RACHEL'S ENVIRONMENT & HEALTH NEWS #773 . ---July 10, 2003--- . (Published August 15, 2003) . . HEADLINES: . . THE REVOLUTION, PT. 2 . . ========== . . Environmental Research Foundation . . P.O. Box 160, New Brunswick, N.J. 08903 . . Fax (732) 791-4603; E-mail: erf@rachel.org . . ========== . . All back issues are on the web at: http://www.rachel.org . . in text and PDF formats. To subscribe (free), send E-mail . . to listserv@lists.rachel.org with the words . . SUBSCRIBE RACHEL-NEWS YOUR FULL NAME in the message. . . The Rachel newsletter is also available in Spanish; . . to learn how to subscribe in Spanish, send the word . . AYUDA in an E-mail message to info@rachel.org. . =============================================================== ==


In this series we are describing an on-rushing revolution in science and engineering, created by the convergence of four technologies: biotechnology, information science, cognitive science, and nanotechnology (nanotech). The National Science Foundation (NSF) refers to all this as nano-bio-info-cogno science, or NBIC for short.[1,2] See Rachel's #772.

Here we continue describing the newest of these four technologies, nanotech, which is the science and engineering of materials measuring less than 100 nanometers (100 billionths of a meter) in size, far smaller than the eye can see.

The U.S. government created a National Nanotech Initiative just 3 years ago, which now funds nanotech research to the tune of $700 million per year, about a third of that going to the Pentagon. NSF predicts that nanotechnology will be a trillion-dollar industry in the U.S. by 2015, just 12 years from now.[3] This revolution is upon us, though most of us haven't a clue it is happening, or even what it is.

In newspapers, the "big debate" about nanotech revolves around a theory known as "gray goo," proposed a few years ago by nanotech enthusiast K. Eric Drexler.[4] Drexler suggested that the future of nanotech lies with nano-sized robots, which, under software control, will manufacture useful things, including copies of themselves. Drexler named these nanobots "assemblers," and he suggested that vast armies of assemblers under software control would provide the basis for a household appliance that could manufacture anything it was instructed to manufacture -- a Rolex watch or a filet mignon, essentially fulfilling all of humanity's needs and wants, dirt cheap.

Drexler also calculated that, if one assembler took 1000 seconds to make a copy of itself, then self-replicating assemblers, gone haywire, could cover planet earth with a gray goo of assemblers within 72 hours, quickly ending life as we know it. There is even a fancy scientific name for the gray goo hypothesis, "global ecophagy." Ecophagy means "earth-eating."

Drexler's self-replicating assembler seems far-fetched at best. Several Nobel prize winners have gone out of their way to debunk Drexler's dream machine, saying it can't work because it violates known laws of chemistry and physics.[5] However, no one claims that all the laws of physics or chemistry are fully understood, so there's always wiggle room for speculation.

Despite critiques of the gray goo scenario from prestigious quarters, the federally-funded nanotech research community has been unable to dispel the specter of a world badly damaged, if not destroyed, by nanotech. No one seems to doubt that nanotech science and engineering hold great promise for churning the economy through industrial innovation and -- not incidentally -- for the accumulation of vast wealth by successful entrepreneurs. But nagging doubts about the dark side persist, partly fueled by the factual history of earlier government-subsidized technologies.

** Nuclear-powered electric plants were promised to produce "electricity too cheap to meter,"[6] but in fact they produced expensive electricity, the ever-present threat of catastrophic accidents, continuous low-level exposure of workers and neighbors to low levels of radioactivity at every point in the nuclear fuel cycle, an extremely long-lived (and so-far-unsolved) problem of radioactive wastes, and the most intractable problem of all -- the threat of use of nuclear bombs by terrorists, rogue states, or by any industrialized state that finds itself facing too many enemies and with too few soldiers to spare.[7] No one has ever proposed a realistic solution to the spread of nuclear weapons into the hands of Iranians, Pakistanis, North Koreans, and who knows who else? Behind all these potential bombs lies the technical training to make nuclear power plants, training now available at most large universities. If governments had refused to subsidize nuclear power starting in 1950, our modern problems might seem far more manageable than they do today.

** Petroleum, which gave us plastics, pesticides, and the private automobile, is now warming the planet, producing costly and destructive changes in Earth's climate including extreme droughts, floods, tornadoes, monsoons, and hurricanes.[8] Climate change, in turn, is expanding the geographic range of human diseases such as cholera, malaria, yellow fever and dengue fever. [See Rachel's #466.] Leaded gasoline alone created a phenomenally-large, intergenerational public health problem, reducing the IQs of three generations of urban dwellers, promoting attention deficits, school dropout, and violent behavior, and increasing heart disease and cancer.[9] Furthermore, petroleum-based chemistry produced its own set of nasty surprises, including large numbers of childhood cancers, immune system disorders, central nervous system diseases, attention deficits, birth defects, and injuries to the reproductive systems of men, women, and children.[10] Every week new studies elucidate the enormous public-health costs of petro-chemical technologies.[11] In this instance, huge government subsidies made possible the rapid introduction of ill-considered innovations (such as many products of chlorine chemistry),[12] and shielded the corporate sector from liability for reckless decisions.

** Agricultural antibiotics gave us plump chickens, fat cattle, and oversized pigs, but they also helped create antibiotic-resistant forms of typhoid fever, cholera, meningitis, pneumonia, gonorrhea, syphilis, salmonella, streptococcal infections ("strep throat," impetigo, scarlet fever, and rheumatic fever), staphylococcus ("staph") infections (serious blood infections common in hospitals); shigella, dysentery, and even tuberculosis. In 1992, antibiotic-resistant bacteria killed at least 13,300 people in the U.S., according to the federal Centers for Disease Control, and cost the economy an estimated $30 billion (not including pain and suffering).[13] Federal eagerness to subsidize the corporate use of antibiotics on factory farms contributed heedlessly and needlessly to these problems.

** Agricultural biotechnology was supposed to develop under precise laboratory control, reduce the use of harmful pesticides, and "feed the world." In reality, even though the commercial use of biotech food is less than a decade old, biotech crops have already increased, not decreased, the need for dangerous pesticides.[Rachel's #686] Furthermore, novel genes, held under the strictest possible governmental controls, have on several occasions escaped into plants and foods where the public had been told they would never be found.[14] Modern controls on biotechnology have proven to be a dramatic failure. Meanwhile world hunger marches on (principally because of poor distribution networks, and poverty which prevents people from purchasing available food.)

For those who care to look, there seems to be a five-step pattern in this recent history of government-subsidized technologies.

(1) It begins with a corporate decision to commandeer taxpayer funds to support the development of a new technology, after which government provides a long stream of subsidies, some in plain sight and many others hidden.[15]

(2) Next, we hear government (and corporate) hype about the limitless possibilities for increasing productivity, vastly improving the quality of life for everyone, ending poverty, curing cancer and so on.[1]

(3) Government then refuses to apply (or enforce) even the most common-sense regulations.

(4) Government (in concert with the corporate sector) suppresses unwelcome information and ignores (or discredits) dissenting voices warning of trouble ahead.

(5) Finally, government donates publicly-created knowledge and investment to corporate elites who then make profits galore for a decade or two until damage reports accumulate, the public catches on, and controversy engulfs the technology. The role of government throughout this phase is to act like a sponge and absorb blows from an angry public, suppress unwelcome information, discredit detractors, deflect demands for strict regulation, continue to hype the technology, simultaneously spending additional tens of billions of taxpayer dollars on elaborate (and contradictory) programs of blame, denial, cleanup, restitution, and defense against lawsuits.

Nanotech has already entered stages 1 through 4 and is rapidly approaching stage 5.

As with powerful technologies before it, the dark side of nanotech is hard to separate from its bright side. Even if nanobot assemblers never materialize, self-assembly, self-repair, and self-replication remain important goals of nanotechnologists.

Even NSF's Dr. Mihail ("Mike") Roco -- never one to dwell on the dark side of nanotech or NBIC -- identifies the development of "replication and eventually self-replication methods at nanoscale" as one of the key challenges facing nanotechnologists.[16] Nanotech won't ever amount to much if it doesn't achieve self-replication.

Ray Kurzweil, inventor of the first reading machine for the blind, author of The Age of Spiritual Machines, and hardly an anti-technology Luddite, points out that, "Without self-replication, nanotechnology is neither practical nor economically feasible. And therein lies the rub. What happens if a little software problem (inadvertent or otherwise) fails to halt the self-replication?... Nuclear weapons, for all their destructive potential, are at least relatively local in their effects. The self-replicating nature of nanotechnology makes it a far greater danger."[17]

In a now-famous essay in Wired magazine (April 2000), Bill Joy, co-founder and Chief Scientist at Sun Microsystems, drew an even darker picture of a future dominated by genetic manipulation, nanotech, and robotics (GNR):

"The 21st-century technologies -- genetics, nanotechnology, and robotics (GNR) -- are so powerful that they can spawn whole new classes of accidents and abuses. Most dangerously, for the first time, these accidents and abuses are widely within the reach of individuals or small groups. They will not require large facilities or rare raw materials. Knowledge alone will enable the use of them."[18]

"I think it is no exaggeration to say we are on the cusp of the further perfection of extreme evil, an evil whose possibility spreads well beyond that which weapons of mass destruction bequeathed to the nation-states, on to a surprising and terrible empowerment of extreme individuals."

"In truth, we have had in hand for years clear warnings of the dangers inherent in widespread knowledge of GNR [genetics, nanotech, and robotics] technologies - of the possibility of knowledge alone enabling mass destruction. But these warnings haven't been widely publicized; the public discussions have been clearly inadequate. There is no profit in publicizing the dangers," Joy wrote.

The directors of the National Nanotechnology Initiative (NNI) in Washington, say they want to explore the dark side of nanotech, partly to avoid the troubles that presently engulf the emerging field of genetically engineered (aka biotech) food. Biotech -- the practice of stuffing genes from one species into an unrelated species (for example, blasting the genes from a trout into a tomato, to help the tomato survive cold weather) -- was promoted by a handful of chemical corporations aided by pliant federal regulators, some of whom came to their federal jobs fresh from the executive suites of the chemical corporations they were hired to regulate. [Rachel's #381, #382]

Between 1994 and 2001, genetically engineered products were rapidly introduced first into the U.S. milk supply, then into corn and soybeans with a noticeable absence of public debate until after the fact. Indeed, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) declared it illegal for grocers or anyone else to label a product "not genetically engineered," for the purpose of preventing citizens from making informed choices at the grocery check-out.[19] Government's enthusiasm for biotech food has been exceeded only by its desire to suppress public debate about the technology.

It was a small group of independent researchers in western Canada -- the Etc Group (www.etcgroup.org) -- in cahoots with other non-governmental organizations, who first revealed the dark side of biotech. Once the facts began to be known, public reaction was swift and strong. Many governments in Europe banned the import of U.S. biotech foods. Scientists within the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) complained publicly that their doubts about the safety of biotech foods had been ignored and suppressed.[Rachel's #685] Canadian government officials claimed they had been offered bribes by chemical firms to approve biotech milk.[Rachel's #593, #621, #639]

The biotech story is by no means over. Eventually the chemical-biotech corporations, with the U.S. government running interference on their behalf, may overcome worldwide resistance to "frankenfoods" as they are now popularly known. Nevertheless, by almost any standard the introduction of biotech has been a public relations debacle, a scientific scandal, and a disaster for U.S. international relations. Nanotech enthusiasts in Washington are eager to avoid a biotech replay, to put it mildly.

To show its willingness to consider the dark side of nanotech, the National Science Foundation (NSF) held a conference in September 2000 on "Societal Implications of Nanoscience and Nanotechnology." Subsequently, NSF published a 272-page report of the meeting edited by Mihail Roco and an NSF colleague.[20]

In its report, the NSF acknowledges the following sorts of problems stemming from nanotech:

** nanotech may increase "the inequality of wealth," creating a kind of "nano divide" because "those who participate in the 'nano revolution' stand to become very wealthy" while "those who don't may find it increasingly difficult to afford the technological wonders that it engenders."[20, pg. 11]

** nanotech-based medical treatments may "initially" be expensive, "hence accessible only to the very rich." (18, pg. 11)

The NSF proposes to solve these problems by hiring social scientists, philosophers of ethics and other "professionally trained representatives of the public interest" who are "capable of functioning as communicators between nanotechnologists and the public or government officials."[20, pg. 12] In other words, opinion experts will be hired to tell nano experts what the non-experts think about all this, to help the nano experts make decisions about how to deploy this new technology.

As envisioned by the NSF, the general public, whose society is about to be "revolutionized" by nanotech in the next 10 to 20 years, will not have any significant say in the roll-out of nanotech, except of course to pay for it.

Environmentalists argue that the commercialization of nanotech offers an opportunity to try a more thoughtful approach to industrial innovation, adopting the "better safe than sorry" precautionary principle, instead of the more traditional "damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead."[21] No one disputes that the old way created substantial benefits, but the costs to human health and the environment have been enormous, and unpleasant new surprises are being discovered weekly if not daily. Indeed, it is no exaggeration to say that there is a consensus among many biologists that the biosphere is being shredded by previous technical innovations.[22, 23] Maybe this time around we could have the benefits of the new technology but minimize the unpleasant surprises.

The National Academy of Sciences, which manages the National Nanotech Initiative, seems to agree that nanotech should be studied, but wants it done as the technology is being introduced, not before. The difference is crucial. History reveals vividly that after a new technology has achieved commercial success, it is nearly impossible to slow it down, much less bring it to a halt. Even when major public health problems become apparent, as with asbestos, leaded gasoline, chlorofluorocarbons, and fossil fuels it can take 30 to 100 years to change course and introduce saner alternatives. The only practical time to apply restraint to nanotech would be now.

The mechanism for applying restraint would be the democratic involvement of a broad spectrum of the general public, genuinely seeking their guidance, not merely trying to manipulate them like so many robots. Numerous advanced techniques are available now for engaging the public in informed debate,[24] but the National Science Foundation has, so far, shown no inclination to give any of them a try.

[To be continued]


[1] Mihail C. Roco and William Sims Bainbridge, editors, Converging Technologies for Improving Human Performance (Washington, D.C.: National Science Foundation, June, 2002. http://rachel.org/library/getfile.cfm?ID=208

[2] "The Little BANG Theory," ETC Group Communique #78 (March/April 2003). Available on the web at http://www.etcgroup.org/documents/comBANG2003.pdf .

[3] Anonymous, "Small Times Magazine Names Top 10 Small tech Hot Spots," Small Times March 12, 2003. Available at http://www.smalltimes.com/document_display.cfm?document_id=5641

[4] Barnaby J. Feder, "Oppositiopn to Nanotechnology," New York Times August 19, 2002, pg. C5.

[5] Richard E. Smalley, "Of Chemistry, Love and Nanobots," Scientific American Vol. 285, No. 3 (September 2001), pgs. 76-77. And: George M. Whitesides, "The Once and Future Nanomachine," Scientific American Vol. 285, No. 3 (September 2001), pgs. 78-83.

[6] Arjun Makhijani and Scott Saleska, The Nuclear Power Deception; U.S. Nuclear Mythology from Electricity "Too Cheap to Meter" to "Inherently Safe" Reactors (New York: The Apex Press, 1999). ISBN 0-945257-75-9.

[7] William J. Broad, "Chain reaction; Facing a Second Nuclear Age," New York Times Week in Review August 3, 2003, pg. 1. And see J. R. Pegg, "Bush Administration Keen on New Nuclear Weapons," Environment News Service, May 7, 2003, available at http://www.rachel.org/library/getfile.cfm?ID=228 .

[8] William Cosgrove, "Number of Killer Storms and Droughts Increasing Worldwide," World Water Council (Marseille, France) Feb. 27, 2003. Available at http://www.rachel.org/library/getfile.cfm?ID=229 .

[9] See, for example, Rachel's #529, #689. On lead and cancer and heart disease, see M. Lustberg and E. Silbergeld, "Blood lead levels and mortality," Archives of Internal Medicine Vol. 162 (2002), pgs. 2443-2449.

[10] For extensive documentation of these claims, see numerous past issues of Rachel's, available at http://www.rachel.org .

[11] Up-to-date reports about the latest studies can be found on the web sites described in Rachel's #769.

[12] Joe Thornton, Pandora's Poison; Chlorine, Health, and a New Environmental Strategy (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2000). ISBN 0262201240.

[13] Ricki Lewis, "The Rise of Antibiotic-Resistant Infections," FDA [U.S. Food and Drug Administration] Consumer Magazine (Sept. 1995). Available at http://www.rachel.org/library/getfile.cfm?ID=230 .

[14] See Rachel's #760 and the materials cited there. In addition to the scandals described in Rachel's #760, illegal biotech Starlink corn in hundreds of consumer products; illegal biotech canola in Canadian canola fields; illegal biotech cotton in India; and perhaps illegal biotech corn in the heartland of Mexico have all been reported within the past two years; see Justin Gillis, "Little Oversight of Altered Crops," Washington Post April 25, 2003, pg. E4. And see Marc Kaufman, "The Biotech Corn Debate Grows Hot in Mexico," Washington Post March 25, 2002, pg. A9.

[15] Some hidden subsidies have been described in Shannon Collier and others, Green Scissors (Washington, D.C.: Friends of the Earth and others, May 8, 2003). Available at http://www.rachel.org/library/getfile.cfm?ID=231 .

[16] M.C. Roco, "From Vision to the Implementation of the U.S. National Nanotechnology Initiative," Journal of Nanoparticle Research, Vol. 3, No. 1 (2001), pgs. 5-11.

[17] Kurzweil quoted in Sean Howard, "Nanotechnology and Mass Destruction: The Need for an Inner Space Treaty," Disarmament Diplomacy No. 65 (July-August, 2002), pgs. unknown. Available at http://www.rachel.org/library/getfile.cfm?ID=233 .

[18] Bill Joy, "Why the Future Doesn't Need Us," Wired (April, 2000), pg. unknown. Available at http://www.rachel.org/library/getfile.cfm?ID=209 .

[19] See Rachel's #382. Monsanto, the chemical giant that holds the patent rights for rBGH, a synthetic hormone that causes cows to increase their milk output, in July, 2003, sued dairy farmers in Maine to stop them from labeling their milk free of rBGH. See David Barboza, "Monsanto Sues Dairy in Maine Over Label's Remarks on Hormones," New York Times July 12, 2003, pg. unknown.

[20] Mihail C. Roco and William Sims Bainbridge, Societal Implications of Nanoscience and Nanotechnology (Washington, D.C.: National Science Foundation, March 2001). Available at http://rachel.org/library/getfile.cfm?ID=217 .

[21] On the precautionary principle, see, for example, http://www.rachel.org/library/getfile.cfm?ID=187 and http://www.rachel.org/library/getfile.cfm?ID=188 and http://www.rachel.org/library/getfile.cfm?ID=189 and http://www.rachel.org/library/getfile.cfm?ID=227 and http://www.rachel.org/library/getfile.cfm?ID=195 and http://www.rachel.org/library/getfile.cfm?ID=197

[22] See, for example, Peter M. Vitousek and others, "Human Domination of Earth's Ecosystems," Science Vol. 277 (July 25, 1997), pgs. 494-499. Available at http://www.rachel.org/library/getfile.cfm?ID=200

And: Jane Lubchenco, "Entering the Century of the Environment: A New Social Contract for Science," Science Vol. 279 (Jan. 23, 1998), pgs. 491-497. Available at: http://www.rachel.org/library/getfile.cfm?ID=203

[23] William K. Stevens, "Lost Rivets and Threads, and Ecosystems Pulled Apart," New York Times July 4, 2000, pg. F4. Available at: http://www.rachel.org/library/getfile.cfm?ID=233

[24] Maria B. Pellerano and Peter Montague, "Democracy and the Precautionary Principle: An Introduction," unpublished paper (in press) July, 2002. Available at http://www.rachel.org/library/getfile.cfm?ID=161



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