tracking technology

Geoengineering is the intentional, large-scale technological manipulation of the Earth’s systems, often discussed as a techno-fix for combating climate change. Climate geoengineering technologies can be divided into three broad areas: so-called solar radiation management (reflecting sunlight to space), greenhouse gas removal and sequestration and weather modification.

Geoengineering can refer to a wide range of techniques, including: blasting sulphate particles into the stratosphere or 'whitening' clouds to reflect the sun’s rays; dumping iron particles in the oceans to nurture CO2 -absorbing plankton; firing silver iodide into clouds to produce rain or genetically engineering crops so their foliage can better reflect sunlight.

ETC Group opposes geoengineering and other false solutions to climate change (e.g., proprietary, genetically-engineered 'climate-ready' crops ) and supports peasant-led agroecological responses to the climate crisis.

ETC Group has tracked developments in the genetic engineering of plants, animals and microorganisms since the early 1980s and tracked the transition of the biotechnology industry into a broader 'life sciences' industry spanning agriculture, pharmaceuticals, energy and chemicals production. Today, biotechnology encompasses a variety of techniques that involve the use and manipulation of living organisms to make commercial products (including cell and tissue culture, recombinant DNA technology and synthetic biology). Underlying the commercial manipulation of life are ever more powerful genomics technologies (gene-mapping) that enable companies to quickly 'read,' store and digitally analyze genetic information -- either of single organisms or entire ecosystems (known as metagenomics). ETC Group (then RAFI) was one of the first organizations to warn of the downside of genetic engineering of crops and livestock and has since kept an eye on developments in human biotech, synthetic biology, biowarfare and industrial biotech.

Human Enhancement refers to attempts to 'upgrade' or extend human physical and cognitive abilities through technological means. These range from the use of nanotechnology to create prosthetic body parts and neuro-technologies for mind-machine interfaces to the use of gene therapy and human genetic engineering to 'cure' disabilities or create super-soldiers. Enhancement technologies raise significant ethical issues about the social and human rights of marginalized people who will be targeted, including disabled people, indigenous people and women. Corporate interest in 'enhancement' is ushering in a profitable new market for pharmaceutical and medical companies moving beyond treating the sick to 'improving' the healthy (and wealthy).

Nanotechnology refers to the manipulation of matter on the scale of the nanometer (one billionth of a meter). Nanoscale science operates in the realm of single atoms and molecules. At present, commercial nanotechnology involves materials science (i.e. researchers have been able to make materials that are stronger and more durable by taking advantage of property changes that occur when substances are reduced to nanoscale dimensions). As nanoscale molecular self-assembly becomes a commercial reality, nanotech will move into conventional manufacturing and it is already changing healthcare, food and drug production. Nanotechnology involves profound social , military and environmental risks, with new nanomaterials potentially threatening raw material economies of the south and posing new health risks to workers and the public at large.

This category will include, for example, informatics, neurosciences and robotics.

Synthetic biology brings together engineering and the life sciences in order to design and construct new biological parts, devices and systems that do not currently exist in the natural world or to tweak the designs of existing biological systems. Synthetic biologists, engaged in a kind of extreme genetic engineering, hope to construct designer organisms that perform specific tasks such as producing biofuels or other high-value compounds.

International efforts to address the food, energy and climate crises tend to regard technology as an important part of the solution. This optimism about technology also prevails in debates around the Green Economy and international environmental governance. And of course technology does hold some potential solutions to some important problems. However, two decades of accelerating technological development and deployment, in the context of massive trade and investment liberalization, has left the globe in far worse straits than it was when the very concept of sustainable development was in its infancy.  And now, it is time for a technological re-think. New high-risk technologies, ranging from the very small (synthetic biology, nanotechnology) to the very large (geoengineering), are rapidly developing.  Their promoters promise that they hold the keys to solving climate change, world hunger, energy shortages and biodiversity loss and the precautionary principle and social and economic impacts are often ignored in the rush to deploy the latest technofix. 

 Without the strict application of the precautionary principle, and a transparent and participatory form of technology assessment,some of these new technologies could wreak even more havoc on this fragile planet, already bruised and battered by reckless andunsustainable forms of production that serve the few at the expense of the many. Take the examples of nanotechnology, syntheticbiology and geoengineering – three fields under rapid development where precaution MUST prevail. Agenda 21 included some modest language on technology assessment – it needs to be reviewed, revived, and put into practice.