[Speech] Worlds That Never Were

This is the speech I gave at the 2018 Bay Area Secular Solstice. It was written to fit the bill of ‘concrete visions of the future.’ There is one small change here from the version I gave : the Solstice organizers had me change the second-to-last sentence of the speech, because the event centered around the idea of disasters that fall short of extinction, and rebuilding from the ashes. I’ve changed it back to be more true to what I think Solstice is about—the complete and irrecoverable disaster looming on the horizon, and the reality of our desperate efforts to avoid it.

There are lots of people on the Internet and on TV every day telling you how the world is going to dissolve into chaos at any moment. When you think about all the people and animals needlessly suffering, it’s easy to think that the world is terrible. When you read the news, or look at the current state of the art in preparedness for global catastrophic risks, it’s easy to think that the world is doomed, and feel hopeless. But that’s why we’re here. We are here – in this community and in this planetarium – because we believe that there is a future worth fighting for.

What does that future look like? That’s hard to say. You know how sometimes, when you look directly at a star in the night sky, it fades so that you can barely see it, but when you look a little to the side it’s bright again? That’s sort of how I feel about imagining the future. It’s slippery, hard to get a grasp on, sort of just out of reach. But for now, let’s try to picture it.

Imagine the world a few hundred years from now. Humanity has completed a process of great deliberation. We’ve overcome global coordination problems, so there’s no more poverty and no more war, and existential risks have shrunk to a millionth of a millionth of their current size. We have overcome physics and engineering challenges and have ships on their way to the distant reaches of the galaxy. We have overcome our biological limitations and no longer die so easily of disease or accident or old age.

If we sit with that, it still feels abstract, and far away. So try to imagine yourself in that future, even if how we imagine it today will never be how it really is.

Maybe you’re with your family on a spaceship, off to colonize the edge of the galaxy. Your faces are pressed to the window as you watch the Earth grow small against the blackness. Though you’re leaving this planet behind, probes have been sent out to terraform the barren rocks that lie ahead, and they’ll be lush with life when you arrive. When the pale blue dot has faded to nothing in the distance, you turn away from the window and get to work preparing for the long journey ahead. Your children call up to you and you answer with confidence. You’re in this together. You believe you will make it to your destination. You are not afraid.

Or maybe you’re there on the day the last factory farm closes. Advances in lab-grown meat and our understanding of nutrition have obviated the need for such cruelty, and our new ethical standards would never allow it. You watch the animals stumble, confused, into the daylight. It’s too late for most of them, but at least they are the last. Humanity will never again commit torture like this.

Or maybe you work for the government, which is now a legible institution whose mission feels like your mission. Every day you go to work and uphold a system of laws that you believe in, and every night you return home to your children, who are educated in a system that actually lets them learn, while keeping their spirits bright and alive. Around the dinner table at night, they debate with you about the ethics of terraforming, tell you the history of the great deliberation, and explain to you concepts in physics that you could never quite grasp. Your bodies are warm, your stomachs are full, and your minds are active. You’re free to pursue whatever you wish, without the constant nagging guilt that you could be doing more to help others and prevent extinction, because that’s all been taken care of.

The path ahead is full of obstacles. We don’t yet have the technology to build space colonies or cheat old age, nor have we figured out what incentives will end war, poverty, or factory farming for good. No matter how hard we work, there’s always a chance we won’t make it to tomorrow. But humanity has proved time and again that we can overcome forces of nature once thought to be unstoppable, so no matter how slim the odds, there’s also a chance that we’ll survive. And if we do, we should hold onto those images of how good the future could be.

By and large, the people here tonight are not religious. We know that we live in a world beyond the reach of God. If we are going to make it out of this, it will have to be by our own power. If the future is going to be as good as the stories I’ve told, we have to make it that way. We only have one chance. Let’s make tomorrow beautiful.

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