Guest Blog from John Elkington



Why It’s Time to Embrace Nanotechnology, Neuroscience, Synthetic Biology and Geoengineering.


Thanks heavens we live in an era where we understand at least the basic essentials of evolution—it makes things so much simpler than having to believe in the agency of choirs of angels.  But the problem with our understanding of evolution is that it, too, keep evolving.  And one of the big leaps forward was the notion of punctuated equilibrium, which suggested that rather than evolution proceeding in a smooth, continuous and broadly predictable fashion, as Darwin’s work seemed to suggest, it goes through periods of convulsive, unpredictable change.

And the same turns out to be true, as economists like Nikolai Kondratiev and Joseph Schumpeter first proposed, about our economies.  We now understand – or should do – that waves, cycles, supercycles and periods of creative destruction powerfully shape economic activity.

For extended periods of time, our economies crank along using a suite of technologies that evolved some time in the past, for example steam power, steelmaking, canals and railroads, or electrical power generation, the internal combustion engine and automobiles.  None of these new technologies was embraced with open arms by the world at large: remember the farmers who protested that the sight and sound of passing steam locomotives would cause their cows to abort?

The historical record suggests that critics were right to worry, of course: the influx of navvies, with their tools, dynamite and alcohol was scarcely a welcome development for communities along the line of the new canals or railroads.  But, over time, the clusters of new technologies settled down and a new economic and environmental equilibrium was established.  Or perhaps we should say seemed to be established, given the climate – destabilizing of such technologies as coal-fired power generation, something that only became clear once earlier problems like soot and acid rain had been tackled.

Now we face the emergence of an even greater cluster of new technologies, whose implications seem to be on an almost logarithmically greater scale.  They include such fields as nanocience and nanotechnology (think of “grey goo” concerns, or the work of the late Michael Crichton, including novels like Prey and Micro), advanced neuroscience (with the threat that neoromarketing will allow our brains to be read by all sorts of unsavoury people), artificial intelligence (with robots and mechanical intelligence taking over an increasing proportion of warmaking), human cloning (remember Brave New World and The Boys from Brazil?), medical bionics (who wouldn’t want to be Bionic Man or Woman, especially when everyone else has been enhanced?), synthetic biology (where people worry that instead of just tinkering with genes, we start to create totally new species) and geoengineering (well, where to begin or end the list of the possible global consequences?).

Much of my working life has focused on the assessment of possible environmental, social or economic consequences of new technologies.  In the 1980s, for example, I produced a range of reports for the World Resources Institute on emerging technologies in such areas as genetic engineering waste management and satellite remote sensing.  I spent two decades working fairly intensively with biotechnology companies.  And I find myself increasingly interested in areas like synthetic biology, having met Craig Venter, one of the field’s pioneers and head of the J. Craig Venter Institute, at a World Economic Forum event in Davos a few years back.

As these new areas of science, technology and business evolve over the coming decades, we can be sure of endless controversies, a few really major catastrophic events, a bunch of learning through failures, and the conversion of at least some of the most energetic skeptics and critics – after the requisite epiphanies – into equally energetic proponents, or at least their recruitment into roles where they become part of supervisory and auditing processes designed to minimize societal or environmental risks.

In the end, however, we should be careful of being too obsessed with particular technologies and their various applications.  Yes, we need something along the lines of a global version of the now-discontinued (but in its heyday sometimes brilliantly insightful) U.S. Office for Technology Assessment (OTA).  And way before we get to that point, we need to further evolve global networks necessary to monitor, audit and engage the scientists, technologists, investors, corporate players and regulators involved in all of this.

And we also have to be acutely aware of how all this is going to impact our mindsets, our behaviours, our cultures and ultimately, the prevailing paradigm that underpins and informs everything we do.  These are economic, psychological and cultural convulsions in prospect here.  Some will argue (and sometimes fight) for zero risk, others will argue (and sometimes fight) for the development and deployment of new technologies able to drive critical aspects of our social and environmental footprints to zero.

This is an area that I have begun to explore and map out in a new book, The Zeronauts: Breaking the Sustainability Barrier, due out in May.  Truly, this is an immensely exciting time to be alive and involved in all of this.  Accommodating a global population of 9 billion-plus by mid-century will require us to do things that are almost unimaginable today.  But, just as television, air travel or the internet would have been unimaginable to earlier generations, and whether we like it or not, many of our equilibriums are destined to be punctuated.

John Elkington is Executive Chairman of Volans (, co-founder of SustainAbility (, blogs at, tweets at @volansjohn and is author or co-author of 18 books, including The Zeronauts: Breaking the Sustainability Barrier, due out from Routledge in May.


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