Hypothesis 4 environmental release

Sandler and Kay suggest that the public feared GMOs because they would be released into the environment, and because, as living organisms, they would spread on their own. To the extent that nano-technology is, as they write, environmentally contained, this fear will not arise. There seems to be little basis on which one could object to this point, as far as it goes. Those nanotechnologies that can be environmentally contained are indeed unlikely to provoke resistance on environmental grounds. Yet on first blush this also seems to be a supposed difference that also turns out to be a similarity upon even cursory inspection. On the one hand, environmentally contained applications of agrifood biotechnology such as recombinant rennet do not seem to stimulate much active opposition. On the other hand, the environmental fate of nanoparticles has already emerged as a central concern for nanotechnology (Colvin, 2003) and a principal focus of activism for environmental NGOs.

Yet Sandler and Kay lay emphasis on a specific notion of the release and containment relationship. It is the transgenic organism's ability to reproduce and the possibility that transgenes will spread to wild relatives (which will then reproduce) that leads to a special fear among biotechnology's opponents about the risks of environmental release (see, for example, Rissler and Mellon, 1996). This is arguably distinct from ordinary pollution concerns in that the challenges of clean-up or mitigation for self-reproducing organisms are at least more daunting, if they can be met at all. But while this more focused statement of the hypothesis seems credible, it points toward three additional areas of complication. One substantive environmental issue is that the possibility for nanoparticles to interact with mechanisms of cellular reproduction cannot be excluded. As such, ecological impacts quite like those of transgenic organisms are within the realm of theoretical possibility (Colvin, 2003).

The second complication involves perception and interpretation of environmental release as much as they involve substantive environmental concern. The more fantastic scenarios for nanotechnology involving replicators and "grey goo" are every bit as frightening as GMOs with respect to environmental release, if not more so. Thus even if the nanoscience community comes to believe that environmental containment is not a serious issue for more realistic nanotech-nologies, these images are available to activists and to the public at large. They allow others to conceptualize risks of nanotechnology in precisely the sort of runaway train scenarios that are alleged to have created problems for agrifood biotechnology. Many in the science community would allege that these scenarios are not credible, just as many have argued that the scenarios of replicators and goo have nothing to do with real-world nanotechnology. Again, the similarities seem more profound than any points of difference.

In sum, the question of environmental release does not seem to be a reason for discounting the analogy between GMOs and nanotechnology. Nanotechnology and biotechnology seem to be almost alike in this respect, with some applications raising questions about containment and environmental risk, and other applications being largely exempt from those questions. To the extent that biotechnology raised superficial and uninformed fears about technology running amok through the environment, there is every reason to think that nanotechnology can raise similar superficial and uninformed fears. The larger lesson is that it is a constellation of fears, grounded and ungrounded, along with serendipitous events and orchestrated campaigns that coalesce to form the basis for a social movement in opposition to a given technology or to a subset of applications associated with a technology. Environmental risk and containment issues are clearly among the constellation of concerns that contributed to public opposition to GMOs. But just as no single issue could have been predicted to be the single triggering event for public resistance, there is no way to argue that the presence of an environmental dimension would set off opposition to nanotechnology any more than its absence would make nanotechnology immune to such reactions.

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