In England there are cathedrals that took generations to build. My local cathedral was begun in 1083 (commissioned by Abbot Simeon, who was already 90 years old) and finished by about 1180.

Can you imagine starting to build something in the sure knowledge that neither you, nor even your friends or immediate family, would ever see it finished?

These people lived in times of uncertainty — plagues, wars, shifting alliances, religious reform. Their average life expectancy was half ours, but their vision was vast. Abbot Simeon and people like him built, thought and dreamed vicariously — building visions for the benefit of others.

Today, we live longer, but have lost our connection with the future. Everything about us feeds the immediate. Airplanes take us somewhere even while our minds and body clocks are still somewhere else. We move house, even across a continent, with barely a thought, leaving friends and neighborhoods behind. Jobs are temporary; even marriage doesn’t seem to last. Nothing sticks. No vision. I wonder how our attitudes would have struck the stonemasons or the bishops of earlier times?

Our biggest challenge with climate change may be just this: We have forgotten the concept of legacy. We can’t think beyond a presidential election. Even the most visionary amongst us rarely look beyond our children’s graduation.

It might be 20 or 30 years before climate change has an irreversible stranglehold on the planet. For our insane ping-pong lifestyles, that’s way too long to seriously worry about. Right now we read the footnote but don’t compute: “We need to act NOW in order to avoid a calamity in 20-30 years.”

Yeah right — act now for something that far away?

Well listen, I’ll think about it, but right now I’ve got a plane to catch, and when I get back I’ve got a report to write, and I need to spend some time at the gym and it’s my kids end-of-term show …

Many faiths and traditions talk of stewardship of life on Earth; or of borrowing from future generations; of reincarnation. Any and all of these concepts place our brief transitory lifespans in a grander framework, in which “me” is replaced by “we” and even entire generations are only a small part of something much, much bigger. Think in this way, and even the doubts and concerns take a different tint — will the cathedral ever be finished? Is climate change really a threat?

Don’t let those doubts paralyze action. Future generations may smile at our failings, but they will rejoice in our successes — and in all cases will marvel at our strivings.

—Text by Mark Spalding, Cool Green Science Blog, part of The Nature Conservancy.
Why we should think ahead ... way ahead
We need to make a commitment to a future we may never live to see if we ever want to end climate change.