I enjoyed Bryan Welch’s article about Elon Musk’s creations. Initially, I was caught up in the techno-wizardry of the Tesla car, Space-X, Solar City, and the Vacuum Transporter. After that spell passed, however, I found myself deeply troubled by what I read and, to a much lesser extent, the fact that it was in Mother Earth News.
When our greatest visionaries and social commentators are touting luxury cars as solutions to our greatest problems, then yes, we are doomed. No doubt Mr. Musk is an accomplished genius and businessman, but he, like most of us, is trapped in a paradigm which limits his visionary capacity. Fancy cars are within the box. A Solar City that merely allows us to buy more iphones is in the box. The box is the problem! Until that is addressed we are still racing for the cliff at 0-60 miles per hour in four seconds or, even worse, at rocket speed. Yes, they are small steps in a better direction but no, not really visionary to me. (An aside: Electric cars are touted for their enhanced efficiency – mpg in a way. But don’t bicycles get really great gas mileage? And keep us fit? And what about horses? And horses with buggies or carts? They’ve been around forever and don’t need much gas or wars for oil.)
Humanity's love of technology — be it fire, steel, atomic energy, or computers — usually dangerously outpaces our capacity to use that technology wisely. Our innovation curve is way ahead of our wisdom curve. And it’s only gotten more exacerbated as the pace of innovation along with the growth of population has quickened. We need visionary, out-of-the-box wisdom to confront and solve our greatest challenges.
Here’s a fun story: For a while I lived in Missouri around an Amish community. While there a friend shared a story about a decision one community made about their barns. Turns out this particular Amish group decided to remove the lightning rods from their barns because the rods were adversely affecting their community. Without the occasional fire, they were losing one of the most important traditions, some of the strongest glue, of their community – barn-raisings. If I were in that community, I might ask how we could have both the rods and the benefits of the barn-raisings without so much fire and destruction. But the overall point I take from the story is that just because we can do something doesn’t mean we should do something.
So how do Mr. Musk’s creations affect us and our community? I see four very relevant consequences not touched upon in the article:
1. They share the common thread that they further separate people from place, often at great speed.
To me it is precisely this separation of people from place that is a root cause of so many of our greatest problems. Who cares about trees if they never plant one or climb in one? Who cares about a neighbor if one is not around long enough to get to know them? Who cares about the soil, ponds and rivers, polar bears and monarch butterflies if they’re zipping about in vacuum tubes or fancy cars (presumably to and from work to pay the $70K bill)? As we flit about to jobs, to sporting events, to the mall, to doctor’s offices, to gyms while connected to little screens telling us to how to look, how to spend, and ultimately how to think, we drop further into the abyss of consumption and destruction with blind allegiance to the military industrial complex that feeds on our separateness. Further, while cheap energy has it’s perks, if it only serves to get us more iphones, TV’s, x-boxes, and thermostatically-controlled homes (made of toxic industrial materials) so we don’t ever have to feel the sun on our backs and the wind in our hair then it is a grave problem, not a panacea. It is too much candy for a five-year old. The last time infinite, cheap energy was sold to us we ended up with atomic bombs, the cold war, and nuclear waste not to mention an ever greater disparity in wealth. Thanks, but no thanks.
2. They rely on complex technologies whose raw materials are most likely mined and built by exploited workers.
Who mines and processes these precious materials giving the Tesla its special features? And where? Chances are great that they are mined by people who are treated poorly and paid poorly in countries with governments that lack great humanitarian practices that are propped up by our vast military-industrial machine. The iridium or chromium inside that Tesla (or even the rubber/oil on its tires), the silicon in a solar panel, and the titanium on the rocket all come at a greater human cost than the hefty price tags alone.
3. They ignore their environmental impact in the creation and disposal of the technologies themselves as well as of the creation and disposal of the gadgets made available by cheap energy (from Solar City, for example).
The environmental impacts of the mining and extraction of materials for these creations are enormous. Yes, even the holy cow of solar has great impact. Add their disposal, including the 1000 pounds of batteries in the car, and the impact grows. How many cities in China or Africa are drowning in our techno-waste - its people, soil, water, creatures suffering from our insatiable desire for the latest shiny object.
4. They typify our culture’s (the one dominant world culture based on extraction) age-old belief that new technologies will “free” humanity and/or greatly improve our lives.
Yes, technological advances are neat and often helpful. I am grateful for antibiotics, books and libraries, the saw and the screw driver. But time and again an advance is most needed only because we humans have so devastated, so polluted, so contradicted our health and environment. Our wisdom lags behind our material “progress”. Has atomic energy made us freer? Have cars really improved our lives and the state of the world? Are manatees happier with tablet computers around? Waiting for the next big thing (Mars, 0-60 in three seconds, i-glasses…)is a wonderful diversion to the best of life – walking, talking, creating at the human scale, napping … In other words, doing the work that connects us to nature, spirit, and each other while respecting the earth and all of its inhabitants.
It is not fair to expect Mr. Musk to put his great intellect to work solving our problems of greed and our deficiency of wisdom. He is a product of the “box” and performing within its confines extraordinarily well. It is also too easy to put him or visionaries like Gandhi or Jesus or MLK Jr. on a pedestal; just out of reach or at the safe distance of history rather than expect ourselves to come up with our own solutions. To do that work and that visioning, to “Be the Change we want to see in the world” requires us to look long and hard at ourselves. A difficult and often disturbing task made even harder by the great current of culture pushing the other way. It requires us to be in one place long enough to see what needs to be done; to ask and observe, to walk and to talk, to listen and wait. Only when we can do that, each of us, will real and meaningful progress ever happen. Only then will our wisdom begin to out-compete our technological prowess. Let’s hope it happens soon.