Aspiring vision: Cathedral thinking in the modern world

2nd October 2020

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Nick King asks if cathedral thinking still exists in the modern world

Interest in 'cathedral thinking' has surged recently, yet it remains an obscure concept for many. What is it, do modern societies demonstrate it, and why could it be particularly significant at this moment?

The Macmillan dictionary defines cathedral thinking as 'long-term projects or goals realised for the sake of or for benefit of future generations'. More specifically, it is the collective mindset of certain groups in the past that led them to plan and initiate large-scale projects which would take a very long time to complete. Most contributors toiled knowing that they would never see the fruits of their labours. The projects used labour, resources and capabilities that were needed for their own time, but the benefits would mainly go to future generations.

Cathedral thinking was therefore both a mindset and a set of actions that considered the future not as vague and abstract, but as something that mattered as much as contemporary wants and needs. It manifested as conscious efforts to pass 'gifts' down the river of time. The naming and invocation of the concept is of course linked to the religiously-driven cathedral builders of medieval Europe, but they are not the only groups that brought the future into their efforts – the Iroquois of North America historically practiced a 'Great Law' that accounted for the consequences of their collective decisions down seven generations hence.

Discounting the future

How does the modern era stack up against these historical examples? One example of a government policy that is akin to cathedral thinking is the Welsh parliament's recent appointment of a 'future generations commissioner'. This is the first instance of a government enshrining the rights of future citizens in law (through the 'Well-being of Future Generations Act (Wales) 2015').

However, the mindset of most 21st-century societies contrasts starkly with historical cathedral thinking. The globalised, consumption-driven neoliberal capitalism that dominates the global economic system requires, and is defined by, a very different view of its place on the continuum of time. The relentless pursuit of economic growth, which is central to this system, explicitly discounts the future by placing an imperative on the consumption of non-renewable resources and use of debt at ever-growing rates, in order to satisfy the needs and wants of the present and very near-term.

“Cathedral thinking considers the future not as vague and abstract, but as something that matters as much as contemporary wants and needs“

There is a growing body of evidence to show that this economic system and mindset is perturbing our planetary systems, and building up a multi-faceted set of slow-burning 'wicked problems'. Climate change, ecological destruction, resource depletion and unmanageable complexity are only the most visible. It is clear that our political and cultural structure does not account for the needs of future generations, and certainly does not look to leave 'gifts' for the future. Rather, it seems an efficient mechanism to bequeath a poisoned, degraded and poorer world to our descendants.

If some localised cathedral thinking-inspired laws does not effectively buck this bleak picture, are there any major examples of attitudes and initiatives explicitly demonstrating that cathedral thinking does exist? There is one set of large-scale projects under way in a number of countries, conceived to tackle one particular environmental challenge, that could robustly be described as being a product of cathedral thinking. These projects, which operate well outside the experience of most people, are the international efforts to implement the geological disposal of nuclear waste.

Avoiding a toxic legacy

Nuclear technology has been used for approximately 75 years, and has resulted in the creation of a complex legacy of radioactive/toxic waste products, stored in a wide variety of locations and facilities. Management of waste, considered little in the early days of nuclear technology, has come to the fore as a primary concern and represents a truly unique challenge. The most dangerous forms of radioactive waste will remain hazardous for more than 100,000 years (for comparison, the agricultural revolution started approximately 12,000 years ago), and the economic and technically feasible solution that has emerged in multiple countries is 'geological disposal' – isolation in dedicated mined facilities within stable rock masses 500 or more metres underground. These facilities will be carefully designed to use a combination of engineered barriers around the waste and the mass of overlying rock to minimise long-term risks to the biosphere without the need for active monitoring and control.

The nature of these projects makes them unique and significant for several reasons. First, the concept is explicitly built around the consideration of extended timeframes and the protection of future generations. Second, the countries undertaking these huge civil engineering projects have devoted, and will continue to devote, considerable resources to what will inevitably be a multi-generational effort (likely well in excess of a century) to plan, build, operate and close them. Although they are less a gift to the future and more of an exercise in responsibility and damage limitation, these projects are almost certainly the closest thing we have to modern cathedral thinking, and are all the more significant because of their contrast with the doggedly short-termist global society in which they are nested.

The way forward

What is the broader significance of this example of modern cathedral thinking? On one hand, geological disposal is a response to a fairly well-defined and discrete problem that is also visible and understandably egregious, so perhaps lends itself to the application of cathedral thinking. On the other hand, this example of perspective and adaptive thinking clearly shows that it is possible for inspiration and political energy to emerge and vigorously tackle 'wicked problems'. We must call upon this second perspective if we are to invoke renewed cathedral thinking to tackle the broader threats that we face.

Global society has procrastinated over how to address environmental challenges for decades, and we now stand at a crossroads. Poor choices arising from inertia and business-as-usual threaten to set in motion systemic effects that could echo for centuries or longer – yet there are degrees of freedom we still have available to tackle this unfolding situation. The main missing elements are collective political will, understanding among populations, and a means to escape the 'tramlines' of current mindsets.

Geological disposal may be the key example and precedent for modern cathedral thinking, and could be an inspiration for concerted and determined efforts to demote our short-term wants and instead think about what we should be passing on to those inhabiting the future. Such thinking would require the hard work, sacrifice and sobriety of the ancient cathedral builders, but could result in us passing on the ultimate cathedral: a habitable planet and the chance for a long-term future for our civilisation.

Nick King, MIEMA CEnv, is a visiting research fellow at the Global Sustainability Institute at Anglia Ruskin University, with interests in nuclear energy and sustainability.

Picture credit: Getty Images


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