Return of the green Luddites

CNET News.com's Declan McCullagh says the future of nanotechnology may be put in jeopardy because of well-meaning but scientifically illiterate activists.

Declan McCullagh Former Senior Writer
Declan McCullagh is the chief political correspondent for CNET. You can e-mail him or follow him on Twitter as declanm. Declan previously was a reporter for Time and the Washington bureau chief for Wired and wrote the Taking Liberties section and Other People's Money column for CBS News' Web site.
Declan McCullagh
5 min read
Being an activist means always having to find something new to complain about.

For much of the past decade, environmental activists have voiced fears about bioengineered crops. Engineered crops such as soybeans, corn and canola are popular in the United States, because farmers can reduce the amount of pesticides released into the environment, but pro-environmental groups have successfully campaigned against them in Europe.

Never mind that in a major study published in 1989, the National Research Council concluded that genetically engineered products were as safe as or safer than products that are manufactured through more traditional methods. And never mind that there's no evidence that the millions of Americans who munch on engineered grain have experienced any ill effects as a result.

Some well-meaning but scientifically illiterate activists who populate environmental groups are currently targeting another emerging area: nanotechnology. (Nanotechnology refers to working with materials in the one- to 100-nanometer range, a process that promises to create useful new substances, aid medical research and accelerate microprocessors. A June estimate says research and development in nanotech is expected to surpass $3 billion in 2003.)

A recent 72-page report from Greenpeace warns of the dangers of nanotechnology. An introduction from Greenpeace's Doug Parr sets the tone for the piece, claiming that nanotechnology-created "materials should be considered hazardous until shown otherwise."

Huh? Abandoning technologies that can protect the environment is hardly the most logical stance for a pro-environment group to take. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, for instance, is already looking into and funding the development of nanomaterials that can reduce harmful emissions, aid recycling and filter gaseous pollutants.

Greenpeace goes on to invoke the tired rhetoric of class struggle, arguing: "Is the future of nanotechnology then a plaything of the already-rich? Will the much talked about 'digital divide' be built upon, exacerbating the inequities present in current society through a 'nano-divide?'" In reality, all new inventions--from air conditioning to clothes dryers to automobiles--initially are the playthings of the wealthy. Then, as production costs fall over time and economies of scale take over, those products become available to more and more people.

Abandoning technologies that can protect the environment is hardly the most logical stand for an pro-environment group to take.
Still, Greenpeace seems almost reasonable when compared to organizations such as the Canadian environmentalists at the ETC Group, which published a communique that calls for an "immediate moratorium on commercial production of new nanomaterials." A longer ETC tract titled "The Big Down" found its way into the hands of Britain's Prince Charles, who asked the United Kingdom's Royal Society to investigate the potential for unrestricted nanobots to wreak havoc on the Earth--a scenario known as the "gray goo" problem.

The "grey goo" scenario also alarms Sun Microsystems scientist Bill Joy, who wrote a well-known Wired magazine article in April 2000 in which he argues that the future doesn't need us. If hypothetical nanobots can replicate in the wild without restrictions, the scenario goes, they could lay waste to the planet. "Prey," a Michael Crichton thriller, predicted a similar development at the hands of an irresponsible hypothetical nanotech company called Xymos.

Even Greenpeace recognizes that this is a fanciful scenario. Its report correctly says that, given the preliminary stages of much nanotech research, such replicators "remain way off, and some experts suggest that it would be very difficult to achieve this deliberately, let alone by accident." Rice University's Richard Smalley, a 1996 Nobel laureate, goes even further and says such bots are merely fantasies. "Self-replicating, mechanical nanobots are simply not possible in our world," Smalley says. "Such a nanobot will never become more than a futurist's daydream."

A better alternative
I don't mean to say that no dangers exist. Some probably do. But the broader point is how society should respond to emerging technologies when they pose threats that are hypothetical and poorly understood.

The environmental activists want the world's governments--or better yet, a world government--to enforce the point of view that's known as the "precautionary principle," which states that when there is any risk of a major disaster, scientific progress must halt. Bill Joy called this kind of relinquishment, backed up by the threat of government censorship, the "only realistic alternative" to avoid the destruction of "the biosphere on which all life depends."

A second point of view is a more libertarian approach that weighs the cost of prohibition against the cost to human freedom and scientific progress. It recognizes that any legal prohibition on research is unlikely to be effective: Military research and development inevitably will continue, and any group that hopes to exploit the technology for ill purposes will hardly stop, just because Congress orders them to.

There's already a reasonable precedent for that point of view. It's modeled after the approach the biotechnology industry adopted in the aftermath of a series of seminal conferences in the early 1970s. Scientists developed voluntary standards backed up by common-sense regulations for government-funded research that were so well-crafted, they're still followed today.

The folks at Greenpeace must have been watching too many "Matrix" and "Terminator" movies.
"These guidelines were adopted voluntarily by the biologists and have been observed ever since, with changes made from time to time in response to new discoveries," physicist Freeman J. Dyson wrote in The New York Review of Books earlier this year. "As a result, no serious health hazards have arisen from the experiments in twenty-five years. This is a shining example of responsible citizenship, showing that it is possible for scientists to protect the public from injury while preserving the freedom of science."

Adopting similar guidelines for nanotech research makes sense to me, and a Pacific Research Institute report by Glenn Reynolds offers additional arguments about why this is a wise approach. The Foresight Institute's guidelines sidestep an important question--what laws are necessary?--but still offer useful details.

So, what's next for the professional environmental activists? I'll hazard a guess: The folks at Greenpeace must have been watching too many "Matrix" and "Terminator" movies, because their report spends a few dozen pages worrying about the threat of "predatory machines" and a "robot take-over."

At least it should give them something new to complain about.