This is a Dawn [Solstice 2014]

Yesterday, scores of people came together for the Bay Area Secular Solstice. The secular solstice is a winter holiday for the non-religious, an opportunity for people to come together and remember the times when every winter was a harsh trial, to appreciate everything that our ancestors built, and to reflect on the trials that are to come.

This year, I wrote the closing speech. (Oliver Habryka delivered it.) A slightly altered version is presented below.

Everyone at the ceremony has a candle, and the ceremony begins with a bright and jolly sing-along. As the night progresses, the mood grows more somber; candles are doused and personal stories are shared. Soon enough, there is only one candle left, and a somber tale is told. There is silence.

Then, slowly the lights come back, the songs and stories grow more hopeful, until all the candles are re-lit. The closing speech begins just after all the candles are re-lit. It's broken up by a number of songs; I've linked the ones that can be found on the internet.


We have conquered winter.

Look around you. We are warm, well-fed, and finely clothed. None of us fears for our ability to make it through the winter. This dark season, which posed a terrible trial to our ancestors every single year, is now instead an excuse to come together with friends and family to enjoy our great wealth.

How did humanity come so far? By the ingenuity of our ancestors, who ferreted out the secrets of this world one tiny, cloudy insight at a time. Humans had no words in their thoughts, when they invented language. Societies had no letters, when they invented writing. Humanity cracked the secret of the lever and the wheel. We studied and grew, discerning the mechanisms behind germs and viruses, behind architecture and electricity, behind fire and iron and the stars.

We have looked upon this world of ours, using minds that can understand it. We have chipped away at its mysteries, through long and countless generations, slowly learning the secrets that allow such comfort and knowledge in this modern era.

With this knowledge, humanity has looked out upon the land, has seen the neutral slaughter of pox and plague, and has said,

Not here.

Not on our world.

And now pox is nothing but a harrowing feature of our past.

When I was fourteen, I was sick for a week or two. It was nothing serious; just a head cold. But shortly thereafter, when my twelve-year old sister fell ill, nobody took much note—but the sickness persisted, and the headaches eventually turned into migraines that weren't stopping.

She had tectal glioma, a tumor on the brain stem that had finally grown large enough to obstruct fluid drain.

In any other era, she wouldn't have made it to twenty, and her last few years would have been agonizing. But not here. Not in this era, where humans know the first few secrets of body and mind. She had brain surgery to install a shunt just above her brain stem, and now she is almost twenty-three.

Humanity has built a better world. It's often easy to forget exactly how beautiful our world can be.

But all is not yet well.

Not everyone has been warm, today—right now, more than a hundred million people have no shelter.

Not everyone is well fed, this evening—one in eight people suffers from some form of malnutrition; often resulting in disease and an early death.

Not everyone will survive, tonight. No matter what we do, no matter how hard we work, a million living breathing human beings will die before seven days have passed. One third of them will die young, from violence or malnutrition or disease. The rest will die of age-related causes.

Take a moment to think of your oldest living relatives, your oldest living loved ones. The ones who are frail, but still vital, still loving and breathing, still alive. I know that my grandmothers are still sharp as tacks, even though their bodies are failing them. I know that my grandfather still has his wits, even as his body wastes away.

These are the people we cannot save, if they lack either the will or the money to preserve their brains when they pass.

One billion more thinking, loving human beings will die before we can conquer death, and our loved ones will be among them.

Life doesn't have to be like this. Our ancestors produced great wealth, and this generation can produce so much more. If humans continue working hard—and they will—then they can put a permanent end to hunger. We can relegate wars to games and stories, a quaint fiction from a darker age. We can put an end to the idea that humans need to work for their keep. We can spread education and opportunity to all humanity, and leave this world of scarcity and suffering behind.

Because, while this uncaring universe gives us no quarter, it also begrudges us no victories.

Smallpox is eradicated, and nature does not fume in its absence.

Polio is next. Malaria is on deck.

And already, we are extending our gaze further, until death itself is in our sights.

Humanity has been through dark times. Already, a hundred billion of us have died. We have come far, and built much, and we have brought a little bit of light to these lands, but make no mistake—the sun is not yet fully risen. This is only the first hint of a dawn.

We are human beings. The human brain is the most powerful artifact in the known universe. The only thing more powerful than a human, in this world, is an organization of humans bound together. Sometimes those organizations run the people and become a machine that nobody quite controls. But sometimes the organization becomes team or a community or a movement that changes the world. For good or for ill, when you bind humans together, something incredible happens.

Our ancestors were born in the wilderness, wet and naked. With bare hands, they built the tools that built the tools that built the tools that built these cities.

If we face an obstacle that we cannot surmount, then we find a way to get stronger. This room is filled of people who know this, people with a burning need to find the flaws in their own nature and overcome them, because they have something to protect.

Some of us have glimpsed the full magnitude of suffering around the world. Some of us have looked to the horizon and seen challenges that threaten the very existence of our species. Some of us must simply protect a loved one, a child, their family. And some of us have taken on death itself as our enemy. This room is filled with people who saw important problems and took them seriously.

But nobody can face these problems alone. Human beings need assistance, they need support, they need a community.

So we are building one.

If a team of humans sets themselves a goal, and they don't give up, then one of two things happen: they either succeed, or they die.

And death itself is in our sights.

Together we can build that better universe, that softer universe, the one with second chances, the one where people don't have to waste away in their own bodies against their will. We can spread through the uncaring void above, where the stars dump precious negentropy into an empty night, and we can fill that empty night with…

With I don't know what. With whatever we decide is right and good.

I worry sometimes, that humanity will fail, that one way or another this powerful machine built from seven billion people will kill itself. But I also worry sometimes that humanity will almost succeed, that we will achieve the stars but leave behind the things that were truly valuable.

I hope that our brighter tomorrow still has meaningful struggle. I hope it still has moments of poignance. I hope that every so often, the people there will spare a moment or two, to mourn the hundred billion who came before them, who were annihilated by one of Nature's challenges, in the time before humanity gained the heavens.

The universe is uncaring, and the void above is dark. But we are the light.


[Song: We are the light]
Onward, onward through the darkness
Night proclaims a promise we must keep
As the shadows close around us
Arise, for we are the light
Cold, we tremble, young and frightened
Ours to conquer, but ours to grieve
Soon the dawn shall break around us
in morning, we die no more
in morning, we die no more

This is a dawn.

We here have an unprecedented ability to love and laugh and play, an unprecedented ability to explore the world around us, to travel its lands and learn its secrets. For two hundred thousand years, humans have gazed up at the night sky and wondered, but it is we few, in this century, who can look up at the stars and know what they are.

None of us got here alone. We are born of humanity, and this dawn was brought by the labor of our ancestors. They fought together against impossible odds to build everything we have. It is up to us to fight together to build the future.

There are many trials and tribulations, ahead. There are many challenges that could yet kill us, that could put a pointless end to all this.

We may not be able to overcome these challenges. Nature did not calibrate them for us, in this world beyond the reach of God. But though I do not know whether we will succeed or fail, I can tell you this: we will face those challenges with friends at our sides.

Humanity is a machine barreling towards a cliff face. It’s killing parts of itself and ignoring others as they waste away. It’s squandering resources even as it withers for their lack. It’s building things that no one asked for and no one wanted. But for all its overwhelming inertia, we can still change its path. Because this machine is made of people, and those people are us.

Reality is vast, and we are small. Each of us is but a tiny spark, but together we are the roaring bonfire that has conquered winter. Each of us is but one lantern, but together we are the cities that light up the night.

Data courtesy Marc Imhoff of NASA GSFC and Christopher Elvidge of NOAA NGDC. Image by Craig Mayhew and Robert Simmon, NASA GSFC.

This is a dawn, achieved by all those who came before us.

The sun is just barely peeking up over the horizon.

If we can make it just a little bit farther, then those who follow will see the day.


The ceremony ends with a raucous, joyful sing-along of the song Five Thousand Years, celebrating the potential of humanity.

Happy solstice.