MAC: Mines and Communities

D) The disruptive social impact of nanotechnology

Published by MAC on 2006-05-11

D) The disruptive social impact of nanotechnology

The socio-economic impacts of nanotechnology will be equally significant as its health and environmental impacts. Given the current development trajectory of nanotechnology, this technology is likely to exacerbate already existing social inequities and unsustainable levels of resource use.

As nanotechnology converges with biotechnology and information technology, patents on atomically modified organisms and materials will increase, as will corporate control of the building blocks of the natural world.

"Despite rosy predictions that nanotech will provide a technical fix for hunger, disease and environmental security in the South, the extraordinary pace of nanotech patenting suggests that developing nations will participate via royalty payments. In a world dominated by proprietary science, it is the patent owners and those who can pay license fees who will determine access and price ."(1)

The huge costs associated with nanotech research will also demand a focus on profitable applications that will deliver a financial return.

Inevitably this will result in medicines, 'smart' foods or 'cosmaceuticals' for the lifestyle conditions of the rich, rather than any effort to reduce the huge inequities in global food distribution that underpin many of the life-threatening illnesses of the poor.

The quest to rebuild life from the atom up, and to replace 'inefficient' primary production with synthetic nanotech alternatives, will have disastrous economic implications for nations that currently rely on export of food or other natural products.

"Synthesising molecular alternatives to natural products will displace millions from primary production and rob the Third World of economic options. It will accelerate existing trends of patent monopolies over life - making a few corporations 'life-lords'. Most importantly, nanotechnologies and the molecular vision of life will undermine more holistic systems for food and health."(2)

The depressing reality is that nanotechnology is likely to result in significant social dislocation as synthetic nanotech alternatives displace use of some traditional products. However it will also lead the next wave of expansion of industrial consumerism, increasing rates of existing unsustainable resource use.

1 The ETC Group, 2005. Nanotech's "Second Nature" Patents: Implications for the Global South". June
16 . Available at

2 Vandana Shiva, Research Foundation for Science Technology and Ecology, India, cited in: McKibben
B. 2004. "Promising the world, or costing the earth?" Ecologist Asia, Vol. 12, No. 1, January-March.
Available at

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