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Small is dangerous: the threat of nano-technology

by Pat Mooney, September 3, 2003

Is Small Beautiful? I should begin by saying that I first read Schumacherís book in 1973 and was thrilled by it. And I have been thrilled by the work of ITDG ever since then in fact. My own experience with ITDG was never more close than in the 1990s. I have seen the work in terms of agriculture, biodiversity and biotechnology issues, work on seed saving, work with pastoralists, and life stock, and I have been amazed by it. ITDG deserve credit for having been international leaders in this work and with networking with other groups around the world on all of these issues.

Let me add some other figures to the discussion on nanotechnology. The figures I will use may well be hype but they are the hype being used by governments and the hype sometimes being used by corporations.

The National Science Foundation in the United States says that the market value, sales value, of nano materials in the year 2015 will be one trillion dollars. They say that by around 2010, half of the worldís pharmaceutical industry will be based upon the use of nanoscale technologies. And that virtually the entire semiconductors industry will be based upon nanoscale technologies.

As you look across the whole spectrum of economic sectors (every sector of the economy is involved because atoms are the building block of everything living and non living) every aspect of industry is participating in and involved in the development of nanoscale technologies. The impact will be everywhere. It will be in the automobile industry, in aerospace industry, in pharmaceuticals of course, in agriculture, there is no aspect that will not be touched by this.

It is happening incredibly rapidly and the question you might most want to ask yourselves is: if this has been around for so long, and is so customary and normal, how come we havenít heard about it before? This is a new topic for most people and why is it that we are not aware of these kinds of dollar volumes of impact coming very very quickly. And anyway, if it is so customary what does it really mean for developing countries, for the poor of the world, actually the poor in the UK or Canada, where I come from, or the poor in Asia, Africa and Latin America.

I would argue that how nanotechnology will finally play out, the implications for the third world, for the poor, are absolutely enormous. In fact the implications in discussions which will take place next week in Cancķn are enormous in terms of the WTO. Developing countries are going into negotiations in making trade deals, trade offs, between North and South for commodities, for access to markets, for investment opportunities, without an awareness of the real implications that nanotechnology is going to have for those eventual markets, and that needs to be understood by those countries very quickly or we are all in trouble.

Why is it so important? I think one thing that Mark [Welland] didnít have time to stress but probably would agree with is that one of the particular aspects of working at the scale of atoms, at the nanoscale, is that we move from classical physics to quantum physics. And at that stage everything changes, the conductivity of an element in the periodic table, its electrical conductivity, its stress tolerances, its temperature tolerances, its elasticity, every aspect, even the colour of an element will change profoundly when you move down below the level of 100 nanometres in size down to 50 or 70 or 20 or 10 nanometres in size. Everything changes. If you think of the periodic table as being in terms of working elements, 92 working elements, that we get to play with to build everything in the world. Because of quantum physics, we suddenly have a palette of colours to work with which is several times greater than it ever was before. Not 92 elements anymore itís perhaps two or three hundred elements.

So now the building blocks of things much greater in number than ever before and that changes things enormously for the world economy, because it means working at that scale and building from that scale you can change and mix and match the elements you want to work with.

No longer is geography a critical factor in raw materials and thatís an amazing thing. Suddenly you no longer have to go to get your copper from Peru or your cobalt from Zambia or your tin from Malaysia. Perhaps you can get the same qualities you want for manufacture by designing new compounds or developing materials building from the building blocks upwards to make these new products.

This means that if you are developing a copper mine in Peru, by the time you have negotiated your agreements on trade and have made deals to get foreign and direct investment, by the time that copper mine comes on stream there may no longer be a requirement for copper in the same way that there is today. Either much less copper will be required or possibly no copper at all. Perhaps it can be replaced by something else such as chalk. Carbon calcium, the building block of chalk, is what crumbles on the black board but down at the nanoscale youíve got a material which is approximately 100 times stronger than steel and six times lighter.

So instead of having to look at how you buy your iron and your ores to build into steel, maybe you just use very simple and commonly available building blocks to create even more effective materials. That is why from the automobile industry, to the space agencies, to the pharmaceutical industry, everybody is fascinated by the possibility of using quantum physics to develop new products.

Not only will it effect developing countries in terms of the mining industries, which are extremely important in their ability to export raw materials and even finished products to us, it will also effect living materials, the textile industry. In Cancun next week there will be negotiations related to access to markets in finished goods in textiles. Developing countries will be prepared to give away some things in return for access to markets in Europe and North America. As that is going on we find that someone like Warren Buffet, the famous investment billionaire who during the dot com days at the end of the 1990s/2000 never bought into the dot com companies, but bought Proctor and Gamble and Walmart stocks, is buying textile companies, all of them very cheap, most of them bankrupt, some of them in chapter 11 negotiations in the United States. Textile companies are now being bought because Buffet believes that with nanotechnology he will actually be able to bring back the industry to North America. It will be possible to use nano textiles and nano textiles are available now. That will allow him to have a technology which he will be able to control in and from North America.

Developing countries negotiating in Cancun arenít aware of that. The implications will be the transformation of their economies because of something that will take place in Burlington Mills in North Carolina. Then we have a problem and it will not just effect textiles it will effect food products as well.

Tewolde [Egziabher, Ethiopian Environment Protection Agency] I know is concerned about coffee and the development and export of coffee markets, as we are seeing developments coming forward from the United States Department of Agriculture. US Department of Agriculture has a draft paper available on its website now which looks at the potential for agriculture to use nanotechnology. They talk about the ability to reduce crop waste, which is good, they talk about the ability to monitor crops more effectively which can be good, can be bad as well, they talk about ways in which they might be able to fundamentally redesign plants again, not using transgenics but getting down and manipulating the atoms themselves, manipulating the molecules, changing the DNA itself within the existing plant. That would be the long term possibility and if we are not aware of the discussions going on in the US Department of Agriculture and how that might effect the food system, the food chain, and exports, again developing countries lose out.

If we look at this we have to understand that we are faced with, good or ill, a technology wave coming towards us. It is the biggest technology wave the world has ever seen. It is the manipulation of all the materials, living and non living, at again the nanoscale. Weíve never done that kind of thing before.

That technology wave will be one of many waves we have all seen in history and during the course of this morning we have had several comments about the history of technology and the Luddites and so on. I really appreciated the gentlemenís comments about the Luddites. I think there is an abuse of terms there which should be understood more clearly. The concern about livelihood, the concern about survival for families and survival for communities is part of that as well. But as we look at the history of technologies we can not just celebrate the 30th anniversary of Small is Beautiful Ė we can celebrate this year the 550th anniversary of the renaissance. It was in 1453 that Goodenberg began to print the bible with his moveable type. It was also in 1453 that we started some of the most amazing work in astronomy and also when human biology began, and that was really in a sense the beginning of the renaissance.

Well look at those impacts. Moveable type meant that knowledge could move. For the first time ever it was rather easy to send the information out without the person that provided it and that has many values in society. Also it was during the renaissance we saw that money became moveable for the first time, banking became international, it was possible to establish credit systems and so on, it was effectively global but certainly European and potentially New World. Big changes. In a sense their own kind of revolution in techniques that came with the industrial revolution. When the Dutch took over the leadership in technologies the change really was the development of power systems and the development of management of labour and of wage systems that made labour moveable.

So knowledge is moveable, with the first of the renaissance the Dutch labour became moveable, when the British got into the act energy became moveable for the first time. The first time it was possible with a steam engine to actually be able to move the production to wherever it is most convenient for the manufacture. The steam allowed that to happen either close to the raw materials site or close to the consumer site. And that was a profound difference and profound change in the world economy.

At the beginning of the last century life became moveable because of genetics and then genomics as we have evolved throughout this previous century. We have seen life can now be mixed and matched and married, for good or for ill again, we have seen many concerns about that which we have only briefly touched upon this morning.

And now with nanotechnology, with the one big step down from genes to atoms, matter is moveable, matter is malleable and again the geographic location of raw materials becomes relatively irrelevant for the world, and that is a profound change again in the world economy.

So we should be concerned about that wave when it comes because the other reality of the history of technology waves over the last 550 years is that every wave has a crest and a trough. The rich ride the crest, the poor are in the trough. The poor havenít simply lost by comparison. The poor have lost in real terms in every technology wave. The poor got poor. That happened with the dot com industries in the United States during the 1990s, the gap between rich and poor widened in the United States, not just widened but they got poorer. In every situation throughout history that has been what has happened, it will happen again with this revolution, this new wave coming upon us now.

This wave again involves everything, it involves all the living materials, all the non living materials, and the ways in which they can be mixed and matched and put together. And that wave is being led by the worlds largest corporations. Unlike biotechnology which began in the universities and moved from the university campus to small little boutique companies then those companies were eventually bought by the big multinationals. In this case we are seeing a revolution which is in the universities yes, in small companies also, but also at Exon, and IBM, at Hewlett Packard, at Dupont, at Dell, at Monsanto, at Kraft Foods, all of these places are also involved in the same revolution. All working together at the nanoscale with impacts for all of us and we are not even aware of it and we havenít even discussed it.

The last thing I will say is that the issue here is not simply to look at nanotechnology. What I would invite ITDG to consider is that we need to get ahead and analyse what has to be done for us to manage these technological waves in a way in which society is in control. The only way we can do that frankly is through something which we call the need for creating an international convention for the evaluation of new technologies. We need to have Tewolde working with us again, not just on a biosafety protocol but on a system. An international legal structure which allows us to look ahead down the road at robotics, which is part of nanotechnology in fact, and all the other information technologies and try to analyse them ahead of the game. Instead of running 7 or 8 years after them trying to set up a system that is far too late.

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