Orders of Magnitude

This piece is a speech that I gave for the 2020 SF Bay area secular solstice. Solstice was online this year, and a partial recording can be found here. This speech begins at 46:56. It transitions into the moment of darkness, the traditional “midpoint” of solstice where the stage is dark and you are left with your own thoughts for a brief period of time.

Every year, we gather and think about many different themes that are important to us. Many of these themes are about the very good, and the very bad.

We think about humanity’s past. We sing Bitter Wind Blown and reflect on what it would be like to have to light our own fires for warmth. We try to imagine what it would feel like not to know why it gets cold, or why we get sick, or whether there is anything we can do about it.

We think about the present. We share stories of humanity’s astonishing technological accomplishments and feats of cooperation over the last five thousand years.

And sometimes, we think about the present from another perspective. Beside our achievements we see stretching from the past into the present an unbroken thread of suffering, woven thick with the experiences of countless souls.

So at the same time, we must contend with the fact that we are standing on a rising pedestal, flung exponentially higher by our ancestors, and that also, all around us, unacceptable atrocities continue.

How are we to make sense of this? When confronted with the desire to understand everything, and the compulsion to ensure the prosperity of the far future; how are we to stretch our minds across both the enormous losses and enormous gains?

This is a challenge that is with us in normal times. This last year has brought a further complication to the picture. With pervasive fear of sickness, stuttering economies, and our institutions struggling to keep their heads above the water, it no longer feels like we are at the apex of human history.

To better understand these extremes, we need to deploy the tools of rationality.

In the third century before the common era, a man named Archimedes wrote an essay called The Sand Reckoner. The ancient Greeks, you see, had a term for a large quantity; a “sand hundred”. The idea was that, although one could see with the naked eye that sand consisted of discrete grains, enumerating all the grains in a sand dune, let alone an entire desert, was beyond possibility; beyond human abilities. But the mind of Archimedes soared above such imagined limitations. He invented a means of manipulating large numbers, which today we would call exponents, and with these he calculated upper bounds on the number of sand grains in the whole of the earth, and indeed, the sand-grain volume of the entire universe, as they believed it to be at the time. In this exercise, Archimedes had reckoned the sand. And in bringing the immensity of the sand inside himself, he also unleashed the mind of humanity onto the universe.

One virtue of rationality is precision. And sometimes, precision is less about knowing decimal places, and more about knowing what order of magnitude you’re on. Another virtue of rationality is scholarship. And the way that I know how to reckon with today’s immensities is to do research, and find statistics that tell me something about what order of magnitude we’re on. 

For example, the Spanish flu of 1918 killed somewhere between 20 and 100 million people. For comparison, malaria kills about half a million people per year, and COVID has killed 1.7 million people. 

In the second quarter of this year, the US GDP had the largest decline on record, and then the third quarter had the largest increase on record, although the net of those was negative. 

It took the world about a year to develop and begin distributing a vaccine. The previous fastest vaccine development was four years, in 1967.

These facts can be objects of meditation. They can be devices in your practice to understand the world around you, to orient your mind, and to choose future actions. Despite the clarity of specific numbers, it can take a long time to really understand what they mean. A lot of exposure is necessary to take these numbers inside yourself. My recommendation is to think about it lightly often, and deeply on occasion.

To think about it lightly often, perhaps form some associations that will let you be incidentally reminded of the good and the bad. For example, every time I see a plane in the sky, I just can’t help but stop for a second, follow its path through the sky with my eyes, and imagine all the people on board. It is truly a miracle that for a modest sum, each of those people can be safely hurled across the surface of this great earth, and in the meantime admire the tops of clouds.

In contrast, whenever I walk down the street and see a padlock, it reminds me that we have failed to solve basic coordination problems between people. While there still exist wars and police, or even fences and padlocks, we have not finished our work.

This is a careful balancing game; you don’t want to be so often optimistic that you lose your sense of urgency in building the future, and you don’t want to be so despondent that you lose your will to try. Minds vary in their makeup, so experiment at your own discretion.

For me, these associations are a light reminder, almost a subconscious one, which give me the opportunity to choose how deeply I want to reflect. The more you traverse the orders of magnitude, the more familiar they become, and the more you will be oriented to the exponential reality.

And tonight is a time to consider it more deeply. So for now, I will leave you with one more statistic on which to reflect in silence for the next minute. The global death rate is about 107 people every minute, or just under two people each second. This year, COVID has added about three deaths for each of those minutes.

[A pendulum clock begins ticking in the background. I blow out the candle and fade to darkness.]