnology

By Glenn Harlan Reynolds - July 30, 2003 12:00 AM

Greenpeace has just released a report on nanotechnology and artificial intelligence entitled Future Technologies, Today's Choices: Nanotechnology, Artificial Intelligence and Robotics; A Technical, Political and Institutional Map of Emerging Technologies.

That Greenpeace is getting more interested in nanotechnology isn't such a surprise. What might surprise some is that the Greenpeace report is surprisingly moderate, considering the source. So although the report has already attracted considerable criticism (you can read a sampling of that criticism here and here) I'm going to emphasize the positive. Because there are, in fact, a number of real positives to the Greenpeace report.

The biggest piece of news is that the report pooh-poohs the idea of a moratorium on nanotechnology, despite calls from other environmental groups for one. Instead, it says (p. 44) that a moratorium on nanotechnology research "seems both unpractical and probably damaging at present." The report also echoes warnings from others that such a moratorium might simply drive nanotechnology research underground.

Though largely missed in the few news stories to cover the report, this is a big deal. With a moratorium taken off the table, the question then becomes one of how, not whether, to develop nanotechnology.

The report also takes a rather balanced view of the technology's prospects. It notes that there has been a tendency to blur the distinction between nanoscale technologies of limited long-term importance (e.g., stain-resistant "nano-pants" as opposed to build-anything general assembler devices) so as to make incremental work look sexier than it is. This is important, because it means that the report's not-entirely-unreasonable worries about the dangers of nanomaterials are distinguishable from more science-fictional concerns of the Michael Crichton Prey variety. And that means that it will be harder for Greenpeace to conflate the two kinds of concerns itself, as has been done in the struggle against genetically-modified foods where opponents have often mixed minor-but-proven threats with major-but-bogus ones in a rather promiscuous fashion.

Indeed, it seems to me that nano-blogger Howard Lovy is right in saying, "Take out the code words and phrases that are tailored to Greenpeace's audience, and you'll find some sound advice in there for the nanotech industry." Greenpeace is calling for more research into safety. Now is a good time to do that -- even for the industry, which currently doesn't have a lot of products at risk. And this kind of research is the same thing that a lot of responsible nanotechnology researchers are calling for. Such research is likely to do more good than harm at blocking Luddite efforts to turn nanotechnology into the next GM food. As Rice University researcher Vicki Colvin recently noted in Congressional testimony:

The campaign against GMOs was successful despite the lack of sound scientific data demonstrating a threat to society. In fact, I argue that the lack of sufficient public scientific data on GMOs, whether positive or negative, was a controlling factor in the industry's fall from favor. The failure of the industry to produce and share information with public stakeholders left it ill-equipped to respond to GMO detractors. This industry went, in essence, from "wow" to "yuck" to "bankrupt." There is a powerful lesson here for nanotechnology.


She's right, and the nanotechnology industry would do well to take this lesson. As I wrote here a while back, there has been a tendency among some companies and researchers to pooh-pooh the prospects for advanced nanotechnology in the hopes of avoiding the attention of environmental activists. That obviously isn't working. The best defense against nano-critics is good, solid scientific information, not denial -- especially given the strong promise of nanotechnology in terms of environmental improvement.

Nanotechnology legislation currently before Congress calls for some investigation into these issues. I hope that by the time it passes, there will be more emphasis on exploring both the scientific and the ethical issues involved in nanotechnology's growth. That sort of vigorous engagement is likely to do more to encourage the success of nanotechnology than anything else that Congress can do at the moment.
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