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
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
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.
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
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.