An article in this month’s The Ecologist Magazine, by the ETC group‘s Jim Thomas, makes an argument against nanotechnology that combines ignorance and gullibility with the risk of causing real harm to some of the worlds poorest people. What, he says, will happen to the poor cotton farmers and copper miners of the third world when nanotechnology-based fabric treatments, like those sold by the Nanotex Corp, make cotton obsolete, and carbon nanotubes replace copper as electrical conductors? This argument is so wrong on so many levels it’s difficult to know where to start.
To start with, is there any development economist who would actually argue that basing an third world economy on an extractive industry like copper mining is a good way to get sustained economic development and good living standards for the population as a whole? Likewise, it’s difficult to see that the industrial-scale farming of cotton, with its huge demand for water, can be anything other than an ecological disaster. Zambia is not exactly the richest country in Africa, and Kazakhstan is not a great advertisement for the environmental benefits of cotton growing.
And is the premise even remotely realistic? I wrote below about how novel the nanotex fibre treatments actually are; in fact there are many fibre treatments available now, some carrying a “nano” label, some not, which change handling and water resistance properties of a variety of textiles, both natural and artificial. These are just as likely to increase markets for natural fibres as for artificial ones. And as for nanotubes replacing copper, at a current cost of ��200 a gram this is not going to happen any time soon. What this argument demonstrates is that, unfortunately for a campaigning group, ETC is curiously gullible, with a propensity to mistake corporate press releases and the most uncritical nano-boosterism for reality.
This matters for two reasons. Firstly, on the positive side, nanotechnology really could benefit the environment and the world’s poor. Cheap ways of providing clean water and new sources of renewable energy are realistic possibilities, but they won’t happen automatically and there’ll be real debates about how to set priorities in a way which makes the technology bring benefits to the poor as well as the rich. What these debates are going to need from their participants is some degree of economic and scientific literacy. Secondly, there are some real potential downsides that might emerge from the development of nanotechnology; we need a debate that’s framed in a way that recognises the real risks and doesn’t waste energy and credibility on silly side-issues.
Luckily, there is at least one NGO that is demonstrating a much more sophisticated, subtle and intelligent approach – Greenpeace. The contribution of their chief scientist, Doug Parr, to a recent debate on nanotechnology held by the Royal Society in the light of their recent report, is infinitely more effective at focusing on the real issues.