Mistakes Were Made

(This was originally a speech given a the 2015 NYC Solstice)

I have a confession to make.

When I first put together this event 5 years ago, I wanted two things. I wanted a holiday that celebrated human achievement. And I wanted a holiday, founded on the pursuit of truth – even when that truth is uncomfortable, or inconvenient.

And what happened is, the Solstice, I think it ended up implying a narrative that isn’t fully accurate. The idea that you had hunter-gatherers, scratching in the dirt, shivering in the cold. And then agriculture happened, and that was an unambiguous force for good that lifted us out of the darkness and into the future and the shape of that trajectory was like this [swoosh!].

And that’s a lot better than the fall-from-grace narrative, where once we were noble savages and then civilization happened and everything went to hell. It’s not wrong. But it’s misleading in some ways.

Agriculture meant that each person produced more food per capita. And that let us have entire professions that had nothing to do with food – professional toolmakers, artisans. Professional thinkers. Leaders, who figured out how to coordinate people.


And this led to empires, to incredible monuments, to incredible scientific discoveries. But the march of progress has almost always been fundamentally intertwined with militaristic expansion. And that’s not something we need to feel bad about but it is something we need to understand, if we want the future to unfold in particular ways.

Agriculture is even more complicated than that, though. On the grand scale, it meant more lives, more technological and scientific marvels. But for the average individual, average quality of life actually went down. The extra food people created was usually taken as taxes. People ended up working longer hours, not fewer, in agricultural societies – that’s true even to the present day.

People had more food, but instead of a wide variety of nuts and berries and meats, we ate a select few monocrops. There were more people living to childbearing age but they were more malnourished. Stunted growth. Lower life expectancy.

We lived, packed densely together, often in the same room as our livestock. And that was breeding ground for disease that just didn’t exist in hunter gathering tribes. Farmers were less healthy.

All of this went hand in hand with the march of what we call progress. And again I don’t think it’s helpful to call any of this good, or bad. But I think it’s important to understand.

And what embarrasses me is not that I didn’t know all this 5 years ago. If you’re not making mistakes, you’re not trying very hard. If you always wait for perfect knowledge you’ll never act. The reason I’m disappointed in myself here, is that I’ve known about this for two years. And I didn’t do anything about it.

Because it would be inconvenient, and awkward. We had all these great songs about agriculture and progress figuring out how to tell a more nuanced story was a challenge. And I still haven’t really solved it.

Apparently, in a culture that cares deeply about the pursuit of truth, the lag time on noticing a mistake, and changing traditions, is about 2 years. And that’s… disconcerting.

But it’s worth noting, that even if 2 years is disappointing, it’s a lot better than 200, or 2000. Progress is complicated but it is real. I’m proud to be a part of a human era and a specific subculture where admitting a mistake is rewarded, instead of punished. That is not how it’s always been. And it is frankly incredible that I’m surrounded by people who encourage each other to get at noticing mistakes, and changing course.

And that brings us to this song. [cue slide for “God Wrote the Rocks / Time Wrote the Rocks”]

This song has always been a bit controversial. A lot of people didn’t like using the word God metaphorically. What especially worried me though, is that this song is about the conflict between science and religion. And there are real, important conflicts there. But if this holiday is going to succeed – if, in a 100 years, it’s going to feel important and not just a relic of the past, then our brand of rationality cannot just be about pointing out other groups of people’s mistakes.

It’s important to be able to do that sometimes, but for this holiday to thrive, it needs to be about taking ownership of your own beliefs, scrutinizing them, always learning. Always willing to update or abandon something beautiful if we’ve realized it doesn’t quite fit with a changing world.