This was my Moment of Darkness speech for the NYC 2017 Solstice. The overall theme for the event was "generational knowledge."
To pass generational knowledge into the future, you need three things. You need mentors, sharing the most important wisdom they have to offer. You need children, curious and excited to learn, but willing to challenge that wisdom as times change.
Thirdly, you need there to be a future.
Earlier this year I moved to Berkeley, California. Soon afterwards I started hearing news about North Korea's nuclear's testing.
Every few years North Korea talks a big talk about their weapons program, but this year for the first time, we had seismological evidence that they were testing warheads in excess of 100 kilotons. And that they had intercontinental ballistic missiles that could strike the west coast. And San Francisco was one of the plausible targets.
A friend of mine did some calculations on blast radius. Depending on the exact size of the bomb, they estimated that as long as we stayed indoors, people in Berkeley would probably survive.
This wasn't especially reassuring.
Now, I have no idea how scared it's actually appropriate to be about this. In politics, and journalism, we're incentivized to stories that freak us out and exaggerate risks.
But one way or another, a lot of things have happened this year that have made it click together for me, that we might not make it. I've understood, intellectually, that humanity barely scrapped by through the cold war, that democracy is precarious. That we can't seem agree on any serious solutions to climate change. That biological terrorism or artificial intelligence might be even more challenging.
But this is the first year I've felt in my gut, that there are no competent grownups somewhere who know what they're doing and are going to make sure things are okay.
I've been thinking about that. And I've been thinking about a question that I often get after Solstice.
The question is "What's the deal with the stars?"
The first half of the Solstice is very concrete. We're talking and singing about real history, real people, real problems that they faced. We delve into messy questions...
...and then the second half of the Solstice doesn't answer those questions.
It can't. Because we don't know the answers. Yet.
And even if we could, I wouldn't want to enshrine our best guesses about the future in song.
Instead, we sing about stars that seem unimaginably far away, and a future that maybe we can we make better.
Some people have said this feels like science fiction. Or wish fulfillment. We looked at a messy, broken world, and we couldn't figure out what to do with it. So we took one mythological heaven, and we swapped it out for another of a different genre.
I think that's a fair criticism, and deserves an answer.
Different people in this room have different ways of thinking about the future. We don't agree on how this world is shaped. We don't agree on what the best ways to shape it are, and we don't even agree on how the future should be shaped, even if we knew what we were doing.
So it's hard to tell a concrete story about the future that everyone can believe in.
But there's one thing the ancient astronomers got right, if for the wrong reasons:
One day the sun is going to die. And our little corner of the universe will be plunged into an eternal winter darker than anyone can imagine.
I have no idea what happens in the 5 billion years between now and then. But by the end, I really only see three possibilities:
One: that the children of Earth will have long since perished.
Another: We'll have created systems too powerful to control, that don't understand or don't care about the things we find most precious, and those systems will spread across the universe, creating something hollow at best, horrifying at worst.
The third possibility is that we got our shit together.
I'm not sure whether it's harder to imagine 5 billion years, or to imagine humanity getting over our bullshit. On the one hand, 5 billion years is a ludicrously big number. On the other hand, our species is still arguing over things like "is evidence and reason even a good way to understand the world and help people?"
There are problems barreling down at us at 90 miles an hour that we do not yet have the capacity to solve. But if we can get our shit together, if we can solve the problems of the next few centuries, I don't think there'd be anything stopping us. At the very least, the death of the sun would be trivial, one more relatively simple problem to resolve.
It's important to remember that on a geologic timescale, humanity is a child. Or, perhaps a gangly teenager, suddenly finding themselves with limbs longer than they know what to do with. From the perspective of the Earth, most of human history took place in the blink of an eye. It takes evolution a million years to solve problems that we can solve now in a decades or less.
And while I don't think our current best is good enough, the fact is we have a strong track record of making our best better. When you hear about atrocities and abuses of power on social media, it's important to remind yourself that this isn't because everything is getting worse - it's because our standards have gotten higher.
Atrocities and abuses of power used to be par for the course. But decade by decade, people have looked at the status quo and said "this is not good enough. This is unacceptable. And I'm going to change it."
Humanity is growing up.
And whenever I start to doubt that, I remember people - some in this room, others across the world, who systemically work to make their best better. Who looked at the distant future they wanted to make reality, and figured out what research needs to be done and which institutions needed to change and which skills they needed to make that happen.
And then they did it.
And they taught other people to do it. And those people are teaching others in turn.
I don't know whether we'll grow up in time to meet the challenges ahead of us. I don't know what humanity might become if we make it through the era where our power outpaces our wisdom.
But if we do make it, whatever sort of world we chose to build...
By the time the sun dies, our children will have gone the stars.