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This is the part that seems the most fantastical, like Wired's 1997 Long Boom" article, which projected 25 years of uninterrupted growth. It took Doug Mulhall, whose environmental work has included building water recycling and flood control facilities in China and Brazil, to point out how dangerous it could be: richer people have a far greater impact on the ecology. But Mulhall is his own kind of optimist: he believes technology can solve the planetary challenges we're facing.

"It's the biggest idea since first industrial revolution and will make it look insignificant by comparison."

Simple solutions

First thing: replace fossil fuels, starting now. The technology is out there. (We're in the middle of sun-drenched Arizona, and not a solar collector in sight.) Fossil fuels are toxic anyway, and the resulting illnesses will bankrupt our medical systems. Second thing: engineer all products from the ground up for disassembly so that everything can be biodegraded or recycled ("It's all macro in the end"). Third: create a world treaty organisation to govern molecular manufacturing, an idea he attributes to Martine Rothblatt, head of the life extension organisation Terasem. If you're going, for example, to consider re-engineering the Arizona desert into the desert grasslands and forests that in cooler times covered much of it, shouldn't you need a licence? "There's no way you can handle it through national governments."

Therein really is the problem. A country or region can – just barely – opt out of GM foods, risking the scorn of Gary Marchant. But the country that shuns developing molecular manufacturing will simply find that the technology is developed and deployed elsewhere.

Marchant reserves particular dislike for the "Precautionary Principle", which he says is arbitrarily and inconsistently applied. If you are going to regulate it…well, how? Is it nanotechnology if some particles are bigger than 100nm? Talking about all things that are nanotechnology is like talking about all things that are blue.

But the technology isn't all bad; it's just drawn that way. Lisa Hopper, who started Worldcare in 1994 with all her savings from 17 years of radiology and has since worked all over the world in crisis environments, tries to match the world's waste with the world's poverty. The biggest problem: getting materials from point A to point B.

She tells stories of transport being left, literally, in the hands of God, on various aid projects, so a technology that could get round that, is a technology in which she sees real potential. We are, she reminds us, talking about a technology that will let us put something in a pocket that is as destructive as a nuclear silo. But, oh, the promise.

"What if we could build houses without having to transport [the] whole lot?" she asks. "At last, a really practical idea." ®

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