The people who started construction of Santa Maria Cathedral in the 13th century knew they would not live to see the gothic cathedral finished.
The original architects, workers and patrons built the church in Northern Spain as a prayer, hoping to ensure their place in heaven. They also wanted to create something beautiful that would leave a legacy for future generations.
Seven centuries later, the cathedral is showing its age. Gothic arches have started leaning as subterranean dampness has compromised the foundation. The town of Vitoria-Gasteiz in Spain wants to preserve this important piece of their heritage for generations far into the future. To do so they have been working hard to stabilize the foundation.
Walking through this church I wondered if the United States is thinking about the well-being of generations seven centuries from now. My first thought was that we are doing the opposite of this. In many ways we are actually leaving a legacy that will be a curse for future generations: radioactive nuclear waste, greenhouse gas emissions in the atmosphere that are changing the global climate, and depleted top soil around the world.
At the same time, there are many people working to build a sustainable future for the benefit of the future. The number of renewable energy systems being installed continues to grow. We are building more zero net energy buildings. In some places topsoil is being regenerated. Creating resilient systems that allow society to bounce back when there are natural disasters and other shocks could be our legacy that benefits future generations.
Our society needs to think beyond satisfying our own needs and think about the investments we need to make in building a sustainable future. Our gift to future generations could be renewable energy systems, zero net energy buildings, efficient transportation systems, regenerative agriculture and a circular economy. We just need to spend more time thinking like the 13th century cathedral builders.