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CRN Science & Technology Essays - 2008

"Four stages of acceptance: 1) this is worthless nonsense; 2) this is an interesting, but perverse, point of view; 3) this is true, but quite unimportant; 4) I always said so." Geneticist J.B.S. Haldane, on the stages scientific theory goes through

Each issue of the C-R-Newsletter features a brief article explaining various aspects of advanced nanotechnology. They are gathered in these archives for your review. If you have comments or questions, please email Jessica Margolin, CRN's Director of Research Communities.

  1. CRN at Five Years Old (January 31, 2008)
  2. Atomic Force Microscopy  (March 31, 2008)
  3. Nano, Geo, Uh-Oh (May 31, 2008)
  4. The Perfect Storm (August 15, 2008)
  5. The Human Extinction Scenario (October 4, 2008)

     2004 Essays Archive
     2005 Essays Archive
      2006 Essays Archive
      2007 Essays Archive

CRN at Five Years Old
By Mike Treder, Executive Director

In December 2007, we stated that this month we would offer an assessment of CRN’s first five years and present an overview of our accomplishments, our disappointments, and our plans for the future.

A useful way to approach this task might be to go back and consider what we believed and what we said when we started CRN and what we have learned since then. 

Early in 2003, we published the following foundational statements that summarized CRN's basic positions:

A) Effective use of nanotechnology can benefit everyone.

Advanced nanotechnology promises the ability to build precise machines and components of molecular size. Using mechanically guided chemistry, rapid prototyping, and automated assembly, a nanofactory could combine components into large and complex products. A personal nanofactory should be able to provide cheap, clean, rapid manufacturing; the resulting abundance has the potential to alleviate most shortages, and enable a high standard of living for everyone who has access to it. Rapid, cheap, flexible manufacturing will allow swift development of new inventions, spurring innovation and creating further benefits. We are dedicated to the principle of making these benefits available as widely as possible through effective administration of molecular manufacturing.

B) Unwise use of nanotechnology can be very dangerous.

A technology this powerful could easily be misused. The rapid development cycle and massive manufacturing capability may lead to an unstable arms race between competing powers. Excessive restrictions may lead to an inhumane gap between rich and poor, and may encourage a black market in bootleg, unsafe molecular manufacturing technology. Insufficient restrictions may allow small groups and even individuals to produce undesirable products or terrorist tools. The products of a nanofactory could have unprecedented power and efficiency. Some restrictions, implemented worldwide, will probably be necessary for sufficient control of the use of molecular manufacturing.

C) Nanofactory technology can be used safely.

The manufacturing capability of advanced nanotechnology might be encapsulated in a device of convenient size, with built-in mechanisms for restricting the products it can make. A box the size of a microwave oven would provide ample manufacturing capacity for a household; such a format would be suitable for private ownership, and is easily large enough to contain all necessary functionality for safe use, including elimination of any chemical emissions, and various security technologies. The security features would ensure that the factory would only make approved products; several approval processes could be instituted for the use of various groups and situations. By using nanofactories with built-in restrictions, necessary control could be imposed while allowing widespread use of molecular manufacturing.

D) Preventing nanotechnology is impossible; careful study will be necessary for wise use.

Many nations around the world have already established nanotechnology programs, spending hundreds of millions of dollars per year. Many enabling technologies are developing rapidly. There is no realistic way to relinquish or prevent all development that could lead to robust molecular manufacturing, and there are compelling military and economic reasons for its development—in many different countries. Meanwhile, estimates of the technology's ultimate potential, and the timeline and cost for development, vary widely. Information is power; only through intensive studies can we ensure that the developers and the future administrators of this powerful capability have the tools they need to make the right decisions. A detailed understanding of molecular manufacturing technology is necessary to prepare for its eventual development.

E) Effective use of nanotechnology will require intelligent and prudent policy-making.

Like a computer, a nanotechnology manufacturing system could be incredibly flexible—useful for a wide range of tasks. The administration of a single technology with a multitude of uses, many of them dangerous, poses a unique problem. No single organization can effectively tackle this problem. A single point of control will not be responsive enough to choose the correct set of restrictions for every case, when decisions must be made rapidly and too much restriction may be as bad as too little; however, some worldwide control will probably be necessary. An organization with a single focus, such as military or commercial, cannot make good decisions about unrelated purposes; an organization that tries to accommodate everyone will probably make unwise compromises. Predicting the effects of any choice will require a detailed understanding of the potential of the technology. Well-informed policy must be set, and administrative institutions carefully designed and established, before molecular manufacturing is developed.

F) The situation is urgent; nanofactories may be developed within a decade.

Development of molecular manufacturing technology will rapidly become easier. Computer chips have parts only 120 atoms wide, and getting smaller; molecules bigger than that have already been constructed. Several technologies allow direct creation of complex structures less than 20 atoms wide, and single-atom lithography is being developed. Automated assembly has been used for decades; rapid prototyping is quickly developing from industrial to home use. Molecular manufacturing and assembly will be simpler and easier in many ways than normal manufacturing. Rapid development programs, some of which may be secret, competitive, and unregulated, will be driven by powerful economic and military incentives. To be prepared for the coming development of molecular manufacturing technology, we must start planning for it immediately.

Let’s take those points one at a time and see if they still apply today, in early 2008. 

Effective use of nanotechnology can benefit everyone. What’s suggested here is that the benefits of molecular manufacturing might not be distributed equitably unless we make certain choices. We still believe this, and although we have offered arguments to support our position and engaged others in discussion, the issue is still open and may not be decided for quite some time. It’s really an old, classic debate about how much the state should intervene in markets, but we think the unprecedented potential productivity of advanced nanotechnology makes it more relevant than ever. We will continue to emphasize this aspect of our message.

Unwise use of nanotechnology can be very dangerous. Over the years, perhaps not surprisingly, this point has brought more attention to CRN than any other. We have raised concerns about the potential for a new arms race, about environmental implications, about job loss and economic disruption, about ubiquitous intrusive surveillance, and many other dangers. We’re gratified that the public at large seems to have caught on to the seriousness of the risks we’ve raised and placed them in proper perspective versus the still important but less critical worries about things like nanoparticle toxicity. Of course, there is nothing close to agreement on CRN’s assertion that “some restrictions, implemented worldwide, will probably be necessary for sufficient control of the use of molecular manufacturing.” That’s one of our most controversial positions, but we have not yet seen a reason to change it.

Nanofactory technology can be used safely. We’re proud to have taken the lead in proposing extensive plans for safe use of personal nanofactories. Our suggested approach of wide distribution combined with built-in technical restrictions almost always garners positive response. Granted, it will be anything but easy to design and implement such a system, but the basic concepts seem to be sound.

Preventing nanotechnology is impossible; careful study will be necessary for wise use. This point was made against a backdrop of some individuals and groups calling for a moratorium on nanotechnology research and development or even outright relinquishment of the technology. Fortunately, such cries have found little sympathy. CRN’s position that advanced nanotechnology should be developed as fast as it can be done safely and responsibly appears to be the mainstream consensus, and with good reason. The potential benefits are far too great to be relinquished, and the best way to head off risks is to carefully study and understand the technology, and then to develop it under sensible guidelines.

Effective use of nanotechnology will require intelligent and prudent policy-making. There are three key points in this position: first, that the issues involved are complex and overlapping, meaning that no simple solution will work; second, that a laissez faire approach could be very dicey because the dangers are too great to allow for unregulated dissemination of nanofactory technology; and, third, that policy choices must be made and administrative systems put in place before the technology is complete. The first point seems self-evident and has largely been accepted, although we suspect that the enormous implications of this overwhelming complexity are not yet fully appreciated. The second point is controversial, of course, and this is an area where CRN is open to considering that we might be wrong. Good arguments can be made for the effectiveness indeed, perhaps even the necessity of supporting emergent networked solutions instead of top-down imposed solutions. That’s an ongoing discussion. The third point is equally controversial, and arguably unachievable, but because it focuses attention on how molecular manufacturing is potentially so disruptive, we think it is worth bringing up again and again.

The situation is urgent; nanofactories may be developed within a decade. Now, we get to the heart of the matter. Unless CRN can establish the urgency factor suggested by this final point, then all of the other positions stated above may be considered only of academic interest and not necessary for critical debate, or at least not for a long time. So, where are we today?

Since CRN was founded in December 2002, we’ve seen remarkable progress in the development of technologies that may contribute to the eventual achievement of exponential general-purpose molecular manufacturing. We won’t go down the whole list, because it is too long (see this Enabling Nanotech Update for some examples), but it now seems obvious to us and to many scientists and other observers that the feasibility question is well on its way to being settled. The contention that building productive nanoscale machinery is impossible for this reason or that reason has faded into the background. On the point of whether or not molecular manufacturing is feasible, CRN and our allies apparently have won the argument.

A larger question exists, however, about urgency. Feasibility is only one factor; the other is imminence. There is a huge difference between saying that nanofactories will be developed someday and saying that they will be developed soon. We have based our appeals to policy makers and to the public on the idea that immediate action was needed. Originally, we claimed that the technology “might become a reality by 2010, likely will by 2015, and almost certainly will by 2020.” Recently we revised that projection to say “might become a reality by 2010 to 2015, more plausibly will by 2015 to 2020, and almost certainly will by 2020 to 2025.”

It’s interesting to note that while CRN’s time frame for the expected development of molecular manufacturing has shifted back by approximately five years, the mainstream scientific community’s position has been moving forward, from a point of ‘never’, to ‘maybe by the end of the century’, to ‘not until at least 2050’, and now to ‘perhaps around 2030 or so’. These projections might not yet match up exactly with CRN’s, but the gap is steadily shrinking.  

So, we’re seeing agreement about feasibility, and a convergence around the likely time frame. These are both positive developments, as uncertainty is being removed.  

And that’s where we stand today. The Center for Responsible Nanotechnology has accomplished a great deal in five years, clarifying and sharpening the discussion, forcing our concerns onto the agenda, and moving the mainstream closer to our positions. Our challenge now is to take a step back and see what we most want to achieve during the next five years.


Atomic Force Microscopy
By Michael Berger, editor-in-chief of Nanowerk

(This article was originally published on March 10, 2008, at and is reprinted here by permission.)

Whenever you read an article about nano this or nano that, chances are you come across a large number of confusing three-letter acronyms - AFM, SFM, SEM, TEM, SPM, FIB, CNT and so on. It seems scientists earn extra kudos when they come up with a new three-letter combination. One of the most important acronyms in nanotechnology is AFM - Atomic Force Microscopy. This instrument has become the most widely used tool for imaging, measuring and manipulating matter at the nanoscale and in turn has inspired a variety of other scanning probe techniques.

Originally the AFM was used to image the topography of surfaces, but by modifying the tip it is possible to measure other quantities (for example, electric and magnetic properties, chemical potentials, friction and so on), and also to perform various types of spectroscopy and analysis. Today we take a look at one of the instruments that has it all made possible. So far, over 20,000 AFM-related papers have been published; over 500 patents were issued related to various forms of scanning probe microscopes (SPM); several dozen companies are involved in manufacturing SPM and related instruments, with an annual worldwide turnover of $250–300 million, and approx. 10,000 commercial systems sold (not counting a significant number of home-built systems).

To put the AFM in its context: The reason why nanosciences and nanotechnologies have taken off with such amazing force over the past 20 years is because our ongoing quest for miniaturization has resulted in tools such as the AFM (invented in 1986) or its precursor, the scanning tunneling microscope (STM; invented in 1982. IBM has a website with a gallery of STM images here). Combined with refined processes such as electron beam lithography, this allowed scientists to deliberately manipulate and manufacture nanostructures, something that wasn't possible before.

These engineered nanomaterials, either by way of a top-down approach (a bulk material is reduced in size to nanoscale particles) or a bottom-up approach (larger structures are built or grown atom by atom or molecule by molecule), go beyond just a further step in miniaturization. They have broken a physical barrier beyond, or rather: below, which the standard laws of physics are replaced by what is called "quantum effects". Any material reduced to the nanoscale can suddenly show very different properties than to what it shows on a macro- and larger scale. For instance, opaque substances become transparent (copper); inert materials become catalysts (platinum); stable materials turn combustible (aluminum); solids turn into liquids at room temperature (gold); insulators become conductors (silicon).

A second important aspect of the nanoscale is that the smaller nanoparticles get the larger their relative surface area becomes. The larger the relative surface area, the more reactive a particle becomes with regard to other substances. The fascination with nanotechnology stems from these unique quantum and surface phenomena that matter exhibits at the nanoscale, enabling novel applications and interesting materials.

But without the AFM, all this wouldn't be happening.

The term microscope in the name is actually a misnomer because it implies looking, while in fact the information is gathered by feeling the surface with a mechanical probe. The operation principle of an AFM is based on three key elements:

1) an atomically sharp tip (the "probe"), placed at the end of a flexible cantilever beam, that is brought into physical contact with the surface of a sample. The cantilever beam deflects in proportion to the force of interaction;

2) a piezoelectric transducer to facilitate positioning and scanning the probe in three dimensions over the sample with very precise movements; and

3) a feedback system to detect the interaction of the probe with the sample.

Scanning across the surface, the sharp tip follows the bumps and grooves formed by the atoms on the surface. By monitoring the deflections of the flexible cantilever beam one can generate a topography of the surface.

This principle has been the basis for one of the most important nanoscience tools and allowed the visualization of nanoscale objects where conventional optics cannot resolve them due to the wave nature of light.

A recently published article in the Encyclopedia of Life Sciences, written by Martijn de Jager and John van Noort, both from the University of Leiden in the Netherlands, gives an excellent overview of Atomic Force Microscopy and its applications in life sciences. Below we are summarizing some of the key information from this article.

The AFM can be operated in a number of modes, depending on the application but four modes are most commonly used for AFM imaging: contact mode (or constant height mode), where the deflection of the cantilever is directly used as a measure for the height of the tip and the normal force applied to the sample scales directly with its height. In constant force mode, the normal force the cantilever deflection under scanning reflects repulsive forces acting upon the tip, and at sufficiently small scanning velocities the force feedback can reduce the normal force. Tapping mode (or noncontact mode), where the tip is vibrated (oscillating at its resonance frequency) perpendicular to the specimen plane to avoid gouging the specimen as the tip is scanned laterally and the lateral forces are reduced. In a fourth mode of scanning, the force–distance mode, the tip is brought to the sample at frequencies far below the resonance frequency of the cantilever while at the same time the deflection is recorded. This allows one to measure the local interaction as a function of the tip-sample distance.

As de Jager and van Noort write in their article, large numbers of various biological samples, including cells, cell compartments and biomolecules, have been studied with AFM. "In some of these studies, AFM is used as a plain imaging tool to investigate the topography of immobilized and/or fixed samples, complementing existing methods such as electron microscopy, with the advantage that sample preparation is generally more straightforward. For other experiments, the use of AFM is a prerequisite to look at nonfixed materials and even their dynamics in aqueous environment. Besides its imaging capabilities AFM is becoming increasingly important as a nanomanipulation tool. The single-molecule analysis of interaction forces, elasticity and tertiary protein structure in intact biological materials is uniquely possible using AFM."

Introducing this vast body of research is beyond the scope of any article. Let's just take a look at two examples illustrated in the paper:

Imaging Cells

"AFM imaging of living cells provides a direct measurement of cell morphology with nanometer resolution in three dimensions. Because of its noninvasive nature and the absence of fixation and staining, even dynamic processes like exocytosis, infection by virus particles and budding of enveloped viruses have been successfully visualized in successive scans. Owing to the high elasticity of the cell membrane, the tip can deeply indent the cell without disrupting the membrane. Making use of this effect, even submembraneous structures such as cytoskeletal elements or organelles like transport vesicles can be revealed. However, due to the elasticity of the cell the contact area between the tip and the sample increases with increasing applied force. The elastic modulus of living cells varies between 10 and 100 kPa, which results in a tip sample contact area of 50–100nm in the softest region of the cell. Therefore, the (sub-) nanometer resolution that is routinely achieved on more rigid samples cannot be achieved on membranes of intact cells."

Structure, Function and Interaction of Single DNA and Protein Molecules

"Besides the analysis of cells and cell membranes, AFM-based methods to study purified single molecules like proteins, deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) and ribonucleic acid (RNA) have developed rapidly in the past decade. Unique details on the mechanism and function of DNA- and RNA metabolizing proteins can directly be obtained by quantification of the number, position, volume and shape of protein molecules on their substrate. Like other single molecule techniques all individual instances of the entire population of structures are revealed, also showing rare but important species. Further insights in the mechanism of a reaction can be obtained from image analysis by measuring parameters such as protein-induced DNA bending, wrapping and looping. Besides topography imaging, force spectroscopy has been successful in unraveling tertiary structure in proteins, RNA and other polymers."

Although it already is an essential tool for structural analysis and manipulation of complex macromolecules and living cells, it is to be expected that AFM-based applications will be further extended in the future. Technical developments will advance the AFM system itself, by improvement of resolution, image rate, sensitivity and functionality. A combination with complementary techniques will fill in some limitations of AFM.

To fully exploit the potential of AFM to study functional biomolecules and their interactions, de Jager and van Noort say that video microscopy would be needed to capture dynamic events. "Currently, the scan rate is limited by the mechanical response of the cantilever and the piezo. Smaller cantilevers will result in higher resonance frequencies, allowing faster scanning rates. By reducing the size of the cantilevers one order of magnitude, the frame rate can be reduced from typically a minute down to video rate, allowing the study of a significantly larger range of biomolecular processes."

The two researchers expect the most important developments for the tip itself. "Image resolution in all modes is dependent on tip geometry. The reduction of tip size, increase of its aspect ratio and its resistance to wear as a result of scanning will have a considerable impact on all AFM applications."

For instance, researchers at Harvard and Stanford universities have developed a specially designed AFM cantilever tip, the torsional harmonic cantilever (THC), which offers orders of magnitude improvements in temporal resolution, spatial resolution, indentation and mechanical loading compared to conventional tools.

With high operating speed, increased force sensitivity and excellent lateral resolution, this tool facilitates practical mapping of nanomechanical properties.


Nano, Geo, Uh-Oh
By Jamais Cascio, CRN Director of Impacts Analysis

Stewart Brand once said, "We are as gods, and might as well get good at it."

More and more, I think this should be rephrased as, "We are as gods, and we'd better not screw things up."

Even today, we underestimate our own power. With the advent of molecular manufacturing, we're likely to underestimate just how much we're underestimating ourselves.

Case in point: geoengineering.

I pay close attention to developments in this arena. Geoengineering (or "geo," as many in the field refer to it) is the idea of using large-scale engineering to modify the planet's geophysical systems. These days, it typically refers to efforts to slow or halt global warming through the manipulation of the atmosphere and/or oceans. Some versions of geo go after atmospheric carbon directly, while others simply try to reduce incoming sunlight (or "insolation") while we make the necessary changes to our economies and societies to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

As you might imagine, geo is the focus of both intense scientific study and political debate.

Like molecular manufacturing (MM), much of the debate around geo's implications and risks exists in the anticipatory vacuum: the technology (for MM or geo) is not here yet. All we have to go on are our understandings of present-day related technologies, our models of how the future technologies will emerge, and our core philosophies about how people act. What's often left out is the intersection of these drivers, such as how new technologies can reshape how people can (and will) act. In the geo mailing list I inhabit, for example, one of the leading posters has made it clear that he considers concerns about how much highly-motivated individuals or small groups could do with geoengineering proposals to be ridiculous. Geo would require the resources of a nation, in his view.

That might be true for today. But it won't be true forever -- or, arguably, even for very much longer.

The deployment of molecular manufacturing technologies will give individuals and small groups production capacities far beyond what we've ever experienced. That's what the Center for Responsible Nanotechnology has long argued, and it's a crucial point. Whether we're talking dry nano or wet, diamondoid or biomimetic, the ability to shape materials at a molecular scale with systems able (in principle, at least) to self-replicate will be fundamentally transformative. We simply can't reliably apply our understanding of how people behave with limited capacities to a world where individuals no longer face those same limits. With molecular manufacturing, we'll be hard-pressed to make a clear distinction between the potential power of individuals and the power of nations.

Many of the scenarios portraying the misuse of this kind of power rely on the bad behavior of anti-social individuals or groups -- terrorists, the criminally insane, the ludicrously careless. It's far more likely, in my view, that the more difficult risks associated with molecular manufacturing will come from people who think they're doing the right thing for the world. Individual efforts at geoengineering rank high on my list of molecular manufacturing scenarios filed under "road to hell paved with good intentions."

What might such scenarios look like? Although some might try to carry out basic plans that present-day geoengineers predict nations will undertake somewhere down the road (such as pumping megatons of sulphur dioxide particles into the lower stratosphere), that's not MM thinking. How about millions of diamond micro-drones, running on sunlight, able to stay in the air indefinitely, both blocking a fraction of insolation and increasing overall planetary albedo? Or, systems that filter and sequester CO2 right out of the air?

Systems that automatically hunt down large greenhouse gas emitters anywhere on Earth and shut them down wouldn't technically be geoengineering, but would operate on a similar scale.

These may all sound appealing to varying degrees, but if done without coordination, testing, and oversight, they could be disastrous. One person doing this might not be a major problem. A dozen, a hundred, a million people around the world trying something like this would be catastrophic.

We are increasingly moving into a world where individuals and small groups possess orders of magnitude more power than ever before. For now, that power is largely limited to the Internet, where influence and ability to make changes is not necessarily proportional to organizational size. But as we start building the technologies that allow us to treat the physical world with the same rules as the digital world -- in terms of replication and reach -- we'll soon see the same kind of disruption of traditional measures of power.

It's not just a case of needing to be ready for people who aim to do wrong with this new power. We'll also need to be ready for people who aim to do right with it, too... but screw things up.




The Perfect Storm
By Jeffrey L. Treder

Jeff Treder, older brother of CRN executive director Mike Treder, is a retired English professor and published author. Here he offers an overview of past and future trends that may be relevant to the development and deployment of molecular manufacturing.

The Perfect Storm

In October, 1991, two weather systems merged in the Atlantic off New England to produce a maelstrom that earned the title “the perfect storm.” Subsequently that evocative phrase has been applied metaphorically to any number of tumults. Now it seems possible, even likely, that the phrase might legitimately describe something much bigger than a nor’easter. Four things, distinct but deeply influencing one another, are about to impact our world in ways hard to predict but foolish to ignore. These four are climate change, oil and natural gas passing their supply peak, fresh water depletion and pollution, and population pressure.

Their mutual influence is obvious. Often they reinforce one another, sometimes in positive feedback loops (positively harmful to people). Over the last 150 years, fossil fuel consumption has empowered massive population growth and has become a major cause of long-term climate change. Population growth (along with technological and economic growth) in turn has greatly increased the rate at which fossil fuels are consumed. Just while oil and natural gas are passing their production peak, they are being consumed ever faster, meaning that the effects of gradually decreasing supply will be felt relatively abruptly. Both population and economic growth aggravate the depletion of water supplies for drinking, irrigation, and manufacturing. Together, these four historical mega-events will reverberate in various ways: food production will be unable to keep pace with demand, bringing on famine; fresh water supplies are already being depleted and poisoned worldwide, spreading famine and disease, which in turn reduce governmental stability; governmental instability leads to repression and armed conflict of every sort. Meanwhile, the reigning economic theory, capitalism, tells us we must have constant economic growth in order to bring profit to the investors who finance the growth -- the perfect feedback loop. More growth means more production, more people, more consumption, more pollution, more climate change. The earth is a small house stuffed with people eating the emergency rations, and the toilet is backing up.

I am going to attempt a forecast of how these things may play out over the next two decades. All the details are of course speculative, but keep in mind that the forces in play are not speculative. The earth’s climate is warming and the glaciers are melting. The fresh water supply is already precarious. At current rates of consumption, oil and natural gas production is bound to start declining pretty soon; the only serious debate is over just how soon, and political events in the Mideast may speed the decline. The earth’s population is estimated to have been less that one billion in 1800, close to two billion in 1900, and over six billion in 2000; we will be seven billion in just a few more years.

When two vehicles collide head-on, the impact speed is the sum of the individual speeds. Likewise, the collision of global population and economic growth with environmental degradation and fossil fuel and fresh water depletion is going to make many changes occur faster than they otherwise would and faster than we expect.

Keep in mind also that I am talking about what I think is most likely to happen, not what I want to happen or think ought to happen. Reality, whatever it may turn out to be, trumps our wishes and oughts.

Climate Change

Climate change, a.k.a. global warming, is now denied only by the uninformed or the disingenuous. The earth’s temperature is rising and human activity is largely if not solely the reason why. Our activities release carbon dioxide and methane, the chief greenhouse gases, into the atmosphere in ever increasing amounts. We are destroying much of the vegetation that absorbs carbon dioxide, especially by cutting down rain forests and by polluted water runoffs which make the oceans slightly more acidic, killing off plankton. Humans have already removed half of the earth’s forests and wetlands and are hard at work on the remaining half. Each of the last five decades has seen more flooding and wildfires worldwide than the decade before. Polar and mountain glaciers are melting faster than even most alarmists predicted. Hurricanes and tornadoes are more frequent and stronger. Fisheries are collapsing, due both to overfishing and to warming water. Coral reefs are dying. Droughts are worse and deserts are expanding.

No matter what we do now, these trends will continue over the next few decades. If everyone from governments and transnational corporations to SUV owners immediately starts doing what environmentalists are telling them to do, global climate might stabilize by the end of the century. But that is a very big if. Most likely, people won’t change their ways until fuel prices and shortages force them to.

Prediction: The planet’s weather will continue to grow more violent. Droughts, heat waves, dust storms, and flooding will be particularly hard on human life. Increasing temperatures will kill off vegetation and dry up water resources, and their loss will lead, in a destructive feedback loop, to even more warming. The Amazon and Indonesian rain forests will suffer drought and massive wildfires, sending up thousands of tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. Fresh water supplies will be critical by 2020 and will be a major cause of migration and conflict. Due both to thermal expansion and glacial melt, the sea level will slowly rise, and by 2030 low lying coastal areas like Bangladesh, the Nile delta, the Netherlands, London, and southern Florida and Louisiana will be inundated during storm seasons. Much of Venice will be abandoned.

The Global Oil Peak

As to fossil fuel depletion, I am assuming, and I believe, that those analysts are correct who see the global oil production peak occurring by 2010 (if it has not already occurred), in the same way that U.S. production peaked in the early 1970’s. The easy-to-extract-and-refine part of the world’s oil fields has already been burned up. Of the remaining less exploited fields, the chief one is offshore of Africa, south of Nigeria in the “armpit.” Drilling and pumping there will involve all the customary African politics; oil production is a long-term operation and African politics are capricious. The profits will go to the oil giants and to the current high office holders in Nigeria, Cameroon, Angola, and a few others. Most jobs on the rigs require training and experience, which most Africans lack. And if oil is produced there in significant quantity, the effect will be to stretch the global depletion curve while adding to the burdens of economic growth and climate change. More oil will only amplify the impending collision.

Whenever we pass the global production peak, we will only know it in hindsight. Total production will gradually zigzag downward, and prices upward, but we will only know for sure that this trend is more than temporary about ten years after it begins.

Perhaps the most important aspect of the oil peak is the psychological one. A lot of oil will still be being pumped and refined, if not quite as much as a decade before. But everyone will know by then, though some will still deny, that the handwriting is on the wall. The next few years will be worse, and the years after that worse still. Visible on the horizon will be a day when “civilization as we know it” will be over. Airlines, factories, trucking fleets, industrial fertilizer, petrochemicals, and commutes -- all those things that burn petroleum or are made from it -- will be in a terminal shrink. Coal will outlast oil, but it is a more potent climate changer. Nuclear, solar, and wind power will help a little but nowhere near enough; they can’t, for instance, fly airplanes. Unemployment will balloon and the global economy will be sliding inexorably into depression. People will react in various way to this crisis, mostly unhappy ways. It will be one more component in humanity’s extreme psychological stress.

And then there is the political factor. The world’s largest oil fields are in the Mideast. The main underlying reason why the U.S. invaded Iraq and overthrew Saddam was in order to gain and maintain de facto control over those oil fields. The official explanation for this, beyond rooting out the malignancy and his supposed Al Qaeda connections and WMD, was to bring stability and democracy to that politically challenged region. Predictably, and as widely predicted, that effort couldn’t succeed and didn’t. Whatever the next twenty years may bring to the Mideast, it won’t be stability. Iraq seems to be headed for civil war, possibly a long one. The totalitarian regime in Iran will certainly try to control the outcome of that war. The U.S. government may feel driven to go to war against Iran. Lots of things are possible and the most likely ones are bad, bad for the locals and bad for the West’s oil supply.

Prediction: Driven especially by steeply rising demand in China and India, alongside unslackened demand in the U.S., the price of oil will continue ratcheting upward, and so will the price of everything that depends on oil, like food, fertilizer, plastics, lubricants, manufactured goods, and transportation. In short, the cost of living will keep going up. Rising fuel prices will force more airline bankruptcies and mergers; increasingly, only the wealthy will be able to afford air travel. Somewhere in the 2010-2020 decade the bloated and sublimely corrupt House of Saud will fall to a radical Islamic revolution. The flow of Mideast oil to the West will be seriously disrupted, after which air travel will become rare, the province of governments, corporations and millionaires. There will be war between Israel and a coalition of Islamic nations, a very bloody war climaxed when Israel, out of options, goes nuclear.

And then the U.S. and China, desperate from oil starvation (among other desperations), will go to war over control of the Arabian and African oil fields. In the process those oil fields will largely be destroyed. By 2030, the remnants of the world’s oil and natural gas supply systems will be dysfunctional and fought over.


Global warming and the disruptions caused by it, by population pressure and poverty, and by fossil fuel depletion will promote the spread of disease. AIDS will lead the way, devastating China, India, Southeast Asia, and Russia just as it has already devastated sub-Saharan Africa. Since we are at the top of the food chain, and since our whole environment is increasingly polluted, most of the food we eat is laced with toxins, which lower our bodies’ resistance to disease. Sometime in the next twenty years there is likely to be another worldwide flu pandemic like the one that killed millions in 1918-19. Malaria, dengue fever, cholera, and tuberculosis will continue to ravage the poorest regions of the world. The poor will become poorer still, many of them dying, but no nation will escape the economic, social, and emotional damage of chronic and epidemic diseases

Ecological Loss

Concern over the loss of some percentage of the earth’s millions of plant and animal species seems to most people, and certainly to most Americans, an incomprehensible fuss motivated mainly by green-warm-fuzzy sentimentality. There is more to it than that, though. Deforestation, desertification, pollution, and urbanization -- modern humanity’s footprints -- are disrupting and destroying ecosystems all over the planet. Population pressure and soil exhaustion are driving farmers to push into ancient rain forests, slashing and burning to clear the land. Rich natural biodiversity is being replaced by chemically sustained, large-scale monoculture. When we harm our natural environment, we harm ourselves, often in ways that are hard to detect and understand, the full effects of which may not show up for some time. The complex interdependency of the life forms in an ecosystem isn’t just a biology teacher’s mantra. For millennia, the earth’s forests have been steadily absorbing carbon dioxide and giving off oxygen, and now we are steadily bulldozing and burning them while replacing them with cars, trucks, buildings, pavement, airports, power plants, and farmland, most of which consume oxygen and spew atmospheric pollutants. It’s as if we are in a race with ourselves to see which we will run out of first, drinkable water or breathable air.


The growing scarcity of clean, fresh water is the most unambiguously severe threat confronting us. We can live, sort of, without oil, but not without water. There is good news and bad news here. The good news is that, as with oil, water won’t be running out on us all at once. It’s a gradual thing (though less gradual recently), and some regions are affected more severely than others. The bad news is that the problems we have created for ourselves are largely irreversible. Once the great underground aquifers are depleted, they won’t be replenished for something like a thousand years -- if untapped. Farmland which, through irrigation, has been sterilized by mineral salts is similarly going to remain unproductive for a very long time, like the former Fertile Crescent which is now Iraq. As the glaciers downsize, we get less meltwater from them. River dams silt up over time, thus holding less water, and dredging them is expensive -- in money and energy -- even where technically feasible. Much of our remaining fresh water, in aquifers, lakes, rivers and reservoirs, is dangerously polluted from our mining operations, industries, toxic wastes, irrigated agriculture, herbicides, pesticides, livestock, and, in many parts of the world, untreated human sewage. Air pollution turns rain into acid rain.

Water scarcity is now a problem in most parts of the world, and in three large regions it has become critical -- Australia, northern China, and the southwest part of North America (from Kansas down to Central America). Global warming will probably make these dry areas dryer still, even as their dams continue silting up and even as they are pumping deeper into their aquifers and getting ever less groundwater at ever higher costs (more energy required). Major cities in these regions depend on that disappearing water: Perth, Melbourne, Sydney, Beijing, Phoenix, Los Angeles, San Diego. The odds against Las Vegas are about ten to one.

Along with famine and political turbulence, water scarcity will be a main cause of mass migration, notably from North Africa into Europe and from Central America and Mexico into the United States. Both of these migrations are already underway, of course; as the numbers grow, so will conflict. And Latin Americans will have to keep going when they reach Southern California and Arizona. There won’t be enough water there either.


The Green Revolution of the 1960’s enabled farmers in many parts of the world to grow food much more efficiently and abundantly, and thus enabled the population to keep on growing. That revolution coincided with the advent of large-scale industrial farming, and it was made possible entirely by cheap and abundant oil. All this increasing energy consumption in “developing” countries, for agriculture and livestock feed as well as for factories, office buildings, road construction, trucks and cars, is helping to hurry the world past the oil peak. (If the poor nations share in the blame, of course, the rich ones, especially the U.S., get the glutton’s share.) The slowdown in oil-based food production, along with water scarcity and soil salinization, will spread famine in Africa, China, India, Central and Southeast Asia, and many other parts of the world. At the same time, overfishing coupled with global warming will exhaust the world’s harvest of wild fish; fish farming will help, but it won’t make up the difference. The reduction and unreliability of long-distance transportation will require that most food be grown locally. Water for drinking and irrigation will be scarce and fought over. There will be widespread anarchy, and many localities will be ruled by warlords, gangs and militias (variant terms for similar things) fighting among themselves -- West Africa gives us a preview. Even local food production and distribution will be difficult under such conditions. By 2025-30, millions of people will be dying every month from starvation, disease, human violence, and natural disasters. By 2030 the world population, after having peaked at around 7.5 billion, will be down below 5 billion and falling.


After the implosion of the Soviet Union came the high-minded but misguided and doomed attempt by the Clinton administration to impose democracy and capitalism on a society completely unready to receive them. For many centuries the Russian people had been accustomed to autocracy and authoritarianism, both from the state -- tsars and then commissars -- and from the Orthodox church. Russian culture has always been deeply hierarchical and paternalistic. The poor and weak are resigned to being regimented -- what we tend to see as oppressed. They don’t necessarily like it, but they prefer it to Western-style freedom, because they know intuitively that in their culture, freedom would mean a violent, winner-take-all free-for-all. That is just what it did mean in the 1990’s, and the reasons why are easy to see in hindsight (and were seen by many in foresight).

The Russians had none of the civil institutions and customs of a democratic society, such as property and contract law, a secure and well-regulated banking system, an independent judiciary, and above all a cherished concept of civil liberty and responsibility. So when the Soviet state crumbled, the more powerful Soviet apparatchiks, under a smokescreen of democratic blarney, seized the remaining economic assets, including heavy industry and, especially, natural resources (the only really valuable asset) -- mining, oil, and natural gas.

What has emerged is an authoritarian, paternalistic (think Godfather) gangster state, run by a band of billionaire thugs who massage the masses with fascist rhetoric and who are determined to regain international respect (again, think Godfather). The country’s physical infrastructure, however, is in much worse shape even than America’s. Their environmental pollution as almost as bad as China’s. Their oil and natural gas deposits have already passed their production peak, and the income from these will decline as the global economy sinks. How the Russians will react to this is unpredictable. We may hope that their nuclear arsenal and its delivery systems deteriorate faster than the psychic state of the bosses. The long-suffering Russian people will go on with disease, alcohol and apathy.


China’s problems now and in the near future are the problems of the rest of the world writ larger and sooner. And China has real big problems. The collision of economic growth with environmental disaster is happening there in news-cycle slow motion, historical fast motion. China has one-fifth of the world’s people; whatever happens to them is going to affect us all.

They have the world’s worst air quality; they bring a new large coal-fired power plant on line every week, and they are adding new cars and drivers at a pace similar to America in the 1950’s. Their great ambition is to surpass America in all things; their first breakthrough is the production of greenhouse gases. Pollution in their rivers and coastal waters has killed off most of the fish. Most of the sewage of thirteen hundred million people goes into the ground water system untreated. Most of that polluted river water is sucked out for irrigation and industry, both of which pollute it even more, before a toxic trickle of it reaches the sea. Overgrazing, soil erosion, and aquifer depletion, coupled with climate change, are causing wholesale desertification on the dry northern plain. Poorly educated peasants continue to leave overcrowded rural villages and stream into overcrowded cities where they join a hugely overcrowded labor pool and get hungrier as they watch the lifestyle of the wealthy minority. To their mind, the government has made promises it isn’t delivering on, or is delivering very unequally. As for the Communist (well, militaristic authoritarian) leaders, they are experts at riding the tiger. They know the tiger well, but it keeps getting bigger and more agitated.

Prediction: Around 2015, widespread, desperately violent peasant uprisings will be harshly suppressed by the army. Before 2020 the economy will implode under the combined weight of overpopulation, environmental ruin, epidemic disease, and loss of overseas markets due to global economic conditions. That will lead to civil war. After great bloodshed, the army will manage to establish military rule over most regions of an exhausted, impoverished country. As noted above, China’s leaders will probably feel driven to go to war with America over control of Mideast and African oil, a war neither former great power will be able to win. By 2030 China’s population will be around 800 million and falling

The United States

Apart from the United States’ indulgence in human slavery and the consequent and calamitous Civil War, the nation has enjoyed a singularly favored history. Recently, however, the richest nation ever has drifted (and sometimes barged) into serious problems. These problems include the mammoth national debt, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan (and the financial cost thereof), a financial system regulated after-the-fact (Enron, mortgage loans), oil dependency, aging infrastructure, unaffordable healthcare, retiring Baby Boomers, personal debt (particularly through “credit” cards: that is, debt cards), porous borders, drought in the West, and a government (regardless of party) which is reactionary in the most literal sense, failing to anticipate trouble but instead reacting to it histrionically and often counterproductively. And the list goes on .... Any two or three of these might be manageable, but in company with climate change, the whole list is a backbreaker.

The trouble with the national debt is that the government can only keep on servicing it (forget repaying it) as long as the economy keeps on growing. Whether or not a continuously growing economy is a good thing, it won’t happen. Among the numerous reasons why it won’t, the first is probably our participation in the globalized economy. It is the computer, an American invention, which has chiefly empowered globalization, and that is ironic because, while the global economy has both benefits and costs, the U.S. gets more of the costs than the benefits. Globalization has compromised the economic independence of all nations, and as the richest nation, the U.S. has the most to lose -- at least a lot of middle-class Americans do, those whose jobs have been deported to lower-wage regions. It’s cold comfort to tell these people that instead of clerking at Walmart, they can regain a sufficient income by retraining to be a computer programmer, a surgeon, a CEO, or a lawyer.

The trouble with personal debt is that many are using it to subsidize inadequate income and in lieu of retirement savings -- savings essential since few employers offer pension plans any more. The trouble with healthcare is that many of us can’t afford the insurance premiums and almost none of us can afford a hospital stay without insurance. (Two of the main reasons why our healthcare is so expensive are our infatuations with high-tech machinery and with lawsuits.) The trouble with the war in Iraq is that we can’t win it and we can’t quit and go home without jeopardizing our oil supply. As with China, the old image of riding the tiger applies -- can’t stay on, can’t get off. Altogether, too many troubles.

Prediction: The U.S. will enter a period of “stagflation” as in the 1970’s -- flat or falling incomes, rising unemployment, and rising prices (mainly due to rising energy costs). After Saudi Arabia falls to Islamic fundamentalists, energy shortfalls along with mounting debt and a middle class falling into poverty will increasingly cripple the U.S. economy. Walmart will go bust. Social Security cuts will push more retirees into poverty. By 2020 the whole global economy will be in a tailspin. Before 2030 we will go to war with China -- last-ditch and hopeless -- for control of the major oil fields. After that, things will get worse all around.

Why We Probably Won’t Deflect the Perfect Storm Before it Arrives

Most of the experts who have written on these interrelated subjects conclude their analysis with recommendations about what we must do in order to avert a catastrophe. Usually they are guardedly optimistic about our willingness to actually do what must be done, and do it in time. I have no argument with such optimism except that, obviously, I don’t share it. I expect that some people, some groups, even some governments (not, however, major ones like the U.S., China, India, and Russia) will take some steps that will do some good, but it won’t be enough, because overall we are motivated mostly by short-term self-interest, as we perceive it. We do in fact act as if there were no tomorrow.

When the opportunity came to pump non-renewable water and oil from underground, we pumped and used them as fast as we could, even after we realized that our grandchildren and their children will have to do without. Even now that most of us realize that our lifestyle is altering the earth’s climate in ways that will harm the human race far more than help it, what are we doing? So far, at least, rather than cutting back, we are pumping more water and oil, digging and burning more coal, sawing down more forests, plowing and irrigating more land, making and driving more cars and trucks, manufacturing and buying more luxurious gadgets, and evidently we will keep on doing so until the economic and environmental costs become absolutely prohibitive. We justify such behavior on the grounds that our economy has to keep on growing, because if it doesn’t keep on growing, our lifestyle will begin slipping -- never mind that all this economic growth is incontestably at the expense of our descendants.

There once was a time when more was better, but now what we have is already too much and more is a disaster. There is scant evidence to suggest that we are about to suddenly convert ourselves en masse into self-denying, far-seeing altruists. In the meantime, having sown the wind, we begin reaping the whirlwind.

Suggested Reading

James Gustave Speth - The Bridge at the Edge of the World: Capitalism, the Environment, and Crossing from Crisis to Sustainability

James Howard Kunstler - The Long Emergency: Surviving the End of Oil, Climate Change, and Other Converging Catastrophes of the Twenty-First Century

Kenneth S. Deffeyes - Hubbert’s Peak: The Impending World Oil Shortage

John Ghazvinian - Untapped: The Scramble for Africa’s Oil

William H. Calvin - Global Fever: How to Treat Climate Change

Jared Diamond - Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed

Maude Barlow - Blue Covenant: The Global Water Crisis and the Coming Battle for the Right to Water

Lester R. Brown - Plan B 3.0: Mobilizing to Save Civilization (Third Edition)

Pat Murphy - Plan C: Community Survival Strategies for Peak Oil and Climate Change

    and the enduring classic

Marc Reisner - Cadillac Desert: The American West and Its Disappearing Water



The Human Extinction Scenario
By Jamais Cascio, CRN Director of Impacts Analysis

It's 2019. A major pandemic has swept the planet, with upwards of 25 million people infected. Global food networks have collapsed, and riots over food supplies are in daily headlines around the world. The transition away from fossil fuels is underway, but a lack of standards, failing infrastructure, and catastrophic mistakes have made the shift far more painful than expected.

Pirates fill the seas, hackers attack key networks, and "griefing" has moved from the world of online games to our information-laden real lives. War, drought, and climate disruption have pushed millions out of their homes throughout the world, a global diaspora that grows daily.

And into this set of interwoven crises, an announcement: According to the most sophisticated global computer simulations ever run, the human species is likely to go functionally extinct by 2042.

What do you do?

This is the premise behind Superstruct, a new project organized by the Palo Alto, California-based Institute for the Future (IFTF). The Institute has been around for 40 years, a non-profit think tank offering structured forecasts to a variety of global clients. For 30 years, it has produced an annual "Ten-Year Forecast," highlighting trends and topics that the combined work of the various IFTF associates deem likely to be important over the coming decade. This year, for the 2009 forecast, IFTF decided to do something different: Rather than rely on its internal experts, they would "crowd-source the future," opening up the foresight process to thousands (or more) of participants.

IFTF is doing this crowd-sourcing in the form of a game -- Superstruct.

Superstruct (meaning to build upon) is a "massively-multiplayer forecasting game" designed by Ten-Year Forecast director Kathi Vian, noted game specialist Jane McGonigal, and me, environmental futurist (and the Director of Impacts Analysis at the Center for Responsible Nanotechnology) Jamais Cascio. I have worked as a part-time Research Affiliate with IFTF for a few years now. For Superstruct, Kathi makes sure that the work fits in with Ten-Year Forecast goals, Jane has organized the game structure, and I've been in charge of building the game world.

Unlike World of Warcraft or other massively-multiplayer online worlds, Superstruct is not played as a traditional computer game. Rather, it's perhaps better thought of as a collaborative storytelling exercise, but with rules. Participants will be asked to describe in detail how they themselves will be living in 2019, and how they would respond to the crises presented -- and to the announcement of the likely extinction of humankind. Moreover, the participants will be asked to work together to come up with new forms of organizations -- superstructs -- that could offer novel ways to deal with the crises at hand, and help push out the extinction horizon for the human species.

Participation takes the form of videos, blog posts, twitter feeds, and active contributions on the Superstruct discussion boards. Already, creative early participants have produced novel materials, even entire websites, based in this fictional world of 2019. Twitter chat has been underway for at least a week; Superstruct-related posts either have the #2019 tag, or come from a Twitter account with 2019 in its name (e.g., my game-related Twitter feed is at cascio2019).

So where does advanced nanotechnology fit into this?

The five "superthreats" described at the beginning of this essay (given the catchy titles of "Quarantine," "Ravenous," "Power Struggle," "Outlaw Planet," and "Generation Exile") may at first seem like a cacophony of catastrophe, as if we've overloaded the world of 2019 with more than its fair share of disasters.

In truth, while the conditions may in some cases be exaggerated, the number and complexity of the problems on the planet strongly parallel what we see today: global economic meltdown; peak oil; struggles against violent extremism; multiple simultaneous wars; and environmental crises galore. These problems haven't gone away by 2019, but they serve as the background conditions that made the superthreats possible.

But we're not just offering an eschatological laundry list for participants to deal with; we're also talking about the various tools and ideas that could be available to us to deal with these crises. The design team decided early on that full-blown molecular manufacturing, while certainly a possibility within this time-frame, would not be available -- we didn't want fixing the world to be too easy. But that research is underway, and has started to bear early fruit -- much more precise microelectromechanical systems (MEMS), even borderline nanoelectromechanical systems (NEMS). Moreover, the fabber revolution is well underway, and many of the nanotech-related issues surrounding intellectual property, open source design, and access to materials have already begun to emerge.

Moreover, if you look back at the eight scenarios produced by the Center for Responsible Nanotechnology last year, you'll note that deep crises can serve as a catalyst for accelerated development of advanced technologies. While the scenario behind Superstruct doesn't map precisely to any single CRN scenario, it has elements that reflect nearly all of them.

Nanotechnology-aware participants in Superstruct should look for ways in which the early precursor technologies likely to be available by 2019 can help to enhance other kinds of projects. The heart of Superstruct can be found in the combinations of ideas and organizations created by the players -- the goal isn't to be the one person who can save the world, but to be the one who sees the right kind of collaborative structures needed. To that end, we have a small number of judges (including science fiction writer Bruce Sterling, graphic novelist Warren Ellis, and Heroes producer Tim Kring) who will offer their own, unique awards at the end of the project. Players will also be able to earn badges and other smaller awards along the way.

When this is done, not only will Superstruct participants have access to the entire body of material created by the other participants, in 2009 they'll also receive IFTF forecast work produced as a result.

Superstruct play officially begins October 6, and the project will run through November 17.

Help create the future -- and maybe avert human extinction -- by playing Superstruct.



CRN was a non-profit research and advocacy organization, completely dependent on small grants and individual contributions.


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