By Daniel Rigney
Our Unitarian (UU**) minister likes to say that a visionary is someone who can see light in the darkness. Ever on the lookout for hopeful signs in a dusky world, I’m putting my background in sociology and future studies to work as a talent scout, scanning the cultural horizon for potential visionaries whose eyesight is better than mine, and who have the remarkable ability to see or intuit (or even create) what may lie over the next hill. I have in mind visionaries such as Thomas Edison and Steve Jobs and the priestesses of Delphi.
In a recent op-ed column, David Brooks muses on our need for entrepreneurial visionaries who have "Temerity at the Top." Brooks lauds the virtue of “boldness of enterprise,” in Alexis de Tocqueville’s bold phrase, and identifies the inventive entrepreneur Elon Musk as a contemporary avatar of this virtue. (More about vices later.)
Musk’s early life took him from his native South Africa (which he left to avoid the apartheid draft) to Canada and then to the United States, where he studied economics and physics at the University of Pennsylvania and later at Stanford. After university, Musk went on to help create an Internet company (Zip2), revolutionize e-commerce by co-founding PayPal, develop the space exploration company SpaceX, build the electric car company Tesla and the solar energy company SolarCity, and help start a software firm, Everdream. In his spare time he served as a trustee of Caltech.
On the seventh day he partied. Musk, 41, has a bit of a reputation as a rich playboy, and his first two marriages have not been sustainable.
I saw Musk on Jon Stewart’s “Daily Show” recently, and he did not lack self-confidence. But neither did he lack vision. Brooks recalls that in a recent conversation with Stewart, Musk “concluded that the three areas that would most transform humanity were the Internet, sustainable energy and space exploration.”
I’m not as keen on space colonization as Musk, an avid sci-fi video gamer, seems to be, but I’m warmly heartened to know that such a resourceful, inventive, and potentially visionary mind is at work on progressive technologies like solar energy and smart transit. Among his future projects, my favorite is Hyperloop, a solar-powered high-speed train that might make the trip from Los Angeles to San Francisco in 30 minutes. I’d pedal a bicycle from Texas to California just to ride that train. (That’s a joke, not a promise.)
I’ve been some background reading on Elon Musk. (Make a note to remember the name.) My main trepidation about him so far is that his legendary grandiosity (narcissism? solipsism?) may be so potentially malignant (the tests aren’t back yet) that he may forget he shares spaceship Earth with seven billion other mind/bodies, and that we’re not just fictional characters in his private video game. That delusion could be bad news for all of us.
But the projects Musk is choosing to work on – solar energy, efficient mass transit, sustainability and smarter living in general – give me hope that he might help his poor species find a way forward in this environmentally imperiled century. As the old baseball saying goes, nature bats last -- and its bat is bigger than all of us (and our ideologies) put together.
Musk can help us make friends with nature by showing us ways to harmonize ourselves with it rather than trying vainly (and inevitably failing) to conquer it. We are, after all, a part of it, whether we know so or not. Hubris, thy name is homo sapiens.
The precarious future of our flawed species will depend, I believe, on whether Musk, and others with him who see light in the darkness, can materialize the vision of a cleaner, greener, renewable and more sustainable world as we approach the end of the carbon age.
*Unitarianism (UU, for Unitarian Universalism) is a liberal religious tradition with deep roots in Christianity, deism, American transcendentalism and modern science. UU is welcoming and ecumenical. We’ll take our wisdom wherever we can find it.