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Wisdom, Technology and Climate Change: Some Lessons from the Book of Job

Monday, 29 September 2014  | Andrew Errington

Who’s afraid of civilisational collapse?

In December of last year, a number of Australian scientists released a book titled Four Degrees of Global Warming: Australia in a hot world. In it they outline the future that climate science suggests Australia may very well be headed for within decades if the world continues along its current trajectory. The scenarios they describe are frightening. Massive financial costs as a result of coastal properties being effected by rising seas, enormous increases in heat-related deaths, major losses in biodiversity, devastating changes to rainfall patterns. Australia would become heavily reliant on imported food as a result of a huge decline in the productivity of the Murray-Darling basin.

This reliance could be complicated by the potential geopolitical consequences of a four degree rise. Up to 250 million people, the book suggests, would be displaced within the Asia-Pacific region, creating a refugee problem that makes recent worries look laughably miniscule. The changes would be enormously destabilising. In one chapter, Professor Ross Garnaut describes how warming of 4 degrees celsius or more could precipitate a global fracture that reshaped national boundaries and destbailised the institutions that underpin modern civilisation. The four degree world, Peter Christoff writes, “is one of almost unimaginable social, economic and ecological consequences and catastrophes”.

These kinds of predictions are not new. For some time now, scientists have been warning that continuing to burn fossil fuels at the rate we are doing will lead to temperature rises far-exceeding the repeatedly agreed-upon target of two degrees, and that this will have far-reaching consequences. Sometimes predictions become frankly apocalyptic – quite seriously the collapse of civilisation as we know it.

The striking thing, however, is that although these scenarios are frightening, few of us are actually very frightened. The possibility of major changes in lifestyle, let alone civilisational collapse, is frequently brushed aside with a shrug. The doom-sayers, however eminent and credentialed, are dismissed as madmen; and we continue to burn our coal.

Where does this nonchalance come from? No doubt it has a variety of sources, not least the fact that predictions such as these are notoriously uncertain, a fact seized upon with glee by those eager to find as much mud as they can in the scientific waters.

However, there are also deeper reasons for our apathy towards these predictions of doom and gloom. Indeed it is arguable that “climate sceptics” would not have achieved such prominence were it not for a much deeper confidence that everything is bound to turn out all right. That is, we are already fairly sure that predictions such as these couldn’t possibly be true, and so we are more willing to listen to those telling us they are not.

One of the chief sources of this deeper confidence is our belief in human ingenuity. If it is anything at all, our age is an age of technology, an age in which the successes of science are being endlessly translated into products that improve human life. This is the grand story – for many the only story – of the last three hundred years. The story of the success of technology. It is a story of progress: we are moving forward, improving human life, bringing about a better world. Notably, in an earlier age these ideas were constantly coupled with images of conquering nature: Mankind, it was felt, was steadily extending his (and it was his) domain through his scientific and technological subjugation of the natural world. Some of this rhetoric has dulled. Mainly because in the twentieth century we discovered that our ingenuity could also be used for great evil. Moreover talk of conquering nature has slid from view amongst even some of the least green.

Yet it is not easy to shake a confidence once so deeply held, and which has provided the impetus to so much we take for granted in modern life. The seeds sown in the Enlightenment have not yet finished flowering. We continue to be deeply impressed by human ingenuity: by new discoveries, new technologies, new solutions to old problems, new artefacts and commodities. We love technology; and we love it because of what it promises us: that things are still getting better, that there is hope, that we are full of potential.

This deep and abiding confidence in progress and in technology partly explains why many people are not especially troubled by predictions of climate disaster. If climate change is after all largely a result of technology, then surely we will find a technological solution. Perhaps there is indeed a problem; but human ingenuity will save us.


The glory and the limitations of human ingenuity

What should we make of this optimism? Is it misplaced? And if we feel that it is, for what reason? What exactly is wrong with confidence in the potential of human genius? I want to look for some answers in a remarkable passage from the Bible that gives us a profound interpretation of the possibilities and limits of human ingenuity. The passage is chapter twenty-eight of the Book of Job, a remarkably beautiful Hebrew poem, which is especially poignant for our topic for another reason also: it is one of the world’s oldest literary depictions of mining.

Job twenty-eight begins with a rapt description of what an extraordinarily impressive thing mining is.

Surely there is a mine for silver,

   and a place for gold to be refined.

Iron is taken out of the earth,

   and copper is smelted from ore.

Miners put an end to darkness,

   and search out to the farthest bound

   the ore in gloom and deep darkness.

They open shafts in a valley away from human habitation;

   they are forgotten by travelers,

   they sway suspended, remote from people.

As for the earth, out of it comes bread;

   but underneath it is turned up as by fire.

Its stones are the place of sapphires,

   and its dust contains gold.

That path no bird of prey knows,

   and the falcon’s eye has not seen it.

The proud wild animals have not trodden it;

   the lion has not passed over it.

They put their hand to the flinty rock,

   and overturn mountains by the roots.

They cut out channels in the rocks,

   and their eyes see every precious thing.

The sources of the rivers they probe;

   hidden things they bring to light.

Clearly, the author of this remarkable poem was genuinely impressed by the remarkable feats human beings are capable of. We may take it that in his ancient context, this was cutting edge stuff: the capacity to search out the depths of the earth, hitherto entirely unexplored. It represents for him a striking illustration of the human capacity for exploration and discovery. We might perhaps compare it to someone marvelling at the lunar landing, or the mapping of the human genome.

The enthusiastic tone here should not be overlooked. This is a thoroughly positive account of human ingenuity, technological inventiveness and capacity, a celebration of what human beings, in all their restless creativity and inventiveness, are capable of.

But there is something else to say about all of this human genius and ingenuity, which is this: it is not wisdom. This is the profoundly important point Job chapter twenty-eight goes on to stress.

But where shall wisdom be found?

And where is the place of understanding?

Mortals do not know the way to it,

   and it is not found in the land of the living.

The deep says, ‘It is not in me,’

   and the sea says, ‘It is not with me.’

It cannot be gotten for gold,

   and silver cannot be weighed out as its price.

It cannot be valued in the gold of Ophir,

   in precious onyx or sapphire.

Gold and glass cannot equal it,

   nor can it be exchanged for jewels of fine gold.

No mention shall be made of coral or of crystal;

   the price of wisdom is above pearls.

The chrysolite of Ethiopia cannot compare with it,

   nor can it be valued in pure gold.

Where then does wisdom come from?

And where is the place of understanding?

It is hidden from the eyes of all living,

   and concealed from the birds of the air.

Abaddon and Death say,

   ‘We have heard a rumor of it with our ears.’

Human technology and genius are impressive, undeniably; but they are not wisdom. Wisdom, the writer insists, is not something human beings can attain by their own devices: we can’t find it like we can find precious minerals in the heart of the earth; we can’t buy it like we can buy almost anything else of value. This most precious of things, wisdom, cannot be simply discovered in the land of the living.

What is this “wisdom” the writer speaks of? What is this precious but unattainable thing? The Book of Job was part of a widespread ancient literary tradition whose focus was the idea of wisdom. What was meant by wisdom was something like the knowledge of the world that enables a person to live rightly. Wisdom is, in a way, a kind of knowledge, knowledge of the world, of how things are. Yet it wasn’t just knowledge of facts, information. It was knowledge that enabled you to live rightly, to live well. As such it was essentially a moral idea. Not moral in the way we often think of morality – in terms, probably, of rules (about sex) – but moral in the sense of concerning the questions of how people may live properly, or best. Wisdom is that knowledge that enables you to live a life that goes well, in the fullest sense.

And this is perhaps not so very far from the way we might use the word wisdom today. When we think of what it is to be wise, if we think of it at all, we might well think of something like this basic idea: the kind of knowledge of how things stand that helps you live well – the knowledge that helps you live, the kind of know-how that shapes your practical decisions. Perhaps we think of it as the stuff our parents and grandparents might have taught us as we watched them, the life-lessons and principles we’ve picked up or learnt from experience. As such, I suspect many of us may feel that we are not doing too bad in this regard, that we are making our way through the world reasonably well, and must have some degree of wisdom.

Troublingly, though, the conclusion of the writer of Job, who had thought about wisdom perhaps more deeply than we, was different. His conclusion was that wisdom was far harder to attain than we assume it is. In fact, well nigh impossible. Human beings can do remarkable things, have incredible successes. Yet that does not necessarily bring them any closer to wisdom.


Ingenious folly?

If we were willing to take this thought seriously how might it inform our discussion of the ecological crisis? This poem impresses upon us one lesson in particular: we should not confuse ingenuity with wisdom. The technological mastery of our civilisation is no guarantee that we will not turn out to have been fools. Technology, scientific advances, human genius – all of these are remarkable, impressive, jaw-dropping; but they are not wisdom; they are not themselves any guarantee that we know how to live well, successfully, in the world. Wisdom is simply not that easy to come by. And so, this text would teach us, we have no guarantee that technology will save us from disaster, from extreme folly and its consequences. For you can have tremendous ability and knowledge and have made immense advances and discoveries, and still be a fool.

Perhaps this ancient text contains an insight we need to hear today. We may not think we are making this mistake, of confusing genius and ingenuity for wisdom. Yet it is profoundly easy to do so. We are surrounded by astonishing scientific advances and breakthroughs. In medicine, agriculture, engineering, information technology. It is the easiest thing to be mesmerised by them, and filled with the confidence that, though things may be bad, where there is this kind of technological ingenuity, there is always hope.

Job twenty-eight does not call us to pretend away technological achievements – the first eleven verses are full of wonder and admiration for human ingenuity. Yet it does challenge us not to confuse them with wisdom, not to assume that they provide some kind of guarantee that we will know how to live well in the world. It reminds us that it is perfectly possible to be technologically sophisticated, and fools.

The lesson of this ancient poem for our day is this: our techology is no guarantee that we will not destroy the world as we know it through our folly. The contrast made in this passage with mining is eerily telling. For of course, as climate scientists keep reminding us, it is fossil fuels, “the ore in gloom and deep darkness” with which we are killing ourselves. Three thousand years after Job was written, we have turned his evocative image of “overturning mountains by their roots” into a factually accurate description. We have learnt to probe the sources of rivers and cut channels in the rock in ways Job could never have imagined. It is deeply impressive – there is no denying that at all. But it is not wisdom. Indeed, it may prove to be the very height of folly.


The gift of wisdom

So far so sobering. The great poem of Job twenty-eight has, however, one more lesson to teach, though it is one we may be even more unwilling to listen to. Having made sure its claim about the hiddenness of wisdom, its final lines declare where wisdom is to be found. Where can wisdom be found?

God understands the way to it,

   and he knows its place.

For he looks to the ends of the earth,

   and sees everything under the heavens.

When he gave to the wind its weight,

   and apportioned out the waters by measure;

when he made a decree for the rain,

   and a way for the thunderbolt;

then he saw it and declared it;

   he established it, and searched it out.

And he said to humankind,

   ‘Truly, the fear of the Lord, that is wisdom;

      and to depart from evil is understanding.’”

The claim in the final couplet – that true wisdom is found in worship and obedience – is a fairly standard theological assertion in the Old Testament. Yet the point of this chapter is not so much to present this idea, but to explain why it matters. What we are shown here is why this claim, that wisdom is only truly found through reverent obedience, is to be believed and lived by: because this is what God has declared, and his word is to be trusted because he is the one who weaved wisdom into the universe when he brought it into existence.

The way of thinking in this passage is as far removed as can be imagined from the reigning accounts of ethics in our day. The idea is that wisdom, that is, an objective basis for moral action, is, in a way, as native to the world as the natural patterns of weather and climate. Wisdom is not a physical feature of the world, like the wind and the oceans; and yet, Job would teach us, it is just as real, just as there as the coal in the rocks. Because when God created the world, Job tells us, and set the ways of its physical properties in place, then he “saw” wisdom, “declared” it, “established” it, and “searched it out”. Four Hebrew verbs express God’s effective and secure determination of wisdom’s place within the natural order.

Which is why God is to be trusted when he tells human beings where to find it – when he speaks a word of revelation that gives light precisely where we are in the dark. “And he said to humankind, ‘the fear of the Lord, that is wisdom; and to depart from evil is understanding’.” The purpose of Job twenty-eight is to demonstrate why the biblical claim it concludes with – that wisdom is found in the fear of the Lord – is to be taken seriously: because the truth about wisdom is that human beings cannot find it by their own endeavours and genius; but may gain it nevertheless as the gift of the One who gave it its place when he made the world – if only we will heed his voice.


Paralysis and possibility

If we took this lesson, too, seriously, how could it help us with our ecological predicament?

There is much that has been and is being said about the kind of action we should now be taking in relation to climate change. At one level, Job is not much help at all with these questions. Yet there is another level at which this passage could help us a great deal, for what it holds out to us is a hope that we may yet act wisely.

There is an implicit promise here that wisdom is still possible, that, whatever our folly, we are still in a position to act wisely. And that is a profoundly liberating thought. In the face of a threat as great as we apparently face, it is easy for it to seem as if wise action has ceased to be possible, and that our only options now are despair, on the one hand, in which we cease to act meaningfully at all, or desperation, on the other, in which we act, frantically, but without any attempt to allow what is right and good to shape our action. The one is the option of the person who says, “it’s beyond me; what can I possibly do.” The other is the option of the one who says, “I must do all I can and hang my responsibilities.” In contrast to these the prospect that we might still be able to act wisely, to do something good and meaningful in the time we have – this is an exciting and inspiring thought.

Yet how do we know that this promise is not empty, that the time is not past when we could have acted well, that we are not, now simply left to the consequences of our folly? How do we know that the way of wise action remains open to us? Why should Job’s words here not be taken simply a judgment pronounced on our failure, showing us what we should have done all along?

Job leaves this question hanging. Ambiguity need not, however, be the last word. For a Christian reading of the Bible sees Job’s promise to be made good through Jesus Christ. The story of Jesus is the story of the one who truly lived wisely – fearing God and turning away from evil from his first day until his last – but who nevertheless died a fool’s death, a death filled with shame, pain, and ridicule. Yet on the third day, so the witnesses proclaim, he rose again to life, demonstrating that the folly that led to his death was not his folly, but ours, taken upon himself so that he might restore us, with him, to life and hope and the renewal of all things. Including, we note in conclusion, the renewal of human action in the present. “Be careful then how you live,” writes the apostle Paul, “not as unwise people but as wise, making the most of the time because the days are evil” (Ephesians 5:15–16). Jesus opens the possibility of acting wisely in the present moment, however dark, in neither despairing inaction, nor desperate carelessness, but decisively, out of attentive reverence for God.

No doubt theological musings such as these will seem to some the very opposite of wisdom. Yet if the crisis ahead is anything like what we are told it may be, it will be a challenge not just to our practical action, but to our confidence to act at all. The time may come when, confronted by our own ingenious folly, we will know our need for what Job reminds us: that though wisdom is beyond us, it is disclosed to us in the word of God, and through the resurrection Jesus Christ the possibility has been restored to us of our embracing it, of acting wisely, whatever the present hour may be.


Revd Andrew Errington is a member of the Social Issues Executive of the Diocese of Sydney and was a minister at Erskineville Anglican Church. He is commencing PhD studies in Scotland under Brian Brock and Stanley Hauerwas. This article appeared on the ABC Religion and Ethics site.


Peter Dixon
October 6, 2014, 10:37PM
Well said.

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