Prayer for a Time of Plagues

Today’s plagues are more than 10, but as I head to a Passover Seder, I cannot help thinking of the parallels. Maintaining optimism is getting harder, but being in tech helps.

We do, sadly, live in a time of plagues. After decades of steadily rising global standards of living, and generally declining global violence, all that has stopped. Everyone is hurting, or scared that they will begin hurting soon.

Tonight, April 15, is the first night of Passover, and I’m glad a close friend who is Jewish includes my family in his own’s annual observance. It will be a needed moment of familial and community warmth. Thankfully, today is a day and time of gratitude for many–simultaneously Good Friday, Passover, Vishu in India’s Kerala State, and it comes in the middle of Ramadan, with parallel celebrations of spring and renewal in multiple global religions and practices

Boy do we need renewal, and we must see it as coming. But as I head towards my Seder this evening, I can’t help but think how today’s panoply of global and national disasters feels comparable to the biblical plagues that are evoked as a central part of the Passover observance.

In the ceremony over the evening meal, suffering in biblical times is recalled by evoking ten plagues that Jews then endured: blood, frogs, lice, wild beasts, cattle disease, boils, hail, locusts, darkness, and the slaying of the firstborn.

Today, we suffer from a similarly-long list of what can rightly be called plagues:

  • Continuing Global Pandemic. Covid-19 seems to surge back every time we begin to act as if it’s over.
  • An Unaddressed Climate Crisis. Global warming and resulting extreme weather worsens by the day, and humanity has failed to sufficiently respond. Resulting global disorder and suffering is inevitable, and has begun.
  • War. Horrific atrocities perpetrated by an evil dictator pummel an entire nation in Europe.
  • Mass Shootings and Violence. The monstrous attack on a subway car full of innocent New York commuters this week makes everyone everywhere feel even more scared. The rest of us are left to look at one another everywhere with nervous suspicion. A majority of Americans are afraid of crime for the first time since 2016.
  • Rampant Incivility. In the U.S. and around the world frustration, impatience, and disrespect towards others has become widespread after two years of pandemic and economic dislocation. Incivility and unchecked anger is becoming far too commonplace. Will Smith’s reckless “slap” of Chris Rock is exhibit number one. But road rage, too, is rampant.
  • Racial Injustice. Shootings of unarmed Black people continue in America, and racial intolerance and hatred is a global pandemic of its own. In many places it is worsened by a fear of emigrants, which could worsen as climate-driven migration grows. Racial inequality still afflicts the U.S. In France, the hateful Marine Le Pen could actually win the presidency in this month’s election. 
  • Starvation and Food Insecurity. Growing numbers of people in East Africa are at risk, after years of drought depleted foodstocks. Compounding the disaster, until now much imported food came from Ukraine. A disturbing number of countries around the world are now scrambling to find new sources for food that came from Ukraine.
  • Inequality. The pandemic made it worse. A full 40% of the world remains unvaccinated, including most people in Africa, just to cite one major data point of unfairness.
  • Global Norms are Breaking Down. Nations that formerly found common ground are abandoning it, almost everywhere except in Europe. The U.S. and China are more completely at odds than in memory. Country after country is devolving towards xenophobia and autocracy.
  • The Economy Teeters Towards Recession. Inflation is at historically unprecedented levels in the U.S. and elsewhere. This week’s producer price inflation figure of 11% portends consumer prices will rise even higher. The U.S. and global stock markets are  declining.

That’s ten plagues. I could have gone on.

So must we despair? It’s hard not to, and plenty of people are moving to that kind of mode, or else adopting a partying-on-the-Titanic sort of fatalism. Even writing up that list above I found dispiriting, as did my colleague Caitlin Hamilton, who helped with it.

Yet our community, the community of innovators and technologists, remains characterized by hope and even optimism. I breakfasted yesterday with a technologist who was explaining why AI would bring more fairness to hiring and employment. Our Techonomy Climate conference two weeks ago highlighted numerous advances in technologies both digital and biological that could quite likely move the needle on climate action.

Our next big conference, Techonomy 2022, in Sonoma this coming November, has the theme “Innovation Must Save the World.” There is no better way to end this depressing little essay than to reiterate that phrase. We may get daunted, but there’s no choice but to keep working to innovate our way out of all these messes. It may be hard to imagine how innovation can address some of these modern plagues, but in reality there is innovation emerging even in governance. We may be surprised what open-minded innovators come up with in coming years.

So on this day of observance in so many religions, let’s say a prayer for successful innovation, and turn for now to our neighbors with love.

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