Nano-tech, the next revolution, or just the same old dangerous mess

The history of science and technology has been marred by one catastrophe after the other. Yet these are rarely talked about, with cheerleaders of science focusing instead on technology's superficial marvels. The way western society worships and depends on modern technology is bringing life on this planet alarmingly close to extinction. Nevertheless, scientists, following the dictates and incentives of our corporate and military tyrants, blindly develop new and ever more dangerous technologies which are then, without democratic participation of the world's current and future populations, recklessly foisted on our planet.

The latest scientific obsession is nano-technology which has garnered more than $6 billion in research funds world-wide from corporate, governmental and military sources. Nano-technology refers to any gizmo on a length scale of 10-9 meters (for comparison, a human cell is about 1000 times bigger, while atoms are 10 times smaller than the nano-length scale). Induced both by cash and the potential for quick fame, scientists everywhere, regardless of their background, are flocking to this field. Nevertheless, when pressed, few can offer any real needs for this technology, repeating instead the oft quoted mantra that nano-tech "will be the next industrial revolution", "the engine of a radically new economy", the magic bullet we have all been searching for to finally bring heaven on earth. More troubling, though, is that few scientists express any concern, or even any conscienceness about the potential risks of this technology to our environment and health (this includes prominent MIT and Caltech professors that folks from the Thistle have talked with - we keep their names anonymous to save them from embarrassment, though if these professors continue their foolishness, the Thistle will not be as forgiving in the future). With several billion dollars already invested in nano-tech, even before a market for it has been created, we can be sure that corporate and state planners intend nano-tech to be a major component of future consumer goods and industrial activity. In spite of this, there are currently no institutional structures set up to monitor, scrutinize and regulate this technology. Nor are there any independent institutions with the task of studying and understanding the effects of nano-sized devices and materials on human health and the environment.

At this point in history we should know better than to blindly pursue a technology without understanding its consequences, especially if there are no urgent societal needs for it. There are plenty of examples in the history of science that expose the folly and real danger to life on this planet of such a reckless approach. We need only look at the legacy of the chemical industry.

As a result of modern chemistry, humans today have on average around 100 different known chemicals, pollutants and pesticides in their blood which did not exist 75 years ago. Many of these chemicals were banned several decades ago and are carcinogenic and toxic to the brain, nervous system, reproductive system and immune system. Exposure to synthetic chemicals often comes through frivolous consumer items such as plastic water bottles, paints, detergent, upholstery, TVs and computers. PCBs, which were banned in the US in 1976, are still prevalent in our environment. Hundreds of chemicals can be found in drinking water, household air, dust and food. Many synthetic chemicals accumulate in fat, blood and organs and are passed to future generations through breast milk. Although shown to be significant in some studies, the effects of combinations of dilute chemical pollutants on human health are very poorly understood. The effects of chemical pollution on ecosystems have also been devastating. Due to pesticide/fertilizer run-off from farms in the Midwest for example, there is now a zone of death in the Gulf of Mexico within a 50-mile radius of the mouth of the Mississippi. Another well known example is the big hole in the Ozone due to CFC pollution, but the list goes on ... Despite the known risks of synthetic chemicals, industry continues to belch them out. For many new chemicals, analytical methods that would allow their detection are not available.

As if the stresses of chemical pollution on the environment and our bodies wasn't already enough, the chemical industry in the 1990's decided to risk bringing us one step closer to extinction by introducing untested genetically modified (GM) crops. In just 5 years, chemical giants Monsanto, Dupont, Dow, Aventis and others transformed the majority of our natural food supply to one that is derived from genetically modified seeds. With genetic engineering, genes from viruses, bacteria, or any living species (e.g. arctic trout with frost resistant genes) are inserted into the genome of crops to give them new traits. This radical new technology, as dazzling and powerful as it may be, is poorly understood and very little research has been devoted to understanding its impact on human and environmental health. The Thistle goes so far as to question whether the finite mental capacity of the human intellect will ever be capable of comprehending and predicting the full consequences of genetically modifying living organisms, and therefore, whether humans will ever be able to responsibly use this technology. Nevertheless, with complete enthusiasm and collaboration of the scientific community, corporations have rammed this untested technology into what is among the most essential input to life, our food.

The inability of scientists to anticipate dangers arising from new technologies cannot be demonstrated more clearly than by the follies of the founders of modern physics. It took almost 50 years since the discovery of nuclear radiation, before scientists adequately understood the lethal dangers of radiation exposure. Today we are stuck with large amounts of nuclear waste that was created in the course of just several decades, but that will contaminate the lives of future generations for tens of thousands of years to come. Why should we expect the institutional and societal structures responsible for the previous technological messes to be any better in introducing nano-tech into our world.

Preliminary indications of the health hazards posed by nano-tech already exist. Scientists at Rice University have warned that carbon nano-tubes (carbon graphite sheets rolled up as a cylinder with nano-length diameter) accumulate in the livers of lab animals exposed to them. Since nano-scaled materials are so small, they are often capable of bypassing the human immune system. A cell injected with a micron sized particle (1000 larger than the nano-scale) of carbon black sets off a variety of chemical reactions, indicating that the cell is aware of the intrusion. A cell injected with a carbon nano-tube on the other hand does nothing. This invisibility of nano-particles to cells has attracted the interest of the pharmaceutical industry, which seeks to use nano-tech for drug delivery. It is far from clear though what the long term consequences are of the undetected accumulation in cells of nano-particles. Activity in cells is characterized by a myriad of delicately balanced catalytic reactions, most of which are very poorly understood. What are the short and long term effects of nano-particles on these processes and will humans ever be capable of fully comprehending and predicting such consequences, especially in the long term. One possibility is that proteins may envelope nano-particles which could alter the protein shape and function. But just as the early physicists playing with nuclear materials were unable to anticipate all the health hazards of radiation, scientists today working on nano-tech will be incapable of forseeing all the consequences of their new technology. With projections that the future electronic and chemical industry will draw heavily from nano-tech, human and environmental exposure to nano-particles is bound to be large.

The manner in which nano-tech research is funded at MIT does not bode well for a careful and safe implementation of this technology. MIT has received a $50 million grant from the US army to design a modern soldier suit using nano-technology. The US military is the biggest polluter on the planet and is specialized in death and destruction, regularly bombing and invading foreign countries (25 since the end of WWII), often in violation of international law. It is responsible for massive environmental destruction in Vietnam (Agent Orange), Iraq, Serbia and Afghanistan (depleted Uranium) just to name a few and has consistently exposed its own troops to radiation (nuclear bomb tests, depleted uranium in Iraq), toxic chemicals (agent orange) and experimental drugs. The US army is the last institution to be trusted with implementing a research agenda that has human and environmental health as a priority. Nevertheless, enticed by fat research grants, many MIT professors have eagerly signed on to develop a potentially dangerous technology on behalf of an immensely reckless and destructive institution.

The Thistle doesn't think we should blindly accept the risks of nano-technology. In view of the dismal record of science and technology, powerful, independent and democratic institutions are needed that will study the health and environmental impacts of new technologies. New technologies such as bio-tech and nano-tech, for which no urgent need exists, should be proven completely safe before ever being introduced into the environment and society. Even then, ways must be found by which every one affected by new technologies, including future generations, can participate in making the decision to introduce them. Although obvious to most Thistle readers, an essential prerequisite for a sane world with a sane scientific culture is the dismantling of all corporations and militaries. Both are tyrannical institutions designed to concentrate wealth and power for a small minority at the expense of everyone else and both have historically played a crucial role in imposing dangerous technologies on us. But beyond that, fundamental transformations are needed within the scientific community that lead to a profound respect for nature, a respect which acknowledges our limited capacity to understand it as well as our absolute dependence on this one magnificent and irreplaceable planet.