By Gyorgy Scrinis. Reprinted from Arena Magazine, No. 83, June/July, 2006
Nanotechnology — a new range of techniques for engaging with and reconstructing nature at the atomic and molecular level — is being hailed as the basis of the ‘next industrial revolution’, or at least as the next technological revolution or technological wave. It is also being touted as potentially the next major techno-scientific controversy, in part due to the many glaring parallels between this technology and the genetically modified foods controversy.
Proponents portray nanotechnology as the ultimate technological fix to many of our health, environmental and even socio-economic problems. They promise new ‘smart’ pharmaceuticals, foods, materials and devices; cheap and sustainable energy sources; a reduction in resource use and environmental impacts; and an abundance of useful products for even the poorest of communities and countries. Yet nanotechnology introduces potentially serious new health and ecological hazards, and may serve as the technological platform for the next wave of assault on the earth’s resources, for the expansion of the global circuits of production and consumption, and for the further concentration of corporate ownership and control across all economic sectors.
The Nano-Atomic Reconstruction of the World
Nanotechnology commonly refers to any engineered materials, structures and systems that operate at a scale of 100 nanometres or less (One nanometre is one billionth of a metre). Nanotechnology can also be defined as a set of techniques that operate at what I refer to as the nano-atomic level of engagement with nature, such that they enable the direct manipulation and reconstruction of the world at the level of atoms and molecules.
Nanotechnology is not so much a separate and distinct technological field, but rather a new techno-scientific platform, whereby a range of existing technological forms and scientific disciplines — such as chemistry, physics, biotechnology, information technology and engineering — are able to shift down to the ‘nano-atomic’ level. Importantly, nanotechnology promises the further integration and convergence of these techno-scientific disciplines.
A number of types of nano-techniques and applications can be distinguished, including the manufacture of nanoparticles, nanofabrication and molecular manufacturing techniques, and the field of nano-biotechnology. Nanoparticle production includes the breaking down of larger-scale chemical compounds and materials into nano-scale particles, as well as the manufacture of distinctly new materials, such as carbon nanotubes, buckyballs and quantum dots. Such nanoparticles are already being manufactured in large quantities and incorporated into a wide range of commercial products, including cosmetics, car tyres, building materials and silicon chips. We can soon expect them to also be used widely in food and pharmaceutical products.
Simply dealing with materials at the nanoscale can change their properties in comparison with the same materials at a larger scale. This is in part because smaller particle sizes increase the surface area of molecules The nanoscale material could be more reactive, have different optical, magnetic and electric properties, and may be stronger or more toxic.
Nanoparticles and other nano-constructs may simply be used to produce cheaper, more durable or greater quantities of existing commercial products. They will also be used to manufacture products with new or enhanced qualities, such as ‘smart’ surfaces and materials, faster computers, pharmaceuticals able to target particular organs in the body, and ultra-small sensors and monitoring devices that can be utilised across a range of industries.
Nanofabrication and molecular manufacturing refer to a range of existing and hypothetical techniques and processes for assembling supra-molecular constructions and larger products from the ground up. Molecular manufacturing — the prospect of designing and building macro-scale objects atom-by-atom — is still the subject of speculation in terms of whether it will ever be possible or feasible, but its industrial implications would be enormous.
Nano-biotechnology refers to the use of nanotechnology to manipulate living organisms and to enable the merging of biological and non-biological materials. This includes the use of nanotechnology to facilitate genetic engineering breeding programs, the incorporation of synthetic materials into biological organisms, and ultimately the creation of new life forms. The underlying aim is to find new ways of re-engineering living organisms for specific industrial uses.
The absolute precision control of atoms, and the precise and efficient manufacture of products atom-by-atom — the promise of total control over nature and matter at the molecular level — represents the ideal, the dream of nanotechnology. It also underpins an ideology of nano-atomic precision, whereby the degree of precision and control over nature at the nano-atomic level — as well as the control over the products of nanotechnology — are exaggerated, as are the supposed benefits that will flow from this precision. At the same time, this ideology tends to mask or downplay concerns over the imprecision, unpredictability and uncertainties surrounding the techniques and products of nanotechnology.
Nanotech proponents emphasise the many human health benefits that this technology will enable. This includes the development of new ‘smart’ pharmaceuticals able to target organs and diseases, cheap and powerful diagnostic medical devices, water-filtration technologies, new possibilities for bodily implants and organ replacements, and designer foods with nutritional benefits. The more immediate health implications of nanotechnology, however, are the entire new class of threats that the new nano-materials and products pose to human health and safety. In particular, there are major concerns regarding the toxicity of nanoparticles.
The very size and shape of nanoparticles, their high reactivity and the new properties they contain are the source of a range of possible health and environmental hazards. These characteristics of nanoparticles make them potentially hazardous to humans in numerous ways, particularly as nanoparticles may have many pathways for entering the body — for instance, through inhalation, digestion and skin exposure. They may be able to penetrate the skin, pass into the bloodstream, penetrate cells, by-pass immune responses, lodge in the lungs and cross the blood-brain barrier. The small number of health and safety studies undertaken to date — largely in the form of animal experimentation studies –— have already demonstrated a range of threats that nanoparticles pose to human health, such as inflammatory lung injury.
Sunscreens and other skin and baby products containing nanoparticles are already on the market and pose a threat to consumers. Sunscreens containing nano-scale particles of zinc oxide render them transparent, in contrast with the white colour of ‘conventional’ zinc oxide. It is still unknown whether such nanoparticles are able to pass though the skin and what the health effects might be.
Workers and scientists involved in the manufacture and use of nanoparticles face the greatest level of exposure and are most directly threatened by nanoparticle toxicity at present. A recent Australian Senate inquiry into exposure to ultra-fine particles in the workplace included submissions from some unions arguing that nanoparticle exposure posed serious risks to workers.
The giant re-insurance company Swiss Re has acknowledged that nanoparticles could become the ‘next asbestos’, in part because of the similar size and shape of asbestos and nanoparticles, such as carbon nanotubes. However each type of nanoparticle produced could be as hazardous as asbestos, which means the proliferation of a wide range of potentially deadly asbestos-like particles.
Nano-Pollution and the Deep Integration of Nature into the Economy
Nanotechology is also celebrated by its proponents as an environmentally sustainable technology. They claim nanotechnology can be used to solve many existing problems of resource use and pollution emissions, and ultimately usher in a sustainable economy. Some of the specific environmentally beneficial applications of nanotechnology being developed or promised include: more efficient solar and renewable energy generation technologies and the more efficient use of fossil fuels; improved water and air filtering technology for cleaner drinking water and reducing air pollution emissions; ‘smarter’ energy-saving building materials; biosensors for the detection of pollutants and pathogens; and environmental remediation applications such as products for cleaning up contaminated water and soils.
Beyond these specific applications, it is claimed that nanotechnology will enable the more efficient use of resources and energy across all industrial and economic sectors due to the capabilities of new nanomaterials and production techniques. This includes the prospect of nanomaterials that are stronger, lighter, more durable and reliable than the conventional materials they replace, or that require less resources and energy to produce and create less wastage and pollution by-products.
If the more distant promise of ‘molecular manufacturing’ is realised, then it is claimed that products may eventually be able to be manufactured from the ground up — atom by atom — to fit precise specifications. In general, it is presented as a taken-for-granted certainty that nano-atomic precision will translate into the ability to precisely manufacture products with a minimum of resource inputs and waste outputs, and that these efficiency gains will in turn translate into a reduction in our current environmental impacts.
For nanotech supporters, the combination of these environmentally beneficial applications, incremental efficiency gains and precise manufacturing techniques all add up to the promise — or is it just the techno-capitalist fantasy? — that nanotechnology could, as expressed in a recent CSIRO report, ‘decouple resource consumption from economic growth through initiatives in the recovery, recycling and re-use of material products’. In other words, they suggest that nanotech could allow us to have more commodities and economic growth for fewer resources consumed and environmental impacts.
However, the likely environmental implications of nanotechnology can be understood quite differently. Nanotechnology introduces an entire new class of environmental threats into the world, including the spectre of nanopollution. Nanostructured particles and devices may constitute a whole new class of non-biodegradable pollutants. Like chemical pollution, the concerns over nano-pollution are based on the persistence, bioaccumulation and toxicity of nanoparticles and products. Nanoparticles and nanostructures could be released into the air, soil and water in the form of environmental remediation products, through waste streams from factories and research laboratories, as fixed or unfixed nanoparticles in composite products and as components of military weapons.
The size and toxicity of nanoparticles poses a threat to animals, fish and micro-organisms. Nanoparticles may also travel through soils and be taken up by plants, thereby entering the food chains of humans and animals. Because of their size and bonding properties, nanomaterials may absorb and provide an avenue for transport of contaminants.
Beyond the specific threats of nanoparticles, the transformative power of nanotechnology poses more far-reaching environmental threats and challenges. One of the inherent dangers associated with nano-biotechnologically modified organisms — such as modified viruses — is not only that they reproduce, but that they may also mutate and evolve in unpredictable and uncontrollable ways. The Canadian-based ETC Group (Action Group on Erosion, Technology and Concentration) has referred to the danger posed by the release these organisms as ‘green goo’.
While these environmental concerns relate primarily to the specific hazards and risks posed by nanotechnology, there is a need to consider the broader environmental implications of nanotechnology if its radical potential for taking apart and reconstructing nature is exploited fully by the corporate–industrial global economy. For nanotechnology may ultimately facilitate the next wave of expansion of the global economy, and the transformation and integration of ever-more parts of nature into our systems of production and consumption.
Nanomaterials and manufacturing processes may well introduce new efficiencies in the use of materials or energy consumption. But these very efficiencies per unit of production can also facilitate an overall expansion in the quantity and range of products manufactured. New production efficiencies often simply translate into cheaper materials and cheaper end products. Improvements in the efficiency and endurance of batteries, for example, may simply enable the proliferation of a new range of portable electronic equipment.
More generally, the ability to more precisely engineer living and non-living objects at the nano-atomic level represents an enhanced ability to control and reconstitute nature in order to meet the precise requirements of the dominant systems of production and consumption.
Nanoparticles will be manufactured from a wide range of materials, yielding new qualities from older materials, or finding uses for previously un- or under-utilised natural resources. In this sense, natural resources may increasingly be encountered as interchangeable inputs for manufacturing systems. Nano-biotechnology will enable the integration of living and non-living materials, such that nano-bio modified organisms will be able to be constructed from a toolbox of interchangeable parts. The smallest units of nature — including cells and viruses — will be transformed into tiny production units, or nano-factories, for producing commercially useful materials.
In essence, nanotechnology represents the most powerful attempt to date to deconstruct the world into the most basic elements or units, and to then reconstruct them to meet our requirements. In contrast to the ‘green’ imagery promoted by the nanotech industry, this level of taking apart and reconstituting nature could be understood as one of the violent assaults on nature to date.
Nanotechnology opens up new avenues for the exploitation of the earth’s resources, as ever more parts of the earth become mere putty to be reconstructed and harnessed to the goals of commodity production. Rather than decoupling resource consumption from economic growth — or simply decoupling nature from the economy — nanotechnology represents the deepest integration of nature into the economy yet attained.
Economic Transformation and Corporate Concentration
Nanotech is further celebrated for the purported economic and material benefits it will bring to the whole world — including the poorer countries and classes — particularly in the form of abundant renewable energy sources, water filtration technologies, and cheap and durable products. However, one of the most likely and far-reaching economic implications of nanotechnology is that it will enable further corporate concentration of ownership and control of markets within and across industrial sectors. Nanotechnology may also lead to economic and employment upheaval in which the most vulnerable workers and countries are likely to suffer most, at least in the short term.
Nanotechnology is set to transform the technological base of many industries and national economies. These new nanotechnological processes and products may undermine the demand for older forms of technologies, materials, products, industries and workers’ skills. New nanotech manufacturing techniques and smart technologies may also enable the development of less labour-intensive forms of production and services within a range of industries. In the process, the incomes, employment opportunities and material security of many poor and vulnerable workers and communities — especially those least able to quickly adapt to the new forms of production — may be severely undermined.
As with the new genetic and biotechnologies, nanotechnology is at present an essentially corporate technology, in that it will largely be controlled by — and benefit — large corporations. Many of the world’s Fortune 500 companies are investing heavily in nanotech research and development. Nanotechnological techniques, instruments, materials and products are currently being furiously patented by corporations and research institutes. It is the largest corporations that will be best placed to secure patents and defend them in court in the face of litigation between patent holders with overlapping and conflicting patents.
The nanotechnologies, materials and products being developed have potential to be used across industrial sectors, facilitating increased corporate co-operation and convergence. Corporate patenting, ownership and control will accelerate the existing trend towards concentration of corporate market control within and across industrial sectors.
There are also serious concerns over the military use of nanotechnology and for the development of surveillance technologies. Nanotechnology may enable the development of increasingly powerful and destructive weapons and applications —including a new generation of biological weapons — and thereby fuel a new arms race. Much US government funding for nanotechnology is being directed to military applications. Nanotechnology also enables the development of new devices and processes for exercising centralised and pervasive control over individuals, such as ubiquitous surveillance and monitoring technologies.
Regulatory Vacuum and the Call for a Moratorium
Nanotechnology is currently being developed and commercialised in a regulatory vacuum, and largely outside of general public awareness, debate, and participation in decision-making processes. The products of nanotechnology research are being prematurely commercialised, manufactured and released into the environment before adequate (if any) health and safety testing or environmental impact assessment.
Recognising the potential for a GM-food style public backlash, the nanotech industry, governments and academics have been talking incessantly about the importance of ‘engaging with the public’, and the need for some sort of regulatory framework. So far, however, there have been no nanotech-specific regulations introduced anywhere in the world, and little meaningful ‘public engagement’.
A report released in 2004 by the conservative UK Royal Society, commissioned by the UK government, recommended that nanoparticles not be released until subjected to safety testing and that all nanomaterials be treated as new substances and subjected to dedicated EHS risk assessments. But the UK government has so far failed to act on these recommendations. The ETC Group — which has been at the forefront of civil society campaigns against genetically modified foods — has also taken the lead in the nanotechnology campaign internationally. They have called for a global moratorium on nanotechnology research and commercialisation of nanotechnology.
In Australia, Friends of the Earth have recently launched a nanotechnology campaign, and are also calling for an immediate moratorium on the research, development and production of all nanotechnological materials and products until such time as nanotechnology research, applications and products are subject to comprehensive public debate, regulation, testing and democratic control.
[Dr Gyorgy Scrinis is involved with the Friends of the Earth (Australia) Nanotechnology Project (http://nano.foe.org.au), and is a Research Associate at the Globalism Institute, RMIT University.]