Millennium Development Goal 7 and nanotechnology

Climate & Natural resources25 Jun 2010Bas Hofs

Of all the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), number 7 (ensure environmental sustainability) is perhaps the most important, globally speaking. Unfortunately, it is also the one most likely to be unmet (certainly not by 2015, as originally envisioned), as it means shifting from an ever more consuming society to a more sustainable one. With the current world population soaring to previously unknown heights, the global consumption of resources is also increasing.

Luckily, the global economy isn’t doing too well. Luckily because this means less consumption of resources, something we desperately need if we are to decrease the chances of getting into the more severe problems accompanying climate change. The underlying problem however, is the success that has been our species – that there are about 6.8 billion of us. If a population of bunnies reaches numbers too high to be sustained by their environment, the population collapses. The population of foxes will follow. With Homo sapiens, however, the potential population collapse is preceded by the extinction of other species – as we take resources from all across to globe to sustain ourselves, unsustainably.

Perhaps new technologies, like nanotechnology, can help to get us out of this predicament. Nanotechnology is about using the special properties of nano-sized substances, or mastering nature’s nanotechnology machinery – as researchers are trying to do with the aquaporins. Aquaporins are the water channels between cells in plants, and they transport water very efficiently. If humans can learn how to use these kinds of structures for water purification, getting clean water of the highest quality will be less expensive than it is now.

However, this technology and many other nanotechnologies are still at an early (research) stage. It is almost certaint that they will not contribute to reaching the current millennium goals. Also, new technologies are likely to be developed by the First World countries, who devote the most resources to researching new technologies. As new technologies are often at first relatively expensive, I guess not many will be used quickly by developing countries.

Most importantly, I believe we need to close the loop of waste and product, as envisioned in the Cradle to Cradle concept. Thus, waste water needs to be transformed into drinking water, and public acceptance of the fact that all drinking water has in fact been waste water before treatment to drinking water should be increased. In closing this loop, I believe that nanotechnology, and especially bionanotechnology, can play an essential role in increasing efficiency.