The Fragility of Progress

This piece is a speech that I gave at the 2018 SF Bay area secular solstice. It was preceded by several other speeches and songs, most importantly The Goddess of Everything Else. A recording of the 2018 solstice can be found here; this speech begins at 36:17.


It is Tuesday, August 4th. You sit in a cafe, enjoying the morning hours before you head to work.

Yesterday was a bank holiday; some family friends visited you in the city. You took them to Madame Tussauds wax museum, and the little ones wanted to see the science museum downtown. It was a cloudless day. Your friends talked about how strange it was that your city life was surrounded by people, and how did you manage to deal with them all? You joked that mostly you ignored them like ducks walking along a pond. But in your heart, each pair of shoes that walked past you was a kindling soul, a well of potential ready to burst its light out into the world. Every shuffling elder was a life well lived, and every boisterous child was a force that would change the world.

The turning of the last century, during which you were a child, was a symbol of the future that we had all collectively achieved. The startling pace of change has left the world of your parents’ childhood almost unrecognizable to you, as much as your grandparents’ world is unrecognizable to your parents. There is no reason to think that the pace of change will ever stop. To you, just freshly into adulthood, continuous progress is a law of nature.

Your work centers around coordination. You help to lubricate trade between countless other people, located in cities across the globe. You trust your clients and they trust you, a long railway of trust that lies founded on unprecedented international stability. The world is so big and rich that it’s hard for any individual to change it; and this global interdependence has furthered the economic incentive for cooperation. The more we trust, the more we gain; so says the new law of nature. Propelled by this fresh sense of meaning, you head to your office, knowing that what you do matters.

It is Wednesday, August 5th. You walk into the cafe, and pick up the paper. You sit down with your coffee and look at the headline.

“GREAT BRITAIN DECLARES WAR ON GERMANY”

You stare at the page. You read the words, but they meet with resistance. Why? Over what? To what end? Sure, Germany has not exactly been Britain’s ally, and every up-and-coming economy needs to do a bit of posturing and teeth baring. But war? Like men running around with bayonets and dueling in a field? It was an anachronism.

Never has your life been touched by a real war. There are always conflicts abroad, somewhere in the world. But you don’t know anyone who has died in a war. Your older brother didn’t serve. Your parents didn’t serve. You don’t recall your grandparents talking about war. It’s been decades. Maybe half a century. You’d have to look it up, that’s how long it had been.

War was a tool we used before we had a sense of what the future could become. Before the Renaissance, before the Enlightenment. We have better ways, now.

You’ve heard that the idea called nationalism is all the rage these days. Each patriot felt the same passion, only with a different subject in their heart. Why couldn’t they see that one country being great did not preclude other countries from also being great? Why can’t they see that the working people in the north are natural allies to the working people in the south? They put on different clothes, they breathe the fresh scent of different forests, but they each love their families the same, and the sun rises and sets on them all. Surely they can see that it is their humanity that makes them great, and that same humanity that unites us. Surely, they won’t march against their mirror image just for the sake of nationalism.

You realize that your cousins will volunteer. They would not miss the chance to defend the glory of Britain for anything. You hope to God that they will be okay. You hope that the war will be short. You get up from your table and head to work, because you do not know what else to do.

It is August 5th, 1914, and the war will not be short.


The First World War is considered to be the first truly modern war. The technological products of humankind had improved so much since the last major conflict that no one really knew what would happen after it started. What happened was that on the very first day, thousands of men died walking straight into the astoundingly effective fire of machine guns. What happened was that 27,000 men died in a single day two weeks later, akin to having 9/11 happen every hour from 9 in the morning to 5 in the evening. What happened was that the greatest nations of the world spent the next four years draining each other of blood, taking 15 million human lives from the cradle of life.

The momentum of the early 20th century looks very similar to the momentum of the 21st century. Replace planes, trains and automobiles with smartphones and machine learning, and replace Einstein’s miracle year with the discovery of the Higgs Boson and gravity waves.

Somehow, despite all this optimism, despite the works of the Goddess of Everything Else, the momentum of progress was split into parts, the allied powers and the central powers, and those parts were slammed together, their economic prowess consuming each other, whittling down the modern world until so many once-great countries were on the edge of societal starvation.

The war ended, largely from mutual exhaustion, on November 11th, 1918, one hundred years ago. At the time it was called The Great War, or sometimes the War to End All Wars. We do not know it by that name today, because we did not learn our lessons in time.

The efforts of all people since have brought us back from the brink of those two world wars, and the Goddess of Everything Else has worked her ways once more. But her powers are devious and subtle, and we do not know how the story continues. The outside view is our most powerful tool for predicting the future, and yet trends are not laws. There is no particular reason to think that another total war will come, and there is no particular reason to think that the future is assured.

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