With Guillermo Foladori

Nanotechnology and the world of labor



In the framework of the Training Course on Nanotechnologies, Labor and Society, organized by Casa Bertolt Brecht, the IUF’s Latin American Regional Office (Rel-UITA) and the Outreach Program of the University of the Republic, SIREL spoke with Guillermo Foladori, anthropologist, economist and researcher at Mexico’s Universidad Autónoma de Zacatecas, who traveled to Uruguay to participate in this event.




-How did the idea for organizing a nanotechnology course come up?

-Two years ago we formed a Latin American Nanotechnology and Society Network (RELANS), primarily academic, which focuses on prioritizing issues that have to do with the relationship between nanotechnology and work. In August we will publish the first book that gives a diagnosis of the situation of nanotechnology in the different countries of Latin America. At the same time, we are trying to participate in and organize activities in different countries with the aim of discussing the implications of nanotechnology for society in general and the risks that it entails. It’s good to be able to work together, because this is a joint effort of the IUF, Uruguay’s University of the Republic, Casa Bertolt Brecht and RELANS, which reveals that there is a common interest in issues that at the international level are not given the consideration that they merit.


Whenever nanotechnology is discussed internationally it is to highlight the potential benefits of products that contain or are produced with nanotechnology, because these are items that in terms of utility will be more beneficial than anything we have previously known, as they introduce novel functions; but there is almost no talk of –or research on– the effects on health, the environment and labor. This is not being examined from the perspective of the risks it entails for workers that handle products treated with nanotechnology, nor is there any thought to what it will mean in terms of employment, because nanotechnology will affect how labor is organized globally.


-In what way?

-It’s quite difficult to foresee the specific impacts it will have on labor, but what is foreseeable is that the impacts will be both great and very radical, so that the governments that finance this kind of technologies must pay special attention to these matters, allocating a part of their resources to researching such consequences. Sadly, this isn’t happening, and the issue is dealt with only when social organizations demand it.


-What field is nanotechnology currently being used most extensively in?

-In the military field, without a doubt. The military industry has invested a lot of money in research. Right now it is very difficult for any civilian sector to progress without the military sector making use of its advances for their own purposes. This is also the most difficult area to obtain information from.


-What countries have pioneered the use of this new technology?

-The United States has broken new ground in all the areas where nanotechnology is being used. Europe also has nanotechnology programs, but production is limited to the United States and several Asian countries. If we look at it in terms of economic standing, we’re talking about the most developed countries, and if we think in terms of companies, we have that the largest corporations account for more than 80 percent of all nanotechnology research, patents and applications in concrete products. So there is a very strong concentration that continues previous trends. It would be absurd to think that any new technology could escape corporate tendencies.


-What is your evaluation of how the issue is disseminated?

-It depends on the area and on the image that the public is given of the technology; in some cases it is announced as the new solution to many problems: its advocates hail it as the solution to hunger, diseases and energy and water purification problems, and in that sense it gets wide coverage. Then there is the sectorial level, and there it is surprising what a great deal of exposure there is for information on nanotechnology in the textile industry, while there’s absolutely no information on the use of nanotechnology in the food industry and in the agriculture and cattle products industry. In the cosmetics industry, for example, where advertisements made explicit reference to the use of nanotechnology, there has been a radical change: over the last six months that information was pulled out of the industry’s web sites.


-What challenges do social organizations and civil society face with the potential impacts of nanotechnology?

-Today society is more receptive and more careful of new technologies, because people have sensed that these do not emerge from a need or a demand from the population, but rather, first a technology is invented and only afterwards is an application found for it. It’s like a backward business. If we look carefully at what’s happened with GMOs in the last five or ten years, we’ll see that in many European countries they’ve already been banned. The same thing could happen with nanotechnology if we press for more thorough investigations and if health and environmental concerns are put before business interests. Today we’re seeing exactly the opposite: The market is being flooded with things, with a we’ll-deal-with-it-later attitude, which is why we need to see how we can organize ourselves to convince governments to regulate nanotechnology and to take the potential impacts seriously.


-As a researcher and academic, in your opinion what are the prospects in terms of overcoming these challenges?

-It’s a hard battle, but not an impossible one. In business, there is great interest in regulating everything related with nanotechnology. There is a particular interested among the insurance companies, because they don’t want to risk investing capital in something that could later turn out to be catastrophic. It’s too risky. Even major trade associations want all nanotechnology products to be labeled indicating their content, because they don’t want consumers to accuse them of selling them goods that could be harmful to their health.


In Montevideo, Amalia Antúnez
July 10, 2008






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