Nanotechnology is forecast to underpin “the next industrial revolution”, leading to far-reaching changes in social, economic and ecological relations. Yet whereas the health and environment risks posed by nanomaterials are attracting an increasing amount of attention, there is still little discussion of the potential for nanotechnology to result in large-scale social disruption.  Friends of the Earth has just released a new Issue Summary “The disruptive social impacts of nanotechnology” (download below) which discusses the sorts of social changes and challenges that nanotechnology is likely to bring.

Like the industrial revolution, which took almost 50 years to come to fruition, the impact of nanotechnology is likely to be gradual and almost evolutionary until we find ourselves in the midst of what analysts are predicting will be a “technological tsunami” that will result in large-scale social upheaval.

There is general agreement that nanotechnology will result in significant social disruption. The APEC Center for Technology Foresight observes that: “If nanotechnology is going to revolutionise manufacturing, health care, energy supply, communications and probably defence, then it will transform labour and the workplace, the medical system, the transportation and power infrastructures and the military. None of these latter will be changed without significant social disruption”. However opinion remains sharply divided on whether large-scale social upheaval will bring net gains or losses.

Nano optimists see nanotechnology delivering environmentally benign material abundance for all by providing universal clean water supplies; atomically engineered food and crops resulting in greater agricultural productivity with less labour requirements; nutritionally enhanced interactive ‘smart’ foods; cheap and powerful energy generation; clean and highly efficient manufacturing; radically improved formulation of medicine; and increased human performance through convergent technologies.

However nano sceptics suggest that nanotechnology will simply exacerbate problems stemming from existing socio-economic inequity and the unequal distribution of power; create a nano divide resulting in even greater inequities between rich and poor; entrench corporate concentration and enable corporate control of even the very building blocks of the natural world; distort international power relations through military applications and trade impacts; provide the tools for ubiquitous surveillance; introduce new risks to the health of humans and the environment; and redefine what it means to be human.

To read FoE’s new Issue Summary “The disruptive social impacts of nanotechnology” click here.