By Richard Worthington, Loka Institute

A guest blog in the Alternative Perspectives on Technology Innovation series

My first scholarly engagement with environmental politics was an honor’s thesis written while I was an undergraduate at Berkeley in the early 1970s.  Back then, the term “environmentalist” was frequently deployed to profile someone held to be a naïve, irresponsible and possibly dangerous enemy of the American Way of Life.

The simple fact, however, is that concerns about environmental decay and support for environmental improvement have been consistently voiced by most Americans since the 1970s.  The strategy of branding environmentalists as extremists was therefore eroded by the enduring reality that most people who are active in this arena were and are ordinary folks who are confronted by extraordinary problems.

Seeing that they could not beat environmental sentiments, by the 1990s many industry leaders decided to embrace them.  Their opponents quickly invented terms such as  “greenwash” in order to frame industry’s new environmentalism as a cynical ploy, but in terms of actual outcomes, the polluters clearly won.  More than moving toward ecological balance, the Clinton-Gore years were notable for privatization, deregulation, and revving up industrial growth and consumption.  This despite the publication of Al Gore’s eloquent and even radical Earth in the Balance only a few months before his election as Vice-President. The Bush years only amplified the familiar refrain of growth and conquest (of nature and other countries).

The problem for growth-first  advocates is that ecological disruption and its consequences won’t go away.  Material circumstances thus continue to drive broad-based environmental concern, while the most powerful interests in global society have only begun to talk about action to address the imbalance between the technosphere and the ecosphere.  I write this in Copenhagen, where the largest environmental convention in history is attempting to grapple with the real prospect that the quality of life everywhere is imperiled by a human-induced alteration of the climate.  Practically no one here is questioning the legitimacy of climate concerns, and just about everyone is hailing a new green economy, yet expectations of significant progress toward this goal are low.

What’s nanotechnology got to do with this?  As it turns out, nanotech is central in a discourse where a third framing of “environment” and “ecology” has evolved.  In this version, the system of science-driven innovation that is now at the center of global economic growth strategies is itself considered an ecosystem, even though plants, animals (other than humans) and the other elements normally associated with the term “ecology” are nowhere to be found.

I first encountered this move to conflate new technology and ecology during the 1980s in the works of conservative political economist George Gilder.  Gilder was enthralled with digital information technology, which he credited with delivering “a billion Asians” from penury (in “Telecosm:  The Bandwidth Revolution”, Forbes ASAP, 1994, p. 117).   Perhaps more noteworthy was Gilder’s rhetorical move to describe the digital world in ecological terms.

“More ecosystem than machine, cyberspace is a bioelectronic environment that is literally universal:  It exists everywhere there are telephone wires, coaxial cables, fiber-optic lines or electromagnetic waves.  This environment is ‘inhabited’ by knowledge…existing in electronic form” (Magna Carta for the Knowledge Age, 1994, prepared for the Progress and Freedom Foundation).

Nano has now replaced digital in this genre.  Here’s how no less a figure than Mihail C. Roco, Senior Advisor for Nanotechnology to the United States National Science Foundation, describes the system for governing nanotechnology:

“IRGC (International Risk Governance Council) views the stakeholder groups involved [in nanogovernance] as operating within a dynamic ecosystem of interlocking dependencies.  The task is therefore to create an adaptive, collaborative environment enabling different parties to play their part in the ecosystem” (ISO Focus, “Guest View“, April 2007, p.6).

Here, a distinctively human artifice is represented as a natural system.

The narrative of ecology and society that now includes nanotech thus goes like this:  at the dawn of the contemporary environmental movement, industry leaders equated environmentalism with extremism in an attempt to undermine its legitimacy.  After this tactic had run its course, they proclaimed their own environmental concern in order to obfuscate a largely unchanged agenda of industrial growth at all costs.  Now, the system of technology-driven economic growth that currently has nanotechnology as its poster child is depicted to actually be an ecosystem.

People and nature, of course, are inextricably interdependent, so there is a sound basis for including human society in a concept of ecology.  But if the distinction between non-human nature and the product of human endeavors is erased from the idea of ecology, our ability to distinguish a manufactured human society from one in which people and nature exist in a dynamic balance will be undermined.  Should it come to pass, this scenario could well make us wish for the good old days when “environmentalist” was an epithet.

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Rick Worthington is involved in nanotechnology issues by way of volunteer collaborations at  the Loka Institute, whose mission is “Making research, science and technology responsive to democratically-decided social and environmental concerns” (for a summary of and links to Loka’s involvement in nanotech, visit http://www.loka.org/FedNanoPolicy.html).  He is also Professor of Politics and chairs the Program in Public Policy Analysis at Pomona College in Claremont, California.

Rick has written extensively on science, technology and the environment (including in a book, Rethinking Globalization:  Production, Politics, Actions, Peter Lang Publishing, 2000), and currently is U.S. Coordinator of World Wide Views on Global Warming.  WWViews is the first-ever global citizen policy consultation, held September 26, 2009.  In it, nearly 4,000 citizens in 38 countries studied and debated the issues now on the table in Copenhagen (December 7 – 18, 2009) at the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (www.wwviews.org).

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