[unrev-II] Free Market, MBTE, & NanoTechnology

From: Eric Armstrong (eric.armstrong@eng.sun.com)
Date: Thu Jan 27 2000 - 14:28:49 PST

From: Eric Armstrong <eric.armstrong@eng.sun.com>

We yet another reason to be scared as hell.

The power of nanotechnology was discussed at the last
colloquium, along with the potential risks.

The problem, as I see it, is a product-for-profit economy
couple with potentially devastating technologies.

For example, the nanotech presentation highlighted the
fact that all nano-assemblers *must* be driven by an
artificial, not-readily available food source. Otherwise, the
result could quite literally destory the planetary eco

But sugar is SO much cheaper, and SO much more
readily available. Gas companies recently decided to
but MBTE in gasoline, because it is CHEAP compared
to any of the other alternatives. How soon before some
nanotech firm says, "Hey, this is a contained situation
(like Chernoybl). Let's use SUGAR! We'll save a penny
a microbe, and what harm could it do... WHAM.

Who would have thought that businesses run by human
beings were even *capable* of foisting off the travesties
we have seen in our lifetime: tobacco, partially hydrogen-
ated oils, MBTE, olestra, thalidomide, Phen fen,
aspartame, saccharin. The list goes on an on.

And those are just the ones I can think of off the top of my
head. I shudder to think of what the actual list might be.
In some cases, we are mindlessly indulging in what amounts
to a 40 year social experiment to *see* what the long-term
effects will be. In other cases, the products are *known*
to be harmful, and yet that stops no one.

HOW do we get business, as well as government, to where
it is responsive to *people*? Introducing ethics into
decision-making would be wonderful. But how about
simple *humanity*?

------Original Mail--------

Current MBTE fiasco.
-------------------------------Situation: * Government wants clean air.
Mandates "more oxygen in gasoline". * Industry can't find any
*inexpensive* way to do, except by using MBTE. * MBTE is *highly* water
soluble, and underground gas storage tanks leak. Both facts were
known 20 years ago. * Oil industry knows these facts, but cares not --
profit is king. * Government does *not* know (or pretends ignorance)
and does *not* either outlaw MBTE as an additive or require studies
of its effects. * Basically no studies have been done to find out what
the effect of this additive will be when it is ingested. But it
smells funny, tastes funny, and it's a gasoline additive. So
prospects are not good. * It is now IN the drinking water in 7 states,
and on it's way to the aquifers in every other. * Congress is
*still* unable to pass a law outlawing it, two years after all this
information comes out -- undoubtedly the result of pressure from the
friendly oil industry. So, does the system work? Not really well. Here
we have a law passed,probably to achieve a political goal, regardless of
the science. We have anindustry using a potentially harmful, totally
untested additive, because it'scheap and it does the job, regardless of
the science. No one oil companywill stop using, because of competitive
pressure from all the others. Andthe political process can't stop it
until it becomes lethal, because doing sowould have an enormous on big
bottom lines. So, the system is horribly flawed. Maybe tragically
flawed. But the operationof that system *does* have an impact. Policy
decisions have real worldeffects, and there is *always* some
policy-making body. The issue, then,is what kind of policy-making body
has the most benign, and hopefullybeneficial, effects. The two flaws in
the system we have today are: * Policy making too heavily influenced
by money interests * Policy making too interested in short term
results regardless of long term consequences in order to keep
popular favor. Unfortunately, I have no alternative to offer. It is
quite possible, though, thatwithout one, it is only a matter of time
before one of these issues does usin, leaving us with no further
opportunity to address any other issues.Don't get me wrong. I'm in favor
of a "free" market. But it's clear that a "free"market requires
regulation. The robber barrons, Appalachian "companytowns", and general
disdain for human welfare displayed by industry, tobaccocompanies, food
producers, the oil industry, and direct-mail scam artistsattest
beautifully to the fact that ethically-impaired individuals
requireexternal regulation to keep from harming others. Given that
regulation of some kind is a necessity, and the regulatory
policiesaffect economies, the only important question is how best to
arrange theregulations so that individuals and corporations, acting in
their own bestinterest, will invent, create, and promote the
technologies which will have thegreatest positive impact, with minimal
negative consequences.

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