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Nanotechnology and the Environment: Enemies or Allies?
Peter Wicks   Jul 27, 2012   Ethical Technology  

Technoprogressives need to align themselves with environmentalists who respect human aspirations.

On 18 October 2011 the environmental NGO Greenpeace issued a press release welcoming a decision by the European Court of Justice (ECJ), ruling that cells derived from human embryos could not be patented, on the grounds (according to Greenpeace’s press release) that patents on such cells “would encourage the commercialization of human embryos”. The ECJ, which plays a role within the European Union that is loosely analogous to the US Supreme Court, had become involved because a court in Germany, where Greenpeace had brought the case to challenge a patent application there, had referred the case since it involved questions regarding the interpretation of EU law.

The decision provoked a predictable outcry among scientists and (especially) technoprogressives, but the question it raised in my mind was why an environmental NGO, in particular, should have been involved. That there were ethical issues and controversy surrounding the patentability of such technology was clear, but the environmental aspects at play were much less so, and did not seem to have played a major role either in Greenpeace’s motivation for bringing the case or in the legal back-and-forth.

Although not specifically related to nanotechnology, the incident came to mind after I was invited to make a presentation (on which this article is based) at Terasem’s 8th Annual Workshop on the Geoethics of Nanotechnology, since it seemed to me symbolic of a perception I had acquired over the years, namely that the “environmental movement” (for want of a better expression) seemed at times to be more anti-technology and anti-business than it was pro-environment. This contrasts, for example, with a recent article by Jamais Cascio in which he points out that technology will need to play an essential role if we are to preserve and/or restore significant wilderness areas on Earth.

As far as nanotechnology is concerned more specifically, a typical expression of the attitude of the environmental community is the following, taken off the website of the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF).

Nanotechnology…has great potential to deliver environmental and other benefits, but it may also pose significant risks to human health and the environment.

Government and industry should work to identify and manage possible health risks before new products are widely used.

In the above position, decent lip-service is paid to the (potentially enormous and life-saving) benefits of nanotechnology, but the emphasis is on the risks, and the consequent need for regulation.

Reacting to the Evils of Industry

In one sense it should come as no surprise that the environmental movement tends to have an anti-technology bias. It has its roots, after all, in a reaction to the Industrial Revolution, which indeed provoked unprecedented environmental degradation and human misery. It was also in the cauldron of the Industrial Revolution that socialism was borne, for essentially similar reasons, and the negative effect of technology on the environment and human health was further highlighted during the post-war period by such events as the testing of atomic weapons off Bikini Atoll, the publication of Silent Spring by Rachel Carsons, pointing out the dangers of the newly-flourishing chemical industry, and industrial accidents such as Torrey Canyon oil spill. In the mean time technology had produced the truly wonderful prospect of total annihilation through nuclear holocaust, a prospect that was vividly in the minds of that particular generation of protesters. Since then, new technology-induced risks such as ozone depletion, acid rain and (of course) climate change have come to light. Against this background it is hardly surprising that environmentalists tend to see emerging technologies such as GMOs and nanotechnology with suspicion.


It would be a mistake, however, to present the environmental movement as a monolithic bank of neo-Luddites. In fact, as with so many protest movements borne out of a reaction to the negative aspects of historical developments, fundamental contradictions within the movement have started to appear.

One of the most fundamental of these contradictions concerns the philosophical underpinnings of environmental concern, and in particular whether we are supposed to be valuing “nature” for its own sake, or whether we are rather aiming for and environment that is healthy and congenial primarily for human beings. (For now, transhumanism remains too marginal for post-humans to be considered at all by mainstream environmentalists, except possibly as some dark, dystopic fantasy.) What “nature” is supposed to mean is also ambiguous, given that any reasonable definition of nature surely includes homo sapiens and the technology that we have developed, but generally what is meant is something like the ecologic balance that existed until humankind came along and disrupted it.

Depending on the position one takes in relation to this debate, humans will be seen either (corresponding to the Abrahamic traditions) as some kind of pinnacle of creation, perhaps with a duty of stewardship over the “natural” environment, or as a kind of cancer on the planet. But there are other contradictions at all. Traditionally virulently anti-nuclear, some parts of the environmental movement have started to take on a more nuanced position with regard to nuclear power as a possible transitional solution to slow down global warming. On the other hand, as apparently benign a technology as wind farms is seen by some as disfiguring the local environment and posing a danger to local wildlife.

Towards an alliance between technoprogressives and environmentalists

An example of a more (techno)progressive attitude on the part of an environmental NGO is WWF’s promotion of a boat that runs entirely on solar energy, and which recently visited the Galapagos islands. WWF reports on their website that the stated goal of the visit “was to promote solar power, efficient energy and ecological mobility by providing information and increasing awareness of the importance of renewable energy”.

In order to consolidate such progressive thinking amongst environmentalists, and close the gap between the attitude of environmentalists and technoprogessives, I suggest that technoprogressives need to adopt the following attitudes in their discussions with environmentalists, or when discussing environmental issues, risks and impacts more generally.
In the first place technoprogressives need to lobby in favour of an environmentalism that respects human aspirations. We do not need to be polite about nihilistic thinking that imagines that “the planet would be better off without us”, or pessimistic, guilt-inducing emphasis on shrinking one’s ecological footprint or rejecting growth. The best way to reduce one’s ecological footprint is, after all, to stop breathing.

On the other hand, there are four ways in which technoprogressives can show that we recognize a legitimate basis for environmentalists’ suspicions of technology.

1. It does not help to deny that technology has its drawbacks as well as its benefits. There are always winners and losers; always unforeseen or unintended consequences; always hard choices to be made. The more that technoprogressives understand and emphasise the negative, along with the positive, the more credible we will be in the eyes of the public, and in particular the environmentally conscious.

2. To the extent that much suspicion of technology, including among environmentalists, is in reality the result of simple fear of change, technoprogressives can also help to promote greater mutual understanding by recognizing that fear of change is real and legitimate and can, when channeled appropriately, be perfectly healthy. Despite its association with the political left, the environmental movement is in many respects a conservative movement, and when “conservative” simply refers to a desire to preserve what is best about the status quo, it plays a positive and essential role.

3. Neither technoprogressives nor environmentalists are rational beings, any more than any other human animal? Acknowledging and accepting this can defuse much of the heat between those of opposing views, where the competing sides (as exemplified in the “religion wars” here at IEET a few months ago) tend to be experts in pointing out the flaws in their opponents’ reasoning, while remaining blissfully ignorant about their own.

4. In addition to the predictable negative impacts of technology, there are of course the less likely but still possible catastrophic consequences, and nanotechnology is rich with the potential to provide fodder for disaster scenarios. Once again, recognizing this and encouraging environmentalists (and others) to focus specifically on the genuine risks, rather than just maintaining a blanket opposition, can be more effective than downplaying them. In this context, perhaps Greenpeace is not so stupid to fear the (over-)commercialization of human embryos…

Of course, if we embrace the above points we might start to wonder whether we are (or should be) “technoprogressive” at all. But to this we have a clear answer. “Technology” does not primarily mean men in white coats being cruel to animals. Technology is the fruit of human endeavour and ingenuity. It is the expression of the belief, and indeed the reality, that we humans do have the power to influence the future, together with the discipline and know-how to do so effectively.

This is the message that we should be shouting from the rooftops: however we define the problem, technology has to be the solution. There can be no other.

Peter Wicks was employed for 16 years at the European Commission, working mainly on environmental policy, and now works as a consultant.


It is this kind of craziness that turns me against well meaning environmental organizations.  I recently gave a TEDx talk about a new solution for regenerative medicine which uses silicone and carbon nanotubes, and I got what I considered the most ridiculous question. Someone asked “Is it recyclable?” I am talking about saving thousands of lives, and a tiny amount of polymer and nanotubes, but the environmental concern still brought about that question. Environmentalism for some has become a religion.

I really appreciate this article, you address both sides of the debate with a surprisingly level head. As someone coming from an industry that involves agriculture, chemicals, and politics this is a really volatile topic. I work in Fashion. Go ahead laugh all you want, but I take it quite seriously: this industry is a mess all in the name of making consumers “pretty”. As an industry insider, I tend to lean on the side of environmentalist in my political stance, only because my industry is not saving any lives, it’s making billions of dollars and it’s technological advancements have achieved brighter colors, fabrics that never wrinkle, and baby clothes that are non-flammable or that block the sun, all to the great detriment of clean water and life (humans, animals, you name it).
Nanotechnology has recently been addressing these issues in miraculous ways that I can neither understand nor fathom. How can technology remove half of the chemicals in a dye bath, reduce the water usage, and have the water run clear at the end of the process? I gather that nanotechnology is playing on a whole new level, scale, and mentality. This looks like quantum physics, magic, miracles, or the end of the world. Frankly, I cannot tell. So my question is, are there any major risks that we should be considering before we whole heartedly embrace nanotechnology in the more frivolous of our consumer goods as a viable innovation? Or let me put it this way, can it be any worse than the outdated chemical processes we’ve been using in textile manufacturing? If anyone has any insights to this please email me:

While appreciate the article and expressions….. there stands a barrier of suspicion - trust between researchers and academics ..agree with Matthew as regards with some similar experiences…since most institutions are academicianship driven… the suspect factoring of who knows better kills new inventions and their merits…ultimately mankind and society are the losers in the bargain… Graham bell invented the telephone but mobile is credited to Martin cooper..
Madan Iyengar

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