Special Report - NanoGeoPolitics: ETC Group Surveys the Political Landscape

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Fearful that nanotech may face the same fate as biotech crops, the G8 used their Gleneagles summit to promote “new technologies” (including nanotech and biotech) as the magic bullet to “make poverty history” and to neutralize global warming. By hinting at the availability of billions for science capacity-building in the South, the North hopes to make allies of South governments, scientists, development NGOs, and environmentalists. Meanwhile, the real action is behind the scenes where various government/industry and scientific institutions are rushing to negotiate what the EU hopes will become a nanotech “code of conduct”(but, in light of US opposition may turn into a “framework of shared principles”) and lay down the global standards, regulations, and market modus operandi for the greatest industrial revolution society has ever (not) seen coming. Social policy is being replaced by science policy. In this special report, ETC Group reviews the emerging nanogeopolitics landscape.


According to industry, nanotechnology will contribute to a commercial market exceeding $1 trillion by 2011 and $2.6 trillion (15% of global manufacturing output) by 2014 – 10 times biotech and equalling the combined informatics and telecom industries. OECD countries – convinced that technological convergence at the nano-scale is the “future” – are in an all-out race to secure economic advantage: health and environmental considerations are secondary; socioeconomic impacts will have to wait; regulations, if they can’t be avoided, must be voluntary to keep the train speeding from lab to marketplace on track. By some industry estimates, the die will have been cast for the strategic shape of a New Nano Economic Order within the next 12 to 24 months.


In keeping with the G8’s pro-poor science push, the European Commission in Brussels hosted a second meeting to consider a draft Code of Conduct / Framework of Shared Principles for nanotechnology. In marchstep, the OECD is conducting meetings in Paris to hammer out a global regulatory approach to address nano’s unresolved (and increasingly worrisome) health and environmental issues. Only the Macro-South (i.e., Brazil, China, India, Korea, Singapore, South Africa, Argentina, Mexico, etc.) usually attend these closed-door nano policy-setting meetings. To date, the UN and its specialized agencies have been sidelined. If all South governments hope to have a say in this technological upheaval, the role of converging technologies should be discussed during the Millennium Development Goals  assessment in New York Sept. 14-16 and by each of the specialized UN agencies as soon as possible.


With public confidence in both private and government science at an all-time low, full societal dialogue on nano-scale technological convergence is critical. It is not for scientists to “educate” the public but for society to determine the goals and processes for the technologies they finance. There is no need for a suigeneris (and inevitably voluntary) code of conduct for nanotech, but there is need for a much broader and legally-binding International Convention for the Evaluation of New Technologies (ICENT). South governments negotiating commodity and manufacturing trade-offs at the WTO Ministerial in Hong Kong in December will be asked to give away sovereignty in exchange for market access for raw materials or finished goods that may quickly become irrelevant with nanotechnology’s development.

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