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ScienceJanuary 29, 2024

The summer of cathedral thinking


Ellen Rykers considers climate motivation, slow change and distant horizons.

This is an excerpt from our weekly environmental newsletter Future Proof, brought to you by AMP. Sign up here.

One of the great joys of the summer break is slowing down. Relentless short horizons stretch out; maybe we dream a little more about the year ahead. I always hope to carry this slower pace with me – but now I’m also wondering: What if our horizons stretched even more, and we dreamed even further ahead? That’s the premise of The Good Ancestor, one of my favourite reads from this summer recommended by a friend as a salve for doom and gloom.

The book, by philosopher Roman Krznaric, encourages us to look past quarterly reports, election terms and even individual lifetimes to think long-term – like, 1,000-years long term. What can we start creating now that will benefit future generations?

Sometimes this approach is called “cathedral thinking”: big, bold projects that take more than a lifetime to complete, but that have enduring impacts. It doesn’t come in a breakthrough moment or a sudden flash. It’s incremental and maybe we can’t see what the ceiling will look like just yet. But slow change can be radical change too. It’s an approach we need more of to tackle the climate crisis, some say – Greta Thunberg referenced cathedral thinking in a speech back in 2019.

Such intergenerational work is already in motion here in Aotearoa. Nadine Anne Hura writes beautifully about the Māori climate adaptation solutions she has encountered on recent travels: “Everywhere I went, from Ihumātao to Tairāwhiti to Whanganui, I found marae communities invested in work they aren’t likely to witness flourishing fully within their lifetime – let alone personally benefit from,” she says. “This work includes liberating and restoring wetlands, revitalising ancient food-gathering practices, replanting native forests, establishing anti-capitalist regenerative economies, reclaiming mātauranga, and so much more.”

It’s no surprise that in searching for ways to be a good ancestor, Krznaric turns to Indigenous philosophies, including te ao Māori’s concept of whakapapa which binds a person to ancestors, to future generations, and to the wider living world. This powerful genealogical web of life inspires care: “Kaitiakitanga is about intergenerational sustainability. You aim to be a good ancestor,” says Dan Hikuroa, an expert in weaving together science and mātauranga.

Protecting the future for the next generation is a universal climate motivator, a recent global survey found. In testing different climate messages with more than 60,000 people from 23 countries (not including New Zealand), one key message outperformed the others: “Across every country, love for the next generation was the dominant reason for action on climate change,” the report authors write. “This reason was 12 times more popular than creating jobs.”

“The big motivator is protecting what we love.”

Keep going!