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Guest Writer - Gastautor - Gast Schrijver


Nanotech Environmental Activist Shenanigans


In a Thursday, October 28th, 2004 Washington Post article titled “Nanotech Group’s Invitations Declined” by Rick Weiss, the article spoke about how three key environmental activist group representatives were invited but had declined to join the International Council on Nanotechnology. This council was organized as an international group of industry, government, academics, environmental and social organizations formed to identify and address potential risks of nanotechnology before the risks become real problems and to quickly fund the research. The representatives cite that they decline for now because they doubted the initiatives would serve the public interest.

Industry does not have a wonderful track record when it comes to being socially and environmentally responsible but things have improved much since the ills of the Industrial Revolution and there is still room for improvement. So they should be allowed the room and latitude to improve.

With $500,000 in industry donations, the council hopes to answer questions about risk and advise governments on how best to regulate the new substances. The attempt at preemptive cooperation drew praise from some who have opted to join. However none of the three invited representatives of environmental groups has agreed to join the newly created International Council on Nanotechnology at its inaugural meeting in Houston on Tuesday, October 28, 2004.

Jennifer Sass of the Natural Resources Defense Council said the group’s “heart is in the right place” but worried that it “may be heavily influenced by industry because that’s where the funding is coming from.” Scott Walsh of Environmental Defense in Washington who will attend to listen but not as a member and expresses similar concerns.

One representative stated that they wanted their name removed from the membership list because the group – “funded almost entirely by industry—seemed more interested in easing public jitters than in actually doing something about the potential risks of nanotechnology.” Easing public jitters and actually doing something about the potential risks of nanotechnology are not mutually exclusive. You cannot actually not do something and be able to ease public jitters.

I do not think the International Council on Nanotechnology would refuse funding from non-industrial sources if the activist groups wanted to raise some funding themselves for this initiative. Did they ever offer to help attempt such to help this initiative? Were these activist groups not aware of this Council being formed from such high profile participants as DuPont, Mitsubishi, L’Oreal, non-profit organizations like Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, US federal government. Did they try and more actively participate in forming of the Council’s makeup and objectives instead of just waiting to be invited to join?

Of course big business will fund an initiative like this. They must because they must demonstrate that they are addressing societal concerns in order to maximize their profits. If their products are not proven safe, they will not make money because people will not buy a dangerous product. The federal government provides economic incentives if they actively participate in promoting safety on the job and develop and meet compliance requirements. Managers are usually put in charge in managing meeting these safety compliance requirements.

Pat Mooney of the Ottawa-based citizen’s organization ETC Group was also critical of the group’s claim to be “international” saying that “it doesn’t cut it to have Mitsubishi from Japan and L’Oreal from France. Two-thirds of the globe is left out in this process,” including most of the world’s poor’. He declined to join because “the whole tone of the approach is ‘How can we convince society we’re nice guys?” and he said “that’s just not going to fly.”

However, this is exactly what industry must do. Industry must prove to their potential customers that they are nice guys. Otherwise we, the public, will not buy the product and they will not make money to enable their existence and provide products that we the public needs. When the Exxon Valdez in the worse oil spill in U.S. history accidentally dumped over 11 million tons of crude oil along an Alaskan coastline in Prince William Sound after striking Bligh Reef, we the public showed our displeasure for their lack of expedient cleanup action by boycotting their gasoline. We the public also work for these corporations. Each one of us, as human beings and citizens, not just of our countries but of the world, has a responsibility to monitor our work place to ensure that it adheres to its obligation to a safe environment and society.

When high performance composites technology was introduced, composites, which is a billion dollar industry was never targeted. This is interesting because carbon/graphite fiber and fiberglass were never targeted as potential environmental problems though it seems these exhibit similar issue and dangers as with nanoparticles. Big business, academia and EPA and OSHA did advise on how to handle these materials safely at least when I was working with these materials as a graduate student. Perhaps composites was not as high profile to the media as nanotechnology to bother making a fuss about?

There are fears that some nanoparticles appear to be toxic and many are not covered by environmental and occupational health regulations. However, even naturally occurring nanoparticles on their own, such as soot and carbon black, produced in large enough quantities could endanger the environment and be harmful to humans, as was the case with coal miners’ Black Lung Disease. Even asbestos is a combination of naturally occurring fibrous type minerals. Perhaps all that needs to be done to minimize safety hazards of nanoparticles is to modify existing OSHA standards?

Carbon or glass fibers, like nanoparticles, may be dangerous and useless on their own, but when it is typically mixed with something or encased in a supporting medium or matrix such as epoxy in a tennis racket, surf board or golf club shaft, they are relatively harmless. The point is not that the B2 Bomber (Stealth) or F16 fighter jets are harmless to society even though their composite structures are relatively harmless environmentally. The point is that nanoparticles confined either physically or chemically in another medium are as harmful to the environment as the current commercially available composite products in the market.

Do any of these activists own graphite fiber tennis rackets or golf club with graphite fiber shafts or automobiles with fiberglass bodies? Even natural degradation over many years of even just the old wooden (wood is one of nature’s composites) tennis rackets may release fine particles into the environment but by then the tennis racket would probably have been disposed of for diminishing performance. I hope no one decides to chew on their tennis rackets to try and deliberately release carbon fiber particles into the air. They might break their teeth doing it.

I may seem to be harping on composites but I only do so to use it as an example as it is one of my areas of research expertise as a PhD graduate student. The nascent nanotechnology concerns are not that different from what should have been concerns for now commonly accepted composite technologies that were revolutionary at the time.

Why do activist groups fan the fires of our fears? Perhaps their existence hinges on our having fear? In other words, without the fear, they would be out of a job. Without the fear, they would have no influence and no one would interview them for the public media about what is going to kill us next.

Are there ulterior motives for these groups not coming to a conference whose public intentions are to help alleviate and address the fears these groups trumpet about nanotechnology? How can one pass judgment on a group and its work that hasn’t even really started working yet and without observing and participating and trying it first?

Are the dangers or nanotechnology (or any new technology for that matter) real but exaggerated? Are these the same mindsets that told me years ago that milk was bad for me too? Again I concede that anything in large enough quantities can be toxic.

Perhaps these environmental groups are not coming to the conference out of fear of actually being proved wrong? What type of politics and games are going on in trying to improve the human condition?

So where is the incentive to actually address those fears? Does it seem that there is more to gain by these environmental groups to increase fear by stalling sincere efforts by big business and government to help alleviate these fears?

Mooney and others expressed more confidence in an effort being organized by the Dillon, Colorado-based Meridian Institute that is funded by the Rockefeller Foundation and Canadian Public corporation called “The Global Dialogue on Nanotechnology and the Poor”. “The Global Dialogue on Nanotechnology and the Poor” will focus on environmental and health concerns but especially on nanotech’s potential to help developing countries, such as by cleaning up water and making cheap electricity.

First of all, the Rockefeller Foundation is a nonprofit organization but the Rockefellers made their money as industrialists. It is industry’s wealth that also fuels changes in society. Second of all, too many separate efforts cause factions. Factions, each operating on their own furthering their own cause, result in politics because their objectives are skewed to one-side. Is there a reason “The Global Dialogue on Nanotechnology and the Poor” cannot also be invited to pool their efforts and funding resources with the International Council on Nanotechnology so we can have a balanced cooperative effort?

Granted there are a lot of people trying to make money hyping the benefits of nanotechnology. However, power, influence and celebrity are also benefits of hype. Social and environmental activist groups do not have entirely altruistic motivations. No one here on earth is all good and human nature is that people do not do things that do not somehow benefit themselves. Hype goes both ways. There should be a healthier balance of optimism and sceptism about the benefits and problems with nanotechnology…as there should be with everything.

Solving problems of the world require cooperation from both sides. Without cooperation, the effort will fail. In other words, if one side decides not to come to the negotiation table, there is no hope. If one side invites the other to the table to negotiate and the other side refuses, then which party is not cooperating?

The other point being that we all live in the same world and we on a basic level need and want the same things. Our goals and objectives are not that different nor unfamiliar even though the means by which we all wish to attain them are very different, as they should be because we are all different. There is always more than one way to skin a cat. As long as the cat gets skinned, the many different ways to skin the cat can be accommodated by working together. Not everyone has the ability to skin the proverbial cat the same way so there can be no best way, but just a best way for each group or individual that can be a combination and/or overlap of others’ approaches. In the end, the cat just has to be skinned.

Perhaps next time I should use a carving a turkey analogy instead of a skinning the cat one as many might be offended by the imagery but it probably would not have the same impact.

In the end, we all want nanotechnology breakthroughs to help us, not harm us.


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