The Little BANG Theory. Tales and Truths about Tomorrow

Por Pat Mooney

Overview: Following a short non-fiction introduction, a fictional scenario of the next 30 years lays out a global trendline of environmental collapse and political collusion. The story is centered on the lives of three “friends” – their allies and protagonists – whose wit, sarcasm and absurdities make the depressing calamity around them bearable. While the opening story is anchored in China where the three lead characters live, the plots and intrigues of climate change and the wider environment crisis take the characters beyond Asia to Latin America, Africa and Europe following corporate techno-fixes and UN negotiations.  Following this first scenario, Pat Mooney delivers rapid-fire and shocking data showing that most of the “fictional” events are either underway or have already occurred. Three more-optimistic fictional stories follow covering the same 30 years and involving the original cast taking initiatives from three very different perspectives – the political jungles of Geneva, the peace movements of East Africa, and the peasant struggles of the Andean highlands.  In all, there are 112 pages of fiction.   A second, non-fiction section supports the feasibility of the modest alternatives and leads to a final gathering of all the lead characters – who have interacted throughout all the stories – at a party in Sweden. The book ends with Mooney’s impassioned argument for civil society action and optimism.

The non-fiction sections (84 pages excluding notes) include 9 short “dialog boxes” summarizing civil society’s strategic debates over controversial themes. The threat of some of the corporate techno-fixes simply summarized in the opening story are described more carefully in the non-fiction section. Readers learn about shocking developments in synthetic biology, nanotechnology and — most important of all — proposals to geoengineer planetary systems in order to sidestep climate chaos.

The Little BANG Theory – A Summary

An introduction to 2035                                                                                 

This short introduction sets the stage for the book’s technological emphasis and the back-and-forth shift between fictional stories and non-fiction discussion.

Staying the Course: Geopiracy – China Sundown                                          

The opening story focuses on three people in China who reappear in the alternative scenarios later. Suyuan Wu is an activist/journalist working for an independent Chinese news agency closely linked to civil movements around the world. Her partner, Alitash Tefarre is an Ethiopian and AU trade rep based in Beijing – also connected to many CSOs. The third person, Qi Qubìng, is a Chinese-Canadian scientist working for a multinational pharmaceutical conglomerate with research labs in Himalayan China.

The three “friends” watch the USA, the EU and the new superpowers – India and China – grasp the opportunity of the climate and food crisis to force the UN and the environmental movement to accept not only nuclear power and synthetic biology but also the formation of two mega-consortia that propose global techno-fixes to solve these problems. One consortia, Terra-Forma works on ocean geoengineering strategies to sequester greenhouse gases and the other, Atom-Sphere, plans to geoengineer the stratosphere to deflect sunlight. Both consortia are using high-cost, high-risk nano and nanobiotechnology to restructure life and materials at the level of atoms and molecules. In order to rescue agriculture and the environment, the consortia demand that governments guarantee their protection and profits if anything goes wrong. Shocked by freakish weather and grim corporate warnings, a panicky public concedes but a combination of sloppy science and desperate politics leads to a cascading set of health, environmental, and social disasters. Almost unnoticed, massive corporate mergers — partly inspired by atomic-scale patent monopolies — cut across the entire economy. Su and Alitash try to warn their colleagues that, in this new world, “technology trumps trade” — that nanotech undermines raw materials and synthetic biology renders biomass into anything. As the world stumbles toward 2035, the ocean and stratospheric experiments backfire, atomically-modified organisms (AMOs) mutate, new diseases migrate, and health and economic well-being decline everywhere. Nanotechnology — which promised desktop manufacturing and an end to mining and fossil fuels — is on the brink of failure and governments race to capture Africa’s oil and minerals and Latin America’s aquafers. In this deteriorating environment, governments and corporations work closely together to control dissent under the guise of human performance enhancement. Alarmed that nano-materials can render anything a weapon and anyone a terrorist, public concern shifts from Weapons of Mass-Destruction to Massively-Destructive Individuals and societies volunteer their genome maps and social network data. The two women, Su and Alitash, are pressured to have a baby enhanced with cogular implants to survive the changing climate. In scattered outposts around the periphery of the world superpowers, community struggle to adapt their indigenous knowledge to rapidly changing conditions. Civil society fails to recognize and address the cornucopia of issues surrounding them. Throughout the story, lurking in the background, are mysterious developments involving earthquakes and volcanoes…

The “staying the course” story is unabashedly technology driven. Governments talk about BANG — the nano-scale convergence of Bits, Atoms, Neurons, and Genes into a common technology. Suyuan Wu, the journalist, warns that the technological convergence comes with government/corporate convergence she calls the “BANG gang”. Qi Qubìng, the corporate scientist, growing ever more alarmed and cynical, warns that “the people, united, will always be defeated” and morbidly mocks the failure of civil society to grasp the dimensions of their dilemma.

Behind the direct threat of the consortia lies the governments’ proposal for a Technology Transfer Treaty (TTT) that is supposed to help so-called “developing countries” catch up to technologically advanced countries. In reality, the TTT entrenches the supremacy of the consortia and stifles inter-regional cooperation and, even, migration. Despite passionate opposition from some CSOs, the TTT is adopted around the world. The story ends with the awarding of the Nobel Prize for Peace in Oslo in 2035.

What Happened to Tomorrow?                                                                        

Between the opening story and the three main alternative stories, the book provides extensively documented information explaining the issues raised by the story. Readers are offered an overview of major trends in major areas beginning in 1975 and projecting through to 2035.

In this non-fiction section, readers will be shocked to recognize that many of the so-called futuristic aspects of the first story have either already taken place or are unfolding today.

This fast-paced section breaks the major issues into three groups…

                    BANG! Technological convergence at the nano-scale                                        

                    GANG! The Convergence of governments and corporations                              

                    GONE! Converging on climate – Geoengineering as geopiracy                         

Throughout the Report, a number of “debate boxes” identify major issues for civil society offering alternative perspectives.

Course Changes – What Options for Tomorrow?                                          

Following a brief introduction to the alternative scenarios ahead, the book returns to its fictional stories. The original protagonists reappear along with others who have cameo appearances in the first tale. The same issues are on the table with the same corporate consortia but civil society seems more strategic.

Course 1: Politics – Watch at the Mountaintop                               

Health activist Anita Krishna sets up WHO Watch monitoring the World Health Organization from her tiny Geneva apartment.  Among the many allies activists who take advantage of her spare room are Alitash Tefare and Suyuan Wu.

WHO Watch takes advantage of a stumbling WHO Director-General to take over the selection process for a new WHO boss and engineers the selection of a Brazilian community health leader, Marcolino di Gaspar. Although the new DG is not perfect, he is in debt to CSO’s and in sympathy with their major goals. Over the years, WHO Watches success spreads to similar coalitions monitoring other UN agencies and to a network of “watches” able to influence not only individual UN organizations but the New York headquarters as well. While other CSO partners tackle specific health and social issues, the Watches keep an eye on the nuts and bolts of UN governance and finance.

When the famous TTT (Technology Transfer Treaty) from our first story emerges along with the geoengineering consortia, WHO Watch helps coordinate the Geneva end of the battle and works with others to put together a kind of “Peoples Technology Assessment Network” that quickly becomes the standard setting bar under which governments and corporations dare not fall. The TTT is converted into an International Convention for the Evaluation of New Technologies (ICENT). The cynical scientist, Qi Qubìng, is entangled in the negotiations and, as well, with Anita Krishna. Although the TTT debate is central to the story, some of the other issues raised in the trendline story related to health and disease are also addressed. The story ends with the Right Livelihood Awards in Stockholm in 2035.

WHO Watch looks at the potential for civil society to influence global governance — or, at least, specific UN agencies — and to develop an intelligence network that makes it easier for grassroots groups and social movements to impact the geopolitical agenda.

Course 2: Peace – March out of Battle

In parallel with the work of WHO Watch, activists involved in the World Social Forum come together in Zimbabwe to confront opposing armies and to challenge the military/industrial establishment. Alitash Teferra and a Swedish trade unionist, Inga Thorvaldson team up with a disabled Ethiopian organizer named Abebe Jideani to reinvigorate the WSF and to considerably strengthen the global effort to block the TTT. The story moves back and forth between Europe and Africa and between global and local CSO coordination. Issues around ubiquitous surveillance, the death of dissent, and the spectre of the Massively-Destructive Individual haunt the story. It ends, once again, with the Right Livelihood Awards in 2035.

This Africa-based story explores the capacity of civil society (in general) and the World Social Forum (in particular) to take on the military/industrial establishment and to become a greater force for peace.

Course 3: People – Peripheral visions

In the Bolivian Andes, Marta Flores, an indigenous peasant farmer leads her community’s crop breeding committee and its battle to withstand climate chaos. Flores, her community, and her Brazilian colleague Joao Sergio, were visited in the opening “China sundown” story when the lack of CSO coordination and the intensity of corporate opposition crush their efforts to maintain their own agricultural system. In this story, however, the women have created not only an Andean network for the exchange of seeds and strategies but have spread beyond Latin America to the rest of the world. As others struggle under the burden of all of the problems discussed in China sundown, the farmers have painfully knitted together a fragile partnership with people’s health initiatives, alternative education networks, and urban organizers in order to maintain their culture and society on the periphery of the metropolitan powers. Their grassroots organization contributes mightily to the downfall of the TTT and the global consortia behind the treaty. Along the way, they join with WHO Watch, the World Social Forum, and the other allies in earlier scenes. This story, too, ends with the RLA in Stockholm in 2035.

This Andean-rooted story considers the capacity of the so-called “periphery” — especially rural communities — to create coalitions of peasants, health workers, educators, and other “alternative” CSO’s to challenge the BANG members. The hinterland communities network globally to survive global warming and to ensure that indigenous local knowledge survives for future generations.

Reviewing the Course: What’s Possible?                                             

Mooney pops readers out of his fictional tales just long enough to show that the coming together of these three different contexts and the characters is far from unusual in today’s tightly-wired civil society movement. Then he brings everyone to Uppsala for a final story.

Common Course: Community in the Old House                                     

This final tale takes place all in one evening in an old house that is the headquarters of a small foundation now run by the former trade unionist, Inga Thorvaldson in Uppsala Sweden.  The evening after the Right Livelihood Award, all the key protagonists in the earlier scenes meet for a small party before heading back to their separate work. During a lively night of drinking and debating, they argue out the various roles of civil society vis-à-vis governments and corporations. The TTT, ICENT and some of the darkest mysteries of geoengineering are up for argument as Qi Qubang speculates on the stability of their successes and the extent of their failures. Marta Flores gets them all out of the Old House safely.

On Changing Course and The Half-Full Hourglass                            

In this concluding, non-fiction piece, Pat Mooney, arguing that there are no “givens” in either history or technology, lays out example after example where — for many reasons, good and bad — societies have delayed or rejected powerful technologies in the past. At the very end, Mooney also argues that civil society is caught up in the “fog of battle” and it may not always recognize what it has achieved or what “tipping points” for success are at hand. Without undue optimism or romanticism, the book concludes with  the long list of reasons for all of us to remain hopeful.

Some of The Little BANG Theory’s major themes…

Corporatism: This book fundamentally argues that the trendline will continue. The next several decades will experience a rapidly deteriorating environment that will directly impact the health and well-being of both South and North. It argues that, in the “shock” of cascading climate, food, and financial crises, governments and corporations will come together as never before to urge acceptance of massive technological solutions to these major problems. They will argue that BANG — the convergence of biology, physics and chemistry at the nano-scale — is our only hope and that this convergence requires an unprecedented partnership with vast industrial consortia (the gang) suspending competition policies, strengthening patent monopolies and regulating societies. Panicked and confused, most peoples will surrender to this shock treatment. Civil society organizations — sector focused and funder-limited — will neither see the dimensions of the BANG member threat nor display the creativity and long-term strategic thinking necessary to address the multi-faceted challenge.

Geoengineering Gaia: Governments don’t have the courage — or corporate permission — to do what they have to do to survive climate chaos. Climate change will render our already fragile food system more vulnerable and a giant majority of the world’s 450 million farms will be abandoned or merged. Corporations will move from Peak Oil to Peak Soil in an attempt to capture that 76% of the world’s biomass that has yet to be commodified. As synthetic biology replaces biotechnology in transforming living materials, consortia will propose enormous geoengineering schemes to deflect heat and sequester greenhouse gases. Some of these initiatives are already underway. Confronted with the reality of dramatic environmental damage, CSOs and society will accept nuclear power as well as geoengineering as their only options.

The Massively-Destructive Individual: In the nano-world of quantum effects — where standard dental compounds can ignite bombs and carbon soot can blow up airplanes and children can build self-replicating species the way their parents used to build lego – bio-error is a greater threat than bioterror and anyone might use almost anything to become a massively-destructive individual. The threats posed by the new technologies give governments the opportunity to impose new social controls. The potential offered by molecular self-assembly is also a tremendously attractive response to raw materials and energy shortages.

The Death of Dissent: The potency and peril of geoengineering the environment and the threat of even accidental MDIs (massively-destructive individuals) could demand a level of commercial and societal control that will turn the Democratic ballot into a paper tiger and make dissent impossible. It already seems that every privacy law is circumvented by a new surveillance technology (or a bandit bureaucracy). Perhaps more significantly, new technologies are seducing societies into surrendering their friends and families. A quarter million people paid a hundred dollars each to give away their DNA to IBM and social networking sites and GPS cellphones are making easy for others to map our moves and motivations. While some governments and scientists talk about mapping cultural memes and redirecting social attitudes through medicines or neural implants, the conventional media and the unconventional internet are already marshalling the parameters of “acceptable” dissent very nicely — and have been doing so for a long time.

Technology Trumps Trade: Life is under control. The top 10 global corporations already control two-thirds or more of proprietary seeds and the same proportion of biotech products; 89% of agrochemicals; 63% of animal pharmaceuticals and 55% of human pharmaceuticals. Downstream along the food chain, 10 companies control 26% of commercial food and beverage sales and 40% of retail groceries (off the top 100 companies only). This dominance, however, only addresses that 24% of the world’s annual biomass that has been commodified. A new configuration of the world’s largest chemical, energy and agro/biotech companies are moving to synthetic biology to commodify the other 76% of global biomass that has remained beyond the global marketplace. Behind all these are a handful of genome and data-management companies (including Microsoft and IBM) that believes that the final control of nature will go to those who manage its data and manipulate his genomes. Cutting across many of these economic sectors are just six companies who already control almost all of the world’s identified “climate-ready” plant DNA, seeds, agrochemicals and biotechnology. Technological convergence at the nano-scale (the scale of atoms and molecules) renders the future of all raw materials — mineral and living — uncertain. At least in theory, nickel and cobalt could replace platinum, sand could replace copper, and switchgrass could replace Saudi oil. The world’s $1.8 trillion plastics industry could be grown in Africa — or not.

Human performance enhancement: Drugs for well people are much more profitable than drugs for sick people. Well people, for example, never get better; never stop earning; don’t attract sympathy; and can be moved onto other drug regimes that promise even more. In a world of financial crisis, employment competition, and ever expanding climatic and chemical threats, the market for HyPEs (human-performance enhancement) is enormous. Millions of people already undergo cosmetic surgery every year. Millions more are anxious to overcome real or imagined mental (including emotional) limitations. Genome mapping is already becoming big business as everyone strives to maximize their potential. The implications for those who don’t want — or can’t afford — enhancement are daunting. Will those who “stay behind” be considered human? How do families adjust to a firstborn who is version 2.0 when the second born is version 2.3? How do children grow up with “1.0” parents? Will we accept upgrades through cogular implants? Who has access to the send/receive toggle on the implant? Will HyPEs enable the disabled or dismember them from society?

Techno-failures are no barrier to profits: At least the first generations of GM crops haven’t worked. Some will argue that they were rushed into the marketplace too quickly to satisfy venture capitalists. Others argue that shooting genes from one species into another will always be sloppy science. Similarly, synthetic biology — treating life as lego — might also be a failure. Self-replicating human-made life forms could be accident-prone on a global scale. Nano-scale desktop manufacturing might prove much more difficult, energy-intensive, or otherwise expensive than industry now suspects. Nanoparticles too small to be seen by the immune system — that can pass through the blood/brain barrier and the placenta — could lead to a thalidomide-scale scandal. History shows that it takes at least a generation for a major new technology to overcome its original defects. So what? The $78 billion biotech industry is now turning a profit. Sloppy science and bad technologies can still be profitable if governments have regulated an enabling environment and the competition has been cowed into submission or extinction. Once the technology has created a new oligopoly, the technology is no longer needed. All the technologies described in the report could ultimately be failures. This would not necessarily stop them from being used and abused.