June 20, 2012
Risking it All
A disproportionate emphasis on risk perpetuates technology as threat at a time when we need to innovate ourselves out of a set of destructive technologies that are at the center of the ecological crisis we face.
In June of this year, Environmental Defense and DuPont introduced the NANO Risk Framework to "evaluate and address the potential risks of nanoscale materials." Nanotechnology refers to applied science and technology whose unifying theme is the control of materials on the molecular level and the fabrication of devices within that range.
What is striking about the framework and an earlier editorial published in the Wall Street Journal by Fred Krupp is the reliance on the eco-tragedy meta-narrative combined with the risk assessment sub-plot.
To introduce a framework intended to "advance responsible development" of a technology that might "lift environmental burdens", the reader is reminded of fatal accidents from toxic gases and the tragedies of ozone holes, DDT, lead in gasoline etcetera.
The piece is just one more example of how engrained the risk paradigm has become in environmental politics where new technologies are described in terms of their potential threats. It is noteworthy that Chad Holliday the CEO of DuPont even bought into this narrative. This dynamic is consistent with Beck's theories of a risk society and reflexive modernization. The risk paradigm serves as the antithesis of an inspirational politics by continually equating innovation with threat and tragedy.
This point is not intended to suggest we should not remain vigilant about the implications from the diffusion of modern technologies, we must. A disproportionate emphasis on risk, however, perpetuates a "technology as threat" culture at a time when we need to innovate ourselves out of a set of destructive technologies that are at the center of the ecological crisis we face. Perhaps it is time to imagine eco-triumph through that most core human value, invention.