On Technology and Faith
I have worked myself up into a state of near-frenzy lately, driven by my concern for the state of the world and its inhabitants. Despite my best efforts to remain calm, it seems to me that Chicken-Little’s call of, “The Sky is Falling” rings truer every day. From widespread environmental destruction to pending economic collapse to illegal and unconstitutional U.S. military aggression, the future of the humanity is looking gloomier on a daily basis, headed, it seems, for a catastrophe of biblical proportions. This is perhaps an appropriate feeling for this time in the Jewish calendar, as we have just entered the period of semi-mourning known as the “three weeks” between the 17th of Tammuz and the 9th of Av.
However, never one to be paralyzed by fear or cave into feelings of impotence and apathy, there is a brighter side to the coin as well. To give in to feelings of doom and gloom would be to give up in the fight for truth, justice, security, and sustainability. My committment to these principles, shared by many others around the world, dictates that we will never give up fighting for a more just and equitable society. This determination is one reason I still retain hope. The Torah enjoins us in Deut.16:20 “Tzedek, Tzedek tirdof” (Justice, Justice shall you pursue). While we may never achieve complete Justice, this is not an excuse for failing to pursue it. Additionally, to give in to feelings of depression, fear and apathy would be to demonstrate a lack of faith in Hashem, and a corresponding lack of faith in humanity. We should always remember that when one door closes, another opens. Thus, our current state of impending crisis will open up new opportunities for humanity that were previously unknown or ignored. Just as these three weeks of mourning will be transformed into days of celebration once the Moshiach arrives, so to can concern for the future be transformed into healing action in the present.
I take some solace from the visionary works of two genius inventors – Buckminster Fuller and Nicolai Tesla. Both of these men had groundbreaking technological breakthroughs that were revolutionary for their times. Unfortunately, and for a variety of reasons, both men have been marginalized to a degree, so that neither their names nor inventions have received the public attention or widespread application that they deserve. Tesla is perhaps the greatest inventor of the modern age, known primarily for his work on alternating current (AC) systems and motors. Less well-known is Tesla’s unfinished (and since destroyed) Wardenclyffe Tower project, which aspired to the goal of intercontinental wireless transmission of industrial power. Had this project been completed, we likely could have avoided the peak oil crisis we find ourselves in today, due to an unlimited, free, and non-polluting source of energy being readily available to all. However, the project’s funder, J.P. Morgan, pulled the plug on the experiment, allegedly claiming that if the project proved successful, there would be “nowhere to put the meter.” Buckminster Fuller’s life was a self-described “experimentto find what a single individual could contribute to changing the world and benefiting all humanity”. Fuller’s work concentrated on the fullest utilization of resources in order to benefit all humanity, of “doing more with less”, and focussed primarily in the fields of housing, transportation, and energy systems. Most successful of his ideas were geodesic domes, which take the least amount of materials in order to cover the largest amount of space. This concept was later applied on the microscopic level with the naming of “Fullerines” and “Bucky Balls,” which are the basis for carbon tubing and nanotechnology.
The works of these two men show that there is very little that we can’t accomplish, technologically speaking, should we set our minds to it. However, the fact that both men died in poverty and relative ignomy illustrates that good ideas are not always utilized by humanity in the ways that they should be. Nevertheless, the inventions of Fuller and Tesla do show that there is indeed a way out of the environmental crisis we find ourselves in today. In fact, these solutions have been in existence for a long time, only there was not the same urgency then that there is today. Just as electric vehicles were first used in the late 1800’s, then fell out of fashion, and only recently have enjoyed a comeback, so too can we look back on history in order to re-examine good ideas which have not yet had their day in the sun.
As an example of how quickly technology and new discoveries can change humanity’s situation, we need only look at Israel in the past year. Previously, it was thought that Israel had no real energy reserves to speak of. Golda Meir once quipped that G-d led the Jewish people to the only place in the Middle-East without oil. However, that situation is rapidly changing, with the discovery of a huge deposit of natural gas off the coast of Haifa and even more recently, the discovery of oil shale in the Shfela Basin. Of course, these resources could prove to be an environmental catastrophe or an economic boom, it really depends on how they are utilized. If this article can be believed, new heating technologies can be used to extract the shale oil with clean water resulting as a byproduct of the process. In sharp contrast to this method, fracking is currently an environmentally risky and extremely water-intensive process. While I remain skeptical about the claims that fracking in Israel can be done in ways that are neither environmentally risky nor water-intensive, it is encouraging to see that new technologies are being examined to solve the energy problems of the future without sacrificing the environment of today.
The Jewish people find themselves at the nexus of a unique and critical juncture in history. As living embodiments of Torah values, we must shine the light of truth into the darkest corners of the universe. Above all, my faith in technology and in humanity stems from my faith in G-d almighty. For humans were created in the divine image, and our technological developments all stem from the natural world that G-d created. Thus, to lose hope in the face of humanity’s many challenges is ultimately a loss of faith in Hashem. And while it is right to question the choices that society makes and to keep a keen eye on the direction that humanity is headed, it is equally important to retain our faith in G-d. For without faith, we are truly lost. With faith, however, humanity can be redeemed from our imminent crisis and instead we can create a better and more just world. It all depends on Emunah – Faith in G-d. This Emunah must rest only in G-d and not in man, the psalmists repeatedly warn us. Nevertheless, G-d has endowded mankind with great technological capabilities and has allowed humanity to utilize technology for our material purposes. Thus, technology has the potential to benefit or to destroy humanity, it all depends on how it is utilized. Fortunately, we have the Torah as the moral compass to guide us, entreating us to always remember that technology should be used only to help mankind in their duty to serve and praise G-d, not to construct a Tower of Babel for self-serving interests. We must keep our Torah values in the forefront of our minds at all times when examining the role that technology plays in our lives, lest it be a stumbling block rather than a step-up towards fulfilling humanity’s destiny.
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July 20, 2011 (4:09 pm)
Amen! I think that the Torah calls us to balance our resource needs and the needs of the future, and to use our best knowledge to take what we need today while not compromising the needs of future generations. It’s not about sitting in the dark – it’s about making the most of what we have in as sustainable a way as possible. And we always have to be mindful of the costs of the actions we choose.