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The Disrupted

disruptor illustration

© Donough O’ Malley

It’s a long way from Silicon Valley, California, to the agricultural valleys of Africa, Latin America and Asia. Drive the wide boulevard of Sandhill Road, the ‘Wall Street’ of the US high-tech industry, and you are culturally and geographically thousands of miles from the lands and livelihoods that sustain most people. However, like Wall Street, what happens on Sandhill Road and in the boardrooms of Silicon Valley is becoming entangled with the futures of the poorest and most vulnerable. Here in the world’s richest valley, the watchword is ‘disruption’– that is exploiting the vast opportunities that lie in shaking up economies and social relationships. Silicon Valley’s venture capitalists are placing multibillion-dollar bets on cutting-edge technologies to play such disruption to their advantage. As they place their chips, the effects are already starting to bear down on the peasants and workers of the Global South.

Forty years ago those chips were the actual computer chips that Silicon Valley was named after and made its billions on. It is now axiomatic that those personal computers, and the internet giants that followed, have transformed the world in far-reaching ways. Today, however, a new set of technologies are animating the high-tech investor crowd: synthetic biology, machine learning, artificial intelligence, gene editing, self-driving cars, flexible manufacturing, drone agriculture, robotics, lab-grown meat. Glancing over this smörgåsbord of disparate sci-fi technologies it looks as if a bunch of over-earning Star Trek nerds are trying to live out their dreams (and indeed there may be some of that); yet these different technologies are coalescing into a coherent and real new industrial platform whose influence will be far-reaching.

Cresting the digital wave

The key to this wave of technological disruption is the idea of digital manufacturing. The past 30 years of high-tech innovation largely involved digitizing information. Text, sound, video, communication and even social interaction were comprehensively recast into digital form so that a handful of data companies profitably became the mega-brokers of several media. Today’s ‘disruptors’ hope that the next 20 years will see the ‘real economy’ of physical things similarly digitized, manipulated and made ripe for tech profits. The new tech crowd is moving from manipulating the bits of information to the atoms of stuff. As they do so the existing systems for manufacturing and distributing stuff (factory work, agriculture, trade) will face the same dislocations that newspapers, taxi drivers and telephone companies have experienced.

The outlines of a digital manufacturing economy are already visible. Today it is possible to scan a solid object such as a violin in one location and ‘reprint’ it on the other side of the world using a 3D printer, ready to play Vivaldi. A digital file of design instructions can be emailed to the robots of a flexible factory, such as that run by Tesla in California or Foxconn in China, so that the same machines that build high-speed racing cars one day can switch to building battery packs the next. If you hook the digital manufacturing model to local production ‘microfactories’ (the automated equivalent of your neighbourhood photocopying shop) and throw in local drone delivery then, some speculate, that digital production may also reduce need for global transportation of finished goods. If such a shift occurred it might strikingly change the character of international trade, if not rendering emptier the container ships trekking between our busiest ports and export processing zones, then at least further lowering wages in the sweatshops where workers are already being outpaced by robots.

Synthetically natural

As it is with digital manufacturing of goods, so it may go with food and other agricultural raw materials. Using genomics and synthetic biology, companies are identifying genetic codes that produce vanilla flavour in a vanilla pod or saffron flavour from a crocus, then sending those codes across the world by internet in order to re-edit the DNA inside an algae or yeast cell to match. Those engineered cells then ‘print out’ those same compounds (vanilla, saffron) in a vat – bio-engineered organisms becoming tiny living factories competing with the plants and soils of East Africa or the Middle East. And they get labelled as ‘natural flavourings’ to boot.

Ann Nduta tending her stevia plants.

Marian Bassey

Meanwhile, using new artificial intelligence it is possible to instruct a computer to work out how to replace a common chemical or raw material with whatever is cheapest or most disruptive – to mimic egg whites with bean proteins, replace copper and steel with engineered nanomaterials or synthesize chemicals from cheaper resources. In the process, the flows of raw materials from mines and fields may shift unexpectedly.

Such shifts and shocks have profound implications for the Majority World. Vast swathes of farmers, dockers, drivers, miners, textile workers and others may find their labour, skills and knowledge devalued by the disruptive tech that investors are ushering in. A 2013 survey by Oxford University researchers predicted that 47 per cent of total US employment is at risk of replacement by computerization and automation – particularly in transport, logistics and office support. In the Global South those numbers of potentially disrupted occupations are likely to climb higher.

Seizing the market

Ten thousand miles away from California, in a field in Kericho County in Kenya, Ann Nduta Kanini cultivates stevia leaf. She is one of 3,000 farmers in her district growing this natural sweetening leaf for world markets. This cash crop brings in enough for this widow to support eight children and an aging mother. Stevia has been a wonder crop for farmers like Ann but the wonder may prove to be short-lived.

Ann is worried that if synthetic biology seizes the market she may not be able to sell her product. ‘They are using machines and I am using my hands,’ she sighs

Evolva, a Swiss-American synthetic biology firm, has partnered with grain giant Cargill to bring a Syn Bio version of stevia to market (dubbed ‘Eversweet’). Ann is worried that if Syn Bio seizes the market she may not be able to sell her product. ‘They are using machines and I am using my hands,’ she sighs.

The flavour and fragrance industry, which currently uses over 250 different botanical extracts sourced from 20 million small farmers, is already starting to switch over to synthetic biology production of its key aroma and flavour compounds.

Countries whose economies depend on agricultural commodities are raising concerns in international negotiations about Syn Bio as Madagascar’s vanilla farmers or Iran’s saffron farmers find they have little purchase on tech decisions that may upturn their livelihoods.

Of course there will also be good news stories. When an industrial revolution rolls out in the 21st century it is inevitably accompanied by well-meaning attempts to capture the new techniques for good. Brewing some botanical compounds such as sandalwood in a vat may reduce pressure on illegal logging of African and Indian sandalwood trees. Local digital manufacturing of goods rather than import from overseas markets may lower the carbon footprint of manufacturing (although the carbon footprint of ballooning data management needs to be weighed) and proposals to distribute medical supplies in war zones by 3D printing are certainly individually interesting.

Nonetheless the overriding consideration for powerful wide-based platform technologies is that they will operate as a platform and the platform will best serve those with the most capital to shape it. A few benign apps here and there may not be enough to forgive the overwhelming impact of the platform to deliver its original aims for its original backers – to disrupt and profit – no matter the cost to those who get disrupted along the way.

Jim Thomas is Programme Director with ETC Group, an international organization tracking the impacts of emerging technologies on marginalized peoples.

Hands off our mother!

It used to be that ‘stepping lightly on the planet’ was considered common sense for addressing global warming, but a brash new breed of planet-savers has a more heavy-handed suggestion. Since action on reducing greenhouse gases is proving ineffective, they argue, it might soon be necessary to deliver Mother Earth a huge technological smack in the climate system. For her own good, of course.

Welcome to the concept of geoengineering – large-scale schemes that propose manipulating planetary systems to counteract global warming. Humans have inadvertently altered the global environment before, but geoengineering differs in that it brings intentionality to messing with our planet. Geoengineering proposals range from dumping iron in the ocean to grow CO2-gobbling plankton, to polluting the upper atmosphere with sulphur particles to mimic large volcanoes. Such volcanoes have occasionally cooled down the atmosphere before. Unfortunately, they can also cause monsoons to weaken and fail, intensifying hunger in the tropics.

Sounds risky and dangerous? Of course it is. Seductive to policymakers? Yes, that too. But as billionaire airline tycoon Richard Branson baldly told the press last year: ‘If we could come up with a geoengineering answer to this problem… we could carry on flying our planes and driving our cars.’

With little or no public awareness, geoengineering has become a multi-million dollar gambit, with private companies and well-known individuals now jockeying to test out their theories on an unsuspecting planet. The US Congress and British House of Commons have just completed a round of hearings to determine how much money they should allocate to the first tranche of real-world geoengineering experiments. In March 2010, almost 200 geoengineers met in California to draw up voluntary codes of conduct on manipulating the planet. Meanwhile, a team of scientists in Russia, led by controversial climatologist Yuri Izrael, has already begun seeding the skies with sulphur and is promising more.

These and other moves are now causing civil society to mobilize. On the eve of this year’s Earth Day (22 April), over 60 national and international organizations launched the Hands Off Mother Earth (HOME) campaign. This campaign insists that geoengineering experiments be stopped and that the integrity of Planet Earth and its people be respected. ‘Not just human beings have rights; the planet has rights too,’ asserts Evo Morales, Bolivian President and host of the recently concluded Cochabamba Climate Change Conference in Bolivia where HOME was launched. The final statement by the 35,000 people attending called geoengineering a false solution to the climate crisis.

‘Planet Earth is our common home and should not be a laboratory for geoengineers,’ explains Neth Dano of ETC Group, based in the Philippines. ‘It’s not safe and it’s not just.’

As Ricardo Navarro of Friends of the Earth International explains: ‘The same countries and companies that have neglected climate change for decades are now proposing very risky geoengineering technologies that could further disrupt the weather, peoples and ecosystems. We simply don’t trust them to do so equitably.’

Since its launch, the campaign has been joined by luminaries of the global environmental justice movement, including Vandana Shiva, Bill McKibben, David Suzuki, Naomi Klein and Frances Moore Lappé. They joined hundreds of individuals, adding their photos online to a petition of out-turned hands that was brought to a UN meeting in Nairobi in May. Some of the palms have messages scrawled on them. ‘Talk to the hand,’ say some. ‘Back off,’ or ‘My home,’ say others.

To learn more or to add your photo to the petition, visit www.handsoffmotherearth.org

Plastic plants

The future of plastic was always gleaming white. Monsanto’s plastic ‘house of the future’ that once stood at the heart of Disneyworld’s Epcot Center and the futuristic Space Hilton hotel in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey both featured shiny white doors, walls, ceilings and furniture. To designers of the mid-1960s hard, white, unbreakable plastic, like the white heat of the technology revolution, must have represented a pristine future moulded in the name of modernism. As Mr McGuire memorably whispered to Dustin Hoffman in the 1967 film, The Graduate: ‘There’s a great future in plastics. Think about it.’

Forty years later, its reputation tarnished and its ‘house of the future’ dismantled, the plastics industry is struggling to resurrect the image of plastic as the noble ‘material of the future’. This time we are told that plastics will be soft, degradable and blend in with nature. They’re called bioplastics and the industry has a new colour in mind: green.

Search the web and you could be forgiven for thinking that today’s plastics industry has become a gardening enterprise

Search the web and you could be forgiven for thinking that today’s plastics industry has become a gardening enterprise. There’s Mirel, for example, a bioplastic made from corn sugar, cane sugar or vegetable oils whose website looks like an advert for grass seed. Or Sphere Inc, Europe’s leading biofilm producer whose homepage is adorned with tulips even though their plastics are made from potatoes. DuPont promotes its latest bioplastic with images of grassy hillsides while the NatureWorks website (a joint venture between Cargill and Japan’s Teijin corporation) displays a montage of tree leaves. Both companies make their bioplastics mainly from genetically modified corn drenched in pesticides – no tree leaves or grass in sight.

Strictly speaking a bioplastic is a polymer that has been produced from a plant instead of from petroleum. That is neither a new breakthrough nor a guarantee of ecological soundness. The earliest plastics such as celluloid were made from tree cellulose before petroleum proved itself a cheaper source. Today, with oil prices skyrocketing, it’s cheaper feedstock not green principles that is driving chemical companies back to bio-based plastics.

Indeed green, for the plastic industry, mostly means money – a big new pot of it. Bioplastics already account for 10 to 15 per cent of the global market and are expected to grow to almost a third of total production in just over a decade. They currently bring in over a billion dollars a year – a figure that is set to swell to more than $10 billion by 2012. Despite attempts to market bioplastics as ‘close to nature’ the producers are the same agribusiness and chemical corporations that continue to produce toxic poisons and promote industrial monoculture. ADM and Cargill – who between them sew up most of the world’s grain trade – are two of the biggest players, controlling the NatureWorks and Mirel lines. DuPont, BASF and Dow – three of the world’s largest chemical companies – are also key players.

Breakdown and baloney

Bioplastics may bring in the greenbacks for investors but are they actually green for the planet? The evidence is not convincing. For a start bioplastics may or may not be degradable or biodegradable – two terms that mean very different things. Many bio-based plastics – like DuPont’s Sorona  – make no claims to break down in the environment.

Even those that do claim to break down may have only a slight impact on reducing plastic pollution. So-called ‘degradable’ plastics, such as the bags given out at many supermarkets, are mostly petroleum-based. In theory, they are broken down by sunlight and oxygen over several years. In practice, according to a recent Australian Government report: ‘There are insufficient data to say with any certainty how long many degradable polymers take to fully biodegrade.’ The same report points out that they may only break into smaller pieces of plastic rather than be broken down entirely. Such small pieces are more likely to be ingested by ‘smaller animals such as sea turtle hatchlings’. Consequently there is widespread scepticism as to the environmental value or efficacy of degradable plastics.

Biodegradable plastics get slightly better press. These plant-based plastics will break down to basic elements and minerals, usually in an industrial composter through the activity of heat, micro-organisms and enzymes. This decomposition has to be measured by standardized tests and must take place within a specified period of time – which varies according to the ‘disposal’ method. Unfortunately, the industrial composting facilities required are so rare that only a sliver of the biodegradable plastic produced actually makes it to them. Ingeo – a polylactic acid (PLA) bioplastic developed by NatureWorks – is one so-called ‘compostable’ plastic that will not break down in home composters. NatureWorks also admits that PLA will not break down if left as litter in the countryside, in soils, seawater or even in landfill. Over a much longer period of time of course it will break down, probably faster than petrol-based plastics. But there are likely PLA fragments happily bobbing around in the world’s oceans already. NatureWorks insists that PLA can be recycled, but no system is yet set up to capture and re-use PLA resin. In appearance PLA can be confused with PET (polyethylene terephthalate) used for plastic bottles and so can actually hamper recycling efforts by contaminating existing recycling streams. In October 2004, a group of recycling advocates called on NatureWorks to stop selling PLA for plastic bottles until key questions were addressed. In January 2005 the company did stop selling ‘additional’ PLA for bottle production but broke that moratorium this past April. NatureWorks has yet to test recyclability of any post-consumer PLA.

Bags of food

So much for disposal. But replacing fossil fuels with plants has to be a good idea, right? This is the premise on which the green claims of bioplastics mostly rest. Unfortunately, as advocates of biofuels have learned, switching from oil to biomass as the feedstock of our industrial economy carries its own set of problems. Like hunger.

Last spring food riots in Africa, South America and Southeast Asia woke up the world’s media to how surging food costs are tipping an extra 100 million people into hunger. While the causes are complex the use of food land to grow crops for biofuels is undoubtedly a factor in the shockingly low food stocks. That switch is only the first rumbling of a much larger shift. As 30 per cent of plastics production migrates to bio-based feedstocks both food sugars and land that might otherwise have grown food are being moved from feeding people to feeding the profits of the plastics industry. If it is unacceptable to turn food into fuel at a time of extreme hunger, it should be doubly unacceptable to turn it into plastic bags.

Consider, for example, DuPont’s Sorona bioplastic – a spandex-like fibre used for carpets, clothing and car parts. Last year DuPont built an industrial biorefinery in Tennessee that turns 6.4 million bushels of corn (maize) annually into 100 million pounds of plastic. Growing the corn for just that one biorefinery requires 40,000 acres. By 2010 DuPont intends to turn 25 per cent of its global chemicals and plastics production to bio-based feedstocks and ultimately hopes to move away entirely from oil.

According to analysts at Bio-Era Consulting this is an industry-wide trend. A fifth of the $1.8 trillion chemicals and plastics market may be derived from plants by 2015, mostly food sugars. When heaped on top of the corn and other crops already being diverted into fuel production, that stacks up to a towering mountain of what could have been food for people.

Closing the loop

Indeed, as if to close the loop, the newest feedstock for bioplastics appears actually to be biofuels. In late 2009 Brazil’s largest petrochemical firm, Braskem, will open a $150 million factory designed to produce an annual 200,000 tons of polyethylene (used for shopping bags) from sugarcane-based ethanol. Sugarcane plantations for ethanol production in Brazil now occupy some six million hectares and have attracted fierce opposition for their incursion into forest lands and use of slave labour. The World Rainforest Movement points out that sugarcane plantations are rapidly destroying Brazil’s Cerrado, a sprawling 3.1 million square kilometre woodland savannah, home to tremendous biodiversity. According to Brazilian activist and lawyer Camila Moreno of the NGO Terra de Direitos, the expansion of sugar monocultures under powerful corporate oligopolies ‘is at the root of nearly all socio-environmental conflicts in Brazil, as throughout the rest of Latin America’.

There is nothing sustainable or organic about most industrial agriculture feedstocks. At present genetically modified corn grown using pesticides is probably the leading source of starch for bioplastics. Meanwhile, plastics made from potatoes – such as Stanelco’s ‘Bioplast’ – raise similar concerns. The US-based watchdog, Environmental Working Group, says potatoes have one of the highest pesticide contamination levels of any food – the links between genetic modification and future bioplastics are everywhere. Besides GM corn, there are already four genetically modified (GM) potatoes approved for growing in North America and BASF have now produced a high-starch GM potato aimed squarely at the bioplastics market – soon due to be approved for growing in Europe. In fact, only two major bioplastic producers, Italy’s Novamont and EarthCycle of Canada, tout their products as non-GM. Cargill’s NatureWorks offers a bizarre scheme where purchasers can ‘offset’ the use of GM crops for a price. Genetic modification may soon lead to plastic produced directly in the plant. If such ‘plastic crops’ were to contaminate or mingle with the food supply, this would raise serious environmental and health problems.

Synthetic life

Then there is ‘synthetic biology’. Unlike standard genetic engineering, which involves moving gene sequences between species, synthetic biologists attempt to build life-forms from scratch. Artificial DNA molecules built by a machine are strung together to make entirely novel genetic ‘programs’ hijacking bacteria, yeast and other microbes to transform sugars into plastic. DuPont’s Sorona bioplastic, for example, is produced by yeast containing entirely synthetic DNA designed by Genencor. ADM’s Mirel bioplastic is made from a synthetic microbe designed by Metabolix. All of the concerns that have dogged genetically modified organisms (genetic contamination, lack of safety tests and corporate ownership claims) are intensified in the case of synthetic biology which is as yet unregulated, unlabelled and not subject to any safety assessments.

Genetic modification may lead to plastic produced directly in the plant. If such ‘plastic crops’ were to contaminate the food supply, this would raise serious environmental and health problems

Corporate-owned, non-biodegradable, bolstering industrial agriculture and leading us deeper into genetic modification: it’s hard to be excited about the green future the plastic industry envisions. However, there are attempts to put bioplastics back on course.

‘I am not so universally sceptical of bioplastics,’ explains Annie Leonard, a long-time toxics activist whose new film, The Story of Stuff, examines the materials economy. ‘Transforming from oil-based to bio-based materials has got to be part of our future vision. If that transition just substitutes one material feedstock for another within a deeply flawed system, then I’m concerned. However, if the transition is accompanied by a commitment to reducing waste at source, eliminating toxics in agriculture and production, clean energy sources, fair labour practices and other shifts towards sustainability and equity, then bioplastics can be a powerful step in the right direction.’

One such step is the Sustainable Biomaterials Collaborative (SBC) – a network of 16 civil society groups and ethical businesses working to define a truly sustainable bioplastic. One of its founders, Tom Lent, explains that the SBC started because ‘the promise of bioplastics was not being realized’.

The SBC has issued a lengthy ‘Sustainable Bioplastic Guidelines’ which is based around 12 sound principles ranging from avoiding GM crops and pesticides to supporting farmer livelihoods. It’s a challenging and refreshing document, very different from the bioplastic industry’s empty greenwash. There may not be many ‘sustainable bioplastics’ to point to but at least it’s an honest start – no pictures of tulips or grass this time.

Jim Thomas is a researcher and writer with the ETC group (www.etcgroup.org) in Ottawa.

Technofixes: climate solution or corporate scam?


The Technofix Debate

Dear Paul

Let‘s start with an agreement: we have to deal with humanmade climate change. The ridiculous fight over whether it is real is long over. What society faces now is a more serious conflict over how to deal with the problem. Behind wonkish debates over ‘adaptation’ and ‘mitigation’, the new battle-lines are being drawn around whose interests get trampled in the name of saving the planet. Trillion-dollar industries, exploiting the climate crisis, are manœuvring to get that fight resolved in their favour. From biofuels to nuclear power to ‘clean coal’, the idea of deploying technology as a silver bullet has become a shiny talisman in the corporate response to climate change.

Nowhere is that talisman more apparent than in the new strategies emerging from the US right wing. Newt Gingrich, a prominent Republican strategist and former climate sceptic, is now a ‘believer’ in climate change but is choosing an election year to fight against carbon dioxide emission reductions. He claims he has a better proposal: namely ‘geo-engineering’, the large-scale intentional manipulation of the atmosphere, oceans and soils to ‘fix’ climate change. Gingrich’s think-tank, the American Enterprise Institute, appears to favour a scheme of polluting the upper atmosphere with tiny sulphur particles in order to reflect heat, cooling the climate in the process. Such a scheme would likely also damage the ozone layer, increase respiratory problems, reduce rainfall and spread drought. The oceans would continue to acidify because it won’t curb CO2 emissions – but that’s not the point. The point is to give industry a free pass to continue polluting and to shift political will away from challenging industrial consumption.

Another crazy geo-engineering scheme, ocean fertilization – dumping iron and urea into the oceans to grow plankton, is being pursued by at least three companies. They claim the plankton will gobble up CO2 and hope to make big bucks on carbon credit markets. In May 2008, 191 nations at the UN Convention on Biological Diversity agreed a de facto moratorium on ocean fertilization because it seriously threatens marine life, human health and coastal livelihoods.

That moratorium is a sane beginning in the emerging battle over geo-engineering. On the one side, Newt Gingrich is offering technofixes to defend business-as-usual; and on the other, global environmental conventions are defending life on earth. These battle-lines look eerily familiar. Which side do you stand on?


Dear Jim

I’m on the side of the direct action, no war for oil, buy nothing day, pro-democracy, anti-corporate rule radicals. (Being one myself, I’ve kind of got to be...)

We‘re opening a huge moral can of worms here, dominated by one simple question – what will we do if our campaigning fails to bring about an urgent and massive reduction in CO2 emissions? Or if those emissions have already gone past the point of no return, leaving the next generations nothing but violent social collapse to look forward to (some climate change models predict the damage we’ve already done will produce a runaway ‘feedback loop’)?

Yes, this kind of capitalist political system will always behave in a bizarre, exploitative, short-term manner, for the benefit of its self-appointed oligarchy. Yes, it’s easy to find villains like Gingrich who support the concept of geo-engineering, and being in the same world – let alone political bed – as him gives me a shudder down my spine. But that doesn’t help answer the question: if all else fails, do we want to deprive future generations of the only solution left available to them, by refusing even to contemplate a large-scale technological solution to the problem?

Believe me, if it turns out we can escape this trap without resorting to ‘technofix’ methods, I’ll be partying in the street right next to you. But if not, what then? Are we saying we want to punish the next generation for our sins? ‘Sorry, kids! We set the house on fire, but you can’t use a fire extinguisher, because that’s industrial technology, which is bad, just like those matches we dropped in the first place. Tough luck, eh?’


Dear Paul

Alarm bells always go off for me when I hear that something is ‘the only solution left available’. Really? Has our imaginative capacity collapsed along with the iceshelves? Somewhere in my unconscious I hear the jackboots of ‘the final solution’ or Margaret Thatcher spelling out TINA (‘There Is No Alternative’). Of course that is how geo-engineering will be sold to us – as inevitable. After a barrage of doomsday hysteria we’ll gratefully pay the geo-engineering companies to pollute our atmosphere, ruin the seas and then grant them immunity from any liability because policymakers will have been convinced they are our saviours – after all: TINA.

Nor do I accept the narrowness of your ‘one simple question’ on CO2 emissions. Let’s put the coming climate emergency in some perspective. Climate change is not the root cause of our global problems or social collapse. Billions of people were already living in a state of emergency before climate change, Kyoto or the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Simply solving the problem of gases in the atmosphere may reduce pressure on the poorest and let some of us off the hook but it doesn’t get us to a fairer world. Even ‘before’ climate change there were over 800 million people hungry in the world, a billion without adequate access to water, a species extinction that surpasses anything in history and an insane economic system creating what the United Nations calls ‘grotesque inequalities’. That’s an ‘inconvenient truth’ that neoliberal enviromentalists such as Al Gore would rather gloss over, yet he and his buddies are framing the debate.

Unless we are radical in our analysis and conscious in our strategies, that deeper global emergency could be much worsened by the geo-engineers, even if they ‘fix’ climate change. ‘Contemplating’ geo-engineering isn’t enough. We need to analyze intelligently the power relations that are built into all our technological ‘solutions’ whether geo-scale or nano-scale. Unless those ‘solutions’ genuinely address both crises – the Johnny-come-lately problem of climate change and the deeper entrenched problem of global injustice –we may end up further kicking the powerless in the teeth.


Dear Jim

The question is one that needs a better answer than ‘You sound like Thatcher, you do!’ We may well fail to reduce (rich world) CO2 emissions fast enough, and then have to respond by any means we can – in a way that doesn’t make the situation worse.

After a barrage of doomsday hysteria we’ll gratefully pay the geo-engineering companies to pollute our atmosphere, ruin the seas and then grant them immunity from any liability because policymakers will have been convinced they are our saviours

Yes, we need a radical global perspective here, otherwise we end up saying political problems only become serious when they impact upon rich white Westerners. Yes, the global majority are already suffering because of our dysfunctional, exploitative economic system – I didn’t say climate change has somehow ‘caused’ that. But if rising sea levels flood the world’s coastal cities and desertification runs riot, what we’ll get is a whole lot more poverty and agony. And I’m not gonna sit here and say ‘Let them suffer! That’ll show the neoliberals we’re not fooled by their devious geo-engineering schemes!’

Yes, some technology does have a kind of inbuilt political agenda – such as guns and nuclear power. But not all does – trains, turbines, industrial looms, hypodermic syringes, power tools... Having printing presses does not inevitably lead to Rupert Murdoch. Computers do not inevitably lead to Bill Gates. Syringes don’t inevitably lead to mainlining heroin. Access to and democratic control of technology is a political issue – one we solve by political means, not by rejecting the technology itself.

I’m not saying let’s accept any form of geo-engineering that’s suggested. Some aren’t feasible soon enough, some will be impossible to control once initiated, and some do have an inbuilt political agenda, such as GMO-based solutions, or those requiring a huge amount of energy to construct and operate, thereby perpetuating emissions. As you say, we need to be very shrewd about this. What I strongly disagree with is your ‘all or nothing’ assumptions that a) we don’t want or need geo-engineering under any circumstances, ever; and b) considering it as a last resort will inevitably mean we ignore our CO2 emissions and further entrench exploitation and corporate political power. That just isn’t a logical argument. In fact, isn’t it kind of ‘TINA’ itself?


Dear Paul

I think we have a really different perception of the politics of technology. Industrial looms did have a powerful inbuilt political function – they put large swathes of artisans out of work in the early 19th century and moved hundreds of thousands of people into an exploitative factory system that ruined communities and damaged workers to fatten the wealth of an emerging class of industrialists. That’s why thousands of so-called ‘Luddites’ acted to destroy power looms under threat of being hanged, and the British state had to deploy more soldiers to quell their direct action than had been sent to fight Napoleon. Today industrial looms are the enabling technology for large sweatshops in poorer communities. Likewise, trains are the archetypal technology of industrial conquest that once opened up indigenous lands for rapid theft, exploitation and movement of raw materials back to the captains of commerce. In some parts of the world trains still steal minerals, metals and lumber from the marginalized to swell corporate coffers.

The point is that many technologies have power relations built into them which they can perpetuate and entrench. Geo-engineering technologies, by their very nature, embody probably the most unequal power relations possible. These are large-scale, capital-intensive endeavours that can only be deployed by industrial élites and yet claim to have the power rapidly and unilaterally to alter planetary ecosystems. We’ve had a few technologies like that before – nuclear bombs or maybe space weaponry. The similarity to weapons of mass destruction is not by chance. In 1976 the world signed the ENMOD treaty against the hostile use of large-scale environmental modification techniques. In fact it was the last environmental treaty the US bothered to sign. Even they recognized that the development of such capabilities would grant awesome and destabilizing power in geopolitical affairs.

You say you wouldn’t accept any old form of geo-engineering. I’m glad you are discerning but please explain what you are advocating. To help narrow the field, let me suggest a taxonomy. First, there are the proposals to suck CO2 out of the atmosphere and sequester it somewhere unspecified (in the ocean maybe, or perhaps vented into outer space). Second, there are proposals to reflect more sunlight back into space to reduce warming – by laying millions of hectares of white plastic over deserts or shooting nanoparticles into the stratosphere. Third, there is straightforward weather modification, such as blowing hurricanes off course so that they don’t hit American cities. Which of these are you suggesting we should fall back on? Should we prepare to suck, reflect or blow?


Dear Jim

The Luddites suffered from the absence of democracy, not the presence of a new piece of technology. I’d love to know what forms of technology you feel can be within our political control... or are we helpless victims in the face of all innovation?

Anyway – suck, reflect or blow? All three! Professors John Latham and Stephen Salter’s proposal to seed clouds using sprayed ocean water droplets (thereby increasing the quantity of cooling, reflective cloud cover over the oceans) involves all three, and looks really promising. At present, the plan involves a fleet of 1,000 wind-powered automated vessels. Most of the electricity would be generated by turbines dragged along behind the craft. To quote Latham: ‘The ideal solution to the global warming problem is that the burning of fossil fuels be drastically reduced... One advantage of our plan is that it is ecologically benign; the only raw material required being seawater. The amount of cooling could be controlled, via satellite measurements and a computer model, and if an emergency arose, the system could be switched off... What effect will this have on the world’s fragile ecosystem, and do we have the right to interfere with the planet in this way? Before we could justify deploying such a scheme on a global scale we would need to [conduct tests] to establish whether there might be serious or harmful meteorological or climatological ramifications.’

I’m not a qualified meteorologist– there may be serious drawbacks to this proposal, but 1,000 boats powered by the wind, that can be switched off if need be, doesn’t strike me as a megalomaniac, uncontrollable industrial plot against the poor. If anything, it has something of an Intermediate Technology feel to it.

Perhaps it won’t work. But then who knows what other solutions might be possible, human creativity being what it is?


Dear Paul

Latham and Salter’s is actually just a ‘reflect’ proposal. It aims only to reduce sunlight, not CO2, so will do nothing to arrest the acidification of the very ocean being sprayed skywards. It’s also the sort of remedy that once you start you likely have to keep going. If you ‘switched it off’, temperatures might rise quickly since there would still be significant greenhouse-gas concentrations. Nor is it exactly a small-is-beautiful ‘intermediate technology’. Scientists working on the project privately estimate that they would need to enhance cloud cover over about 20 per cent of the ocean to be effective (that is, to counteract a doubling of warming). Such artificial cloud formation would be targeted to coastal areas such as the Peruvian and Californian coastline and along storm tracks and would likely reduce rainfall. In effect they would then be engaging in large-scale inadvertent weather modification along coastal regions. I’m not sure how Peruvian and Californian farmers will feel about losing rainfall in a time of severe water shortages, but my suspicion is that they won’t be in on the decision-making anyway. Applying this technique in storm zones may lessen storms and hurricanes or it may just redirect them to hit new unfortunate targets. The problem is, you will likely be replacing one set of unpredictable climatic events caused by warming with another set of unpredictable climate behaviours caused by geo-engineering, and I don’t see how that is progress. What Latham euphemistically calls ‘tests’, like atmospheric nuclear tests or GM crop tests, means altering real world weather patterns.

Prove to me that we’ll succeed in lowering our emissions successfully, that we haven’t reached the point of no return, and I’ll stop considering geo-engineering

But your question about which forms of technology could be within democratic control is a really important one that policymakers and scientists alike repeatedly fail to ask. I think the best of technological creativity is far removed from the world of big budgets and PhDs. There are a multitude of unsung solutions being quietly developed by communities in response to climate change, which can be every bit as ingenious and complex as geo-engineering but far more appropriate. Small farmers across the globe are breeding resilient seed varieties and developing farming techniques to adapt agriculture to climate change. Forest communities are practising forest management techniques that avoid deforestation, while organic farming systems offer real promise to increase carbon storage in the soil while eliminating nitrous oxide emissions from synthetic fertilizers.

These are not the ‘big science’ one-size-fits-all solutions that our technocratic ‘leaders’ prefer. And that’s too bad. As we’ve learned from globalization and t-shirt sales alike, the promise of ‘one-size-fits-all’ rarely delivers what it says on the label. In reality such ‘solutions’ tend to fit the big guys just fine but leave the little people swamped. Whether you are talking t-shirts or climate policy, what sort of justice is that?


Dear Jim

You’ve raised a lot of (very interesting) questions about the political control of technology, but still not answered the key question – what will we do if we fail to bring about sufficient CO2 reductions? None of the ‘small science’ projects you outline will resolve the worst case scenario.

Latham and Salter clearly acknowledge the need to reduce CO2, and that their scheme needs to be carefully scrutinized for unforeseen consequences. But being alarmed by a localized drop in rainfall, when taken in the wider context of the devastation climate change may bring, seems odd. Prove to me that we’ll succeed in lowering our emissions successfully, that we haven’t reached the point of no return, and I’ll stop considering geo-engineering. If not, let’s be involved in the process rather than indulge in post-modernist tut-tutting from the sidelines, and ensure it isn’t dominated by reckless short-term neoliberals who want to use it as permission to carry on business as usual.

You insist that exploring a geo-engineering approach automatically means the end of all future efforts to curb CO2 emissions. That simply isn’t logical, and smacks of a defeatist lack of faith in people.

We clearly identify the same corporate power élite as the main obstacle to justice and freedom. What I find strange is you seem to think all industrial technology is inevitably tied up with that élite, and forever lies beyond democratic control, as if any technology you don’t like has some kind of innate voodoo quality.

There’s a wider context again to this debate... I see great potential for (but no guarantees of!) a profound ethical transformation in the way our species behaves. Our history resembles a kind of moral evolution, slowly and painfully struggling towards increasing levels of democracy and human rights. Undoubtedly there are very serious enemies and injustices to overcome still; enemies who want to perpetuate a feudal, robber-baron style of economic power over the majority.

Continuing that progress requires time and breathing space. The massive social chaos climate change may well bring will result in fascism, not liberation. Yes, let’s keep a sharp critical eye on the political issues thrown up by new technology. But I simply refuse to take an entrenched position when so much is at stake. If there is a workable and sustainable safety net option available to us, let’s explore it, and if need be, I say we take it. Then use the ‘second chance’ it gives humanity to end poverty, injustice and corporate rule, and bring into existence a genuine economic democracy.

Jim Thomas is a technology activist and writer with the ETC Group: www.etcgroup.org
Paul Fitzgerald is an activist, artist, writer and science educator.

Whatever happened to cotton?

Dominic Bugatto

It was at her wedding in 2035 that Asha first began wondering about cloth. Her grandmother had given her an old-fashioned cotton sari and so they fell into conversation while fingering its brittle texture. Asha declared that she found the sari ‘beautiful in a retro sort of way’ but was struck by its impracticality: how easily it stained and how fragile it was. If it snagged on a nail it could tear as quickly as that other outdated material – paper. Her grandmother countered that cotton was the material of choice when she was a child and that the wealth of India was built on fabric like this – ‘and much of its poverty too’, she added ruefully. Somehow in the intervening generation cotton had just disappeared. The conversation passed to other topics, but when Asha later took out the wedding gift again she found herself asking the question: ‘Whatever happened to cotton?’

As an historian by training Asha knew that the disappearance of cotton had something to do with technology. She guessed, rightly, that it fell out of favour in the global commodity chaos that followed the introduction of nanotechnology in the first decade of the century. Nanotechnology, a set of techniques that rearrange matter on the tiniest scale of atoms and molecules, became one of the main drivers of the economy somewhere around 2010. By 2015 the trillion-dollar nano-industry was busy producing everything from computers to armaments and foodstuff – and also cloth: textiles were among the early stars of the nano-revolution.

Novel properties

By harnessing quantum physics and shuffling the atoms of the periodic table into new arrangements, nanotechnologists had made existing elements exhibit entirely novel properties. It seemed almost like alchemy. For example, they could design a gold nanoparticle (a particle only a few billionths of a metre in size) in such a way that it would turn purple, green or bright red, depending on the number of atoms used. This was more than a neat party trick. Once such nanogold entered mass production it quickly found uses in the paint, dyes and pigment industry and as a catalyst, pushing the already buoyant price of gold to record levels. Other commodities, however, lost out: nanosized fibres of carbon known as ‘carbon nanotubes’ could be produced that were 100 times stronger than steel, six times lighter and carried electricity more efficiently than copper wire. As Mitsubishi and IBM began to churn out cheap nanotubes by the ton, steelworkers and copper miners found themselves forced into early retirement.

Something similar had happened to around a billion workers in the global cotton industry. Digging into the archives from Internet 1.0, Asha learned that cotton was so common at the turn of the century that even the early nanofabrics were based on it. In 2002 a Texas company called Nano-tex began selling simple nano-coatings that would make cotton fibres ‘spill resistant’ – you could pour coffee on a pair of nano-treated jeans and it would bead up like mercury and roll off as if by magic. Nano-tex was quickly joined by DuPont, who created a similar no-spill effect using ‘nanoteflon’. These new nanofibres were licensed to several of the largest textile mills in Asia to make trousers and jeans for Lee, Dockers, Gap and Eddie Bauer, to name just a few. Nanotech quickly became the hottest topic in textiles – just as nylon, rayon and polyester had been half a century earlier. This spelled trouble ahead for cotton.

When seen at the nano-scale, cotton lint is simply a hollow tube of cellulose. It wasn’t long before nanotechnologists starting mimicking that structure with artificial alternatives. In 2002 Nano-tex launched a new way of wrapping cellulose around polyester fibres. This made them feel like cotton even though the fibres were synthetic. Meanwhile a German nanofibre company, Lenzing, introduced Tencel – a soft fabric whose nanofibres were made out of engineered cellulose. Tencel claimed to be ‘as soft as silk, strong as polyester, cool as linen, warm as wool and absorbent as cotton’. Made from cheap wood-pulp and sawdust, Tencel was marketed as an all-natural fibre. Suddenly cotton had real competition.

At that time nanotechnology was redefining what was possible with textiles. Silver nanoparticles were added to socks and later shirts to resist odours. They reduced the frequent washing of clothes that used to be necessary. Later nanofibres were designed to resist dirt directly by preventing it attaching to the fibres. Meanwhile, carbon nanofibres woven into kids’ clothes helped them wear the rough and tumble of the playground as though they were Kevlar – a trick first developed by the military for lighter armour.

Then came the so-called ‘smart fabrics’ – also largely developed in military labs. By 2003 Yoel Fink, a nanotechnologist at MIT’s Institute for Soldier Nanotechnology, invented the colour-changing nanofibres that became so ubiquitous a decade later. Fink’s nanofibres changed colour with the addition of an electrical charge that either lengthened or shortened the fibres, altering the way they interacted with light. So a dull grey sweater could turn bright pink at the flick of a switch – no need to change outfits between the office and the dinner party. Others found that incorporating carbon nanofibres into fabric production allowed clothes to conduct an electrical charge, and so cell phones, computers and radio frequency ID chips were woven into nanotextiles as part of the burgeoning field of ‘wearable computing’.


Soon it was discovered that carbon nanofibres could be made to generate electricity as the wearer moved about. The scientists called these electricity-generating fabrics ‘piezzolelectric materials’ – everyone else called it E-cloth. Shortly after E-cloth hit the market, Apple bought Nike, Google bought Levis and the fashion and computing industries merged. Clothes finally became the interactive entertainment devices that we are familiar with today. While rich kids in the North pulled on the latest G-suit to play Nintendo, the 100 million poor cotton-growing families in the south were forced into a desperate search for new livelihoods.

One company that cheerily waved goodbye to cotton was DuPont, the chemical company whose post-war synthetic fibres had shaken the cotton industry once before. Besides being a nanotech leader, DuPont also pioneered the field of Synthetic Biology (Syn Bio). This extreme form of genetic engineering allowed scientists to assemble artificial viruses and bacteria out of synthetic DNA, as if building electronic circuits. They programmed these artificial microbes to churn out rubber, gasoline, ethanol and industrial precursors for fibres. In 2007 DuPont opened a $100 million Syn Bio factory in Lubbock, Texas, producing a new elastic fibre called Sonora. This showcased fibre production in which vats of synthetically designed bacteria fed on cheap and plentiful sugars could produce synthetic thread.

The synthetic biologists didn’t stop at Sonora. Through a process known as ‘metabolic pathway engineering’ geneticists had figured out the specific genetic instructions that the cotton plant uses to produce cotton lint. These were successfully transferred to bacteria around 2015, after which synthetic microbes could extrude cotton-like substances by the vat-load. Following that, only niche organic consumers were interested in the expensive option of irrigating and cultivating hectares of plants – not to mention paying for farm work. Bacteria ask for no wages at all.

Fabric of history

Meditating on the meshed threads of her grandmother’s sari, Asha saw how cotton’s history had been tightly woven into the ebb and flow of new technologies even before nanotech. India had first given the world cotton cloth but the colonial powers used technological innovations to steal it away. The invention of Hargreaves’ spinning jenny and Cartwright’s power loom at the end of the 18th century allowed more efficient processing of cotton into cloth and so moved the heart of the cotton trade to Manchester, England. Meanwhile, in the New World, Eli Whitney revived the declining American cotton plantations when he invented the cotton gin in 1793 – a mechanical means of removing seeds from cotton bolls. Whitney transformed North American cotton production so that it could outcompete Indian production.

It seemed to Asha that each time cotton production and so-called ‘technological progress’ joined hands, the poor lost out. The shift in textile production to England and cultivation by slaves in the American South led to mass starvation in India, where cotton was still hand-picked and hand-woven. Not only were the Indian weavers contending with the factory system but the British also imposed harsh restrictions on the export of India’s finished cloth to protect their new industrialists. Rebellious weavers who attempted to evade these restrictions had their fingers smashed by the muskets of British soldiers. In a cruel twist of history, the rifles used to exact this punishment were of a type invented and patented by cotton gin inventor Eli Whitney.

Years later, when the father of Indian independence, Mahatma Gandhi, talked about giving power back to the poor, he drew a link between technology, politics and cotton. ‘I think of the poor of India every time that I draw a thread on the wheel,’ he said, urging India to turn away from mechanized production and return to hand-spinning of cotton to revitalize its village economies. Mechanization of spinning, he claimed, ‘brought on slavery, pauperism and disappearance of the inimitable artistic talent which was once all expressed in the wonderful fabric of India which was the envy of the world.’

When Asha finally put on the sari she discovered that it was unexpectedly soft to wear. She liked how the breeze went through it, but mostly she liked the way its colours faded and how the dust settled and stayed on it. The new fabrics stayed clean and shiny perpetually. Like so many new technologies, they existed in an unsullied present with no stain of history. That felt wrong to Asha – it dishonoured the cotton weavers who’d had their fingers crushed by rifles, the American slaves who’d worked the plantations and the cotton families who’d lost their livelihood to nanofibres. When she was next scheduled to see her grandmother, Asha made a point of wearing the cotton sari. She wrapped it around her body like a remembrance ribbon and headed off. •

*Jim Thomas* works with the ETC Group (www.etcgroup.org ). See their _The Potential Impacts of Nano-Scale Technologies on Commodity Markets: The Implications for Commodity Dependent Developing Countries._