“Cathedral thinking”

Policy op-ed by Claire Roumet

I have spent part of the summer teleworking in Bourges, central France. And Bourges has the most beautiful cathedral in the world. Yes, I know, we always take pride in the place we come from, but in this case, it truly is a wonder. Of course, it took a few decades to build, but not so many (maybe fewer than a French EPR). And it has been towering above the city for almost 800 years.

Maybe this is why Roman Krznaric’s proposal about “cathedral thinking” in his latest book appealed so much to me.

Every year in September, after getting away and a change of air, we go back to work with renewed energy and new ideas. But this year is different and this proposal to think differently sounds like a necessity. For the philosopher, it means defining what being a good ancestor involves and what legacy we want to leave. “Cathedral thinking” involves being more specific in our forecasting, turning our back on grand crystal-ball foresight exercises and concentrating on what we want.

For the European institutions, this autumn meant engaging in a fierce debate on the revision of the 2030 climate objective to increase GHG emission reduction targets to 65% (as demanded by some parliamentary groups) or to 55%. The 16th of september, the President of the EU Commission announced in her first State of the Union address, the increase GHG emission reduction targets to 55% . But will this battle of figures make us good ancestors? Is this “cathedral thinking”?

I do not question the need to raise our ambitions collectively. I would like it to be the obvious thing to do as it is just a cautious reflection of the IPCC’s recommendations and yes, aligning our legal frameworks is important. But I cannot help thinking we should move on to another conversation.

And in this regard, the publication of the first Strategic Foresight Report of the European Commission comes as a pleasant surprise. It is one of the novelties of the 2019-2024 body of commissioners, having a Vice-President, here Maros Sefcovic, in charge of foresight. The report suggests a new compass for EU policies: resilience.

The European recovery plan had also made resilience its centrepiece, but without defining it. This report does. Resilience[i] refers to “the ability not only to withstand and cope with challenges but also to undergo transitions in a sustainable, fair and democratic manner“. Resilience must be embedded in all policies as an objective. The Commission proposes a dashboard based on national vulnerability indicators, which seeks to identify systemic interactions between the various transitions (for example between green and digital transitions).

This report does not answer the “where are going?” question… But it provides a grid to assess whether EU policies are compatible with the resilience objective.

As Vice-President Sefcovic noted: “We cannot expect the future to become less disruptive.[…]Trying to guess what lies ahead[…] is of limited value. […]….To map possible paths to a preferred future, and to better steer our action as a result, this is what strategic foresight is about[ii].

All we have to do is draw up a preferred future. And answer the question “What does it take to be good ancestors?”[iii].

Lots to think about on returning to work!

[i] Resilience is the ability not only to withstand and cope with challenges but also to undergo transitions in a sustainable, fair, and democratic manner. Resilience is necessary in all policy areas to undergo the green and digital transitions, while maintaining the EU’s core purpose and integrity in a dynamic and at times turbulent environment. A more resilient Europe will recover faster, emerge stronger from current and future crises, and better implement the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals.‘extract from the strategic foresight report 2020https://ec.europa.eu/info/sites/info/files/strategic_foresight_report_2020_1.pdf

[ii]  “We cannot expect the future to become less disruptive. New trends and shocks – like the coronavirus pandemic – will inevitably emerge and affect our lives. Trying to guess what lies ahead, especially in today’s world of rapid, complex changes, is therefore of limited value. Crystal balls do not work in real life….to map possible paths to a preferred future, and to better steer our action as a result. This is what strategic foresight is about: anticipating, exploring, acting” https://www.euractiv.com/section/future-eu/opinion/raising-our-game-through-strategic-foresight/

[iii] The good ancestors conversations should answer the following questions (Deep-time humility > what have been your most profound experiences of deep-time, and how did they affect you?; Intergenerational justice > what, for you are the most powerful reasons for caring about future generations?; Legacy Minset > What legacy do you want to leave for your family, your community and for the living world ? Transcendent Goal > What do you think should be the ultimate goal of the human species? Holistic forecasting> do you anticipate a future of civisational breakdown, radical transformation or a different pathway? Cathedral Thinking > what long-term projects could you pursue with others that extend beyond your own lifetime? )‘extract from ‘The Good Ancestor’ Roman Krznaric, published by WH Allen, 2020



Claire Roumet

Publication date

September 15, 2020