Bad reasons to oppose nanotechnology: part 1

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.

3 thoughts on “Bad reasons to oppose nanotechnology: part 1”

  1. That is Thomas’s weakest argument in an otherwise very strong case he makes. See for example, his interview in Corporate Watch ( where he makes that, but also some much stronger arguements. Focusing on one of his weakest arguments is bad form. check out the arguements he makes about power, as in the invisible factor of political power, those are truly important.

  2. As it happens, the arguments I talk about dominate the article I cite, though of course I’m aware that Thomas has made many other arguments against nanotechnology too. But even so, I don’t agree at all that it’s bad form to focus on his weakest arguments. If you use weak arguments you must expect this to reflect badly on your general credibility, and to lessen the impact of any arguments you make that actually might have some validity. It’s certainly true that a sympathetic readership might be prepared to overlook weak arguments, but I’d like to think that groups like ETC were actually interested in the practical politics of persuading people who don’t think the same way as them rather than simply posturing for the applause of the like-minded.

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