The year 1248 saw the beginning of the construction of the grand cathedral of Cologne in Germany, the ”Dom”. The 13th century original plans set the dimensions of today’s building, including the imposing façade with its twin bell towers that each rise over 150m high. In its day, the Dom was by (very) far the tallest building ever envisioned.

Master Gerhard von Rile, the original architect of the cathedral’s overall construction plan, and Archbishop Hochstaden who initiated the construction effort were both very aware that neither themselves nor many generations following them would get to see the Dom in its completed form.

The first phase of construction of the Dom continued into the early 16th century – with construction slowing down considerably from 1510 onwards and coming to a complete stop in 1560, with the cathedral half-finished, after 300 years of work. French troops took the city in 1794, church services were stopped, and the building was turned into a warehouse and horse stables two years later.

After Napoleon’s defeat, calls rose to restore and complete the unfinished cathedral. Between 1814 and 1816, the lost original 13th century plans for the façade were found – by chance. One half in the attic of a restaurant in Darmstadt, the other in an antiquarian book store in Paris. Construction resumed in 1823. The city of Cologne celebrated the end of construction activities in 1880, the remaining scaffolding was removed by 1883.

It took over 600 years for Master Gerhard’s plans to become realized; and since then, it is a significant ongoing effort to preserve the results of the work of generations of workers and craftsmen. The Dom has been restored from significant war damage, and there is ongoing restoration and replacement of façade it has been affected by acidic rain and air pollution. There’s no end in sight for the construction work that began in 1248.

The first phase of the cathedral’s construction was financed by the Archdiocese through tithes and the practice of selling certificates of indulgence; a practice central to reformer Martin Luther’s objections against the catholic church. Most of the second phase of the construction and the maintenance to this day are financed by the central cathedral building society (Zentral-Dombau-Verein), which is a privately organized non-profit fund that receives donations from churches, city, and state, as well as citizens and business interested in the preservation of this building. The Dom is central to the identity of the city and citizens of Cologne, and that completely irrespective of their religious leanings. For the people of Cologne, whether natives or immigrants, whether religious or not, the Dom’s twin towers say “I’m home”.

Very similar stories can be told about construction projects started in the Middle Ages, knowing they would take generations to complete. Grand cathedrals all over Europe took centuries to complete: Amiens, Milan, Florence, Pisa, Paris. The last of the grand European cathedrals that you can see under active construction is the Antonio Gaudi’s Sagrada Famila in Barcelona, begun in 1882 and projected to be completed in 2026.

All cathedrals are built to represent and celebrate the greatness of (the Christian, and mostly Roman-Catholic idea of) God. Most define the center of the city, in a spiritual and economic sense. If the city was not reigned by the church outright, palaces of the regents were in close proximity to the cathedrals. Central market places were often in their shadows. Convention and festivity venues for the high society were created nearby.

While the construction of Cathedrals spanned generations and happened in the greater context of economic activity, other grand endeavors of similar scale have been completed within a generation. The great pyramid of Giza took 20 years to build and will have involved a significant portion of ancient Egypt’s population, even though there’s no conclusive insight on the extent.

Many great historical mosques, temples, fortresses, and mausoleums have been built in the span of a decade or two. Most of those efforts were motivated by kings or emperors aiming to create monuments that would represent their own greatness past their own lifetimes, and they committed significant resources and armies of workers into these projects; generally, the most important and expensive efforts of their time and territory, far eclipsing any other economic activity in terms of scope and coordination.

Modern Times

In modern history, and since the beginning of the 20th century, the construction of grand buildings rarely required national-scale efforts lasting decades. The 381m Empire State building in New York was built in a mere two years from 1930, Dubai’s 828m Burj Khalifa in six years from 2004, and were private enterprise projects like most spectacular buildings of our time.

Modern national construction efforts from the 1930s U.S. Hoover Dam to the Eurotunnel between England and France, or the Øresund Bridge linking Denmark and Sweden are often utility efforts where the government provides significant investment aid that is eventually recovered through usage fees. Similar in its utilitarian nature, but considered an enduring investment into the sheer survival of the nation are the Dutch Delta Works aiming to protect the Netherlands, of which much lays below sea-level, from floods and rising sea levels caused by global climate change. Even the most grandiose national construction efforts that are not purely utilitarian, like the construction of an entirely new government quarter in the center of reunified Berlin, are projects that take just a few years’ time with cost easily accommodated in the yearly budgets, spread over several years.

The great projects of modern times, such projects that commit significant resources of a nation, are no longer about constructing buildings.

An example for national efforts where cost can be reasonably measured in a percentage of the GDP is the Apollo Moon Landing program, which committed 0.4% of the United States’ national GDP in terms of resources; it consumed of 2.2% of U.S. federal outlay at its peak. Inflation adjusted, the Apollo program cost roughly $150 Billion in today’s dollars. Lots of money for sure, but with the nation’s means for achieving the goal of getting the first man onto the moon and safely back home in a prestige race with a system adversary and with the benefit of broadly furthering science and technology development.

The greatest international technology collaboration effort so far, the International Space Station, cost over $150 Billion to construct and operate, and much more if we count the development of the contributing space launch systems. The core ISS program expenditures are similar to the Apollo program, but with those costs spread across the budgets of several member nations over a span of three decades.

Unfortunately, but not unexpectedly, the costs for Apollo Program and the ISS are handily met and exceeded by military programs. The Manhattan Project to create the first U.S. nuclear bomb (which also seeded the Soviet nuclear arms effort by ways of espionage) was nearly precisely as large as the Apollo program in terms of percentage of GDP. The 21 built Northrop Grumman B-2 stealth bombers cost approximately $60 Billion, inflation adjusted. The ongoing Lockheed Martin F-35 weapons systems program is currently projected to cost an unfathomable $1.5 Trillion (with a T) dollars over the 55-year project span.

And, yet, none of these projects come even close to the multi-generation commitments that were made, and ultimately fulfilled for the grand cathedrals. One might say “we have advanced so far that we could build any of these cathedrals in ten years now”. Even if that might be true, the counter-example of the “Sagrada Familia” in Barcelona notwithstanding, that objection would pull the goal posts in: Those projects were larger than generations of life at inception.

If we, in 2016, were committing to cathedral projects – what would those be? How big can we think? How would we finance them? Who, even if they had billions in hands, would commit to starting an effort that they could impossibly see through to completion in their own lifetime or even that of their children and grandchildren?

Is any private enterprise even capable of pursuing a long term investment strategy that goes beyond a ten-year horizon and the immediate aspirations of the current sitting board, and more importantly, beyond the goldfish-like attention span of financial analysts? Is any state?

Cathedral Earth

We may not have to look far to find great modern times cathedral projects.

Humanity has embarked, with ever increasing industrial intensity for the last 200 years, on a shared effort to lay waste to the planet. We’re polluting the atmosphere, we’re eradicating the rain forests, we extinguish entire wild life species. We’re poisoning our fields and our water. As a species that depends on this one unique spaceship to sustain us, we’re astonishingly and shortsightedly stupid – and that’s before any of the cruelties that people inflict on one another.

Yes, we are looking for other habitable planets and potentially other civilizations elsewhere in the universe, but there is no “Plan B” for us. We’re not going to pack up and leave and settle elsewhere. We’re biologically depend on the specific ecosystem that this planet gives us.

The solution for our ecological troubles cannot and will not be to just mandate that we stop doing certain things without a viable alternative. People who deny the reality of climate change are doing so with an agenda – either they have some fossil fuel to sell, or they’re economically dependent on someone having fossil fuels to sell. Climate scientists aren’t aiming to destroy the job of coal miners; they are reporting on the effects of burning that coal. Yet, saying “stop burning that coal/oil/gas” will not work unless there is a real alternative to doing so, and those alternatives must function on a global scale.

Rapid growth of industrial activity requires large amounts of energy and the growth of that energy supply must keep pace. Turning the burning of fossil fuels into electricity is a proven and relatively cheap way of doing so; the great capital investments into mining and exploration happen elsewhere and are recovered through sale of the product, coal or gas or oil.

The energy potential captured in most fossil fuels is immense; a liter of oil still holds vastly more energy than the best high-tech battery of the same weight and volume. Fossil fuels are quite easy to move anywhere you want them to utilize that captured energy; the energy “throughput capacity” of a coal train is absurdly higher than the high voltage, long-distance power-lines that may run along the tracks.

Nuclear energy production, of the uranium fission type, is an awful alternative to burning fossil fuels, in spite of the number if reactors being on an upswing. Nuclear energy production is an inherently dangerous endeavor as Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, and Fukushima have demonstrated starkly, and those are just the tip of the iceberg of very many real or near accidents. With just some 450 operating reactors world-wide, having two radioactive wastelands around Chernobyl/Prypyat and the Fukushima Daiichi plant is not a stellar record. And we’re producing immediately dangerous radioactive waste that will remain dangerous for triple and more the time span that is all of humanity’s recorded history to date.

We have a climate crisis and we have an energy crisis and both are greatly intertwined.

The energy crisis exists and is getting worse as the world’s population and therefore the global economy grows. Rapid growth areas demand lots of energy and they generally can’t afford great upfront investments. It’s also getting worse because more of what we do and use is dependent on some form of power supply.

At the same time, a great part of the world’s population is poor. Entire countries are poor. The entire continent of Africa is absurdly far behind the rest of the world in terms of economic development. In almost two dozen African countries, the life expectancy at birth is not even 60 years, an appalling 20+ years less than the most developed countries. That is an awful imbalance and it’s a structural problem. The climate warming trend will make poor regions with unfavorable conditions even worse to live in – or even outright uninhabitable. An ironic twist is obviously that the GDP of some of these regions is to an extreme degree dependent on fossil fuel production.

Poverty is not a foundation for sustainable human activity of any kind. When survival is the imperative, anything goes. Poverty prevents education. Lack of education prevents progress and favors authoritarian regimes. Authoritarian regimes concentrate power and wealth.


Nation states appear to be great examples for multi-generational projects. The United States was founded on a core set of principles, manifesting in Declaration of Independence and Constitution, that prioritize the freedom and equality of individuals. The Soviet Union was founded on a core set of principles that prioritized the common good of the working classes, led by committees that decide what that is. Post-war West-Germany, whose constitution remains that of unified Germany, was founded on a very strong core of human-rights principles and institutional mechanics aimed at preventing a repeat of the rise of dictatorship and the war’s atrocities.

Some nation projects succeed, some fail. Most fail. Nation states fail in revolutions, collapses, and wars – caused by opposition to or lack of sustainability of the founding principles. Succeeding nation states carefully evolve the boundaries of their foundational framing with broad societal consensus. Most nation states are very young constructs and haven’t proven multi-generational longevity. If you go by when nations shed their last subordination by some foreign power, the “young” United States is amongst the ten oldest nation states in the world.

The United Nations, the European Union, and organizations like OSCE, NATO, or the Warsaw Pact are examples for multi-generational projects that span nation states. They are founded with goals and principles and those principles either evolve with broad consensus or the organization shrinks or disbands altogether.

Neither nation states nor the transnational organizations have done much effective to lean against and reverse humanity’s rapidly increasing assault on Earth’s scarce resources and the environment. Nation states are in competition (and conflict) and transnational organizations are constructs of compromise, lack sovereignty and are often toothless due to lack of funding. Even the great United Nations.

Slowing atmospheric pollution down is success, stalling it is a sensation, reversal is utopia. NATO has at least prevented a global nuclear war by upholding a credible threat of global nuclear war. Or the Warsaw Pact did, depending on perspective. Somehow that’s good. I think.

But let’s ignore all that.

How Big Can You Think?

I call this blog post “Part 1”, because I believe there are many more parts to write. I’m not sure I can write them. But maybe you can. They may be utopias. How big can we think?

What is an idea as audacious and visionary as planning a building in 1248 that would not be surpassed in height by any other man-made structure at the time of its completion over 600 years later, in 1880? What’s a worthy project for modern times?

There are theoretical scientific conversations about “terraforming” nearby planets such as Mars, and turning them into habitable environments. Much closer to home, there is thinking about geoengineering to fix our climate, with some thought being given to, for instance, irrigating the Sahara Desert and the Australian outback and turning them into lush forests to counterbalance our appetite for fossil fuels.

There are thoughts about using the moon as an industrial base and moving “dirty” industries there. We could construct a ring structure around earth, in orbit, as an energy collector to tap into that existing nuclear fusion reactor out there we don’t have to invent and that emits more energy than we could probably ever use.

What is the potential of the very nearest undiscovered world, the seas? Can we protect the oceans and yet make intelligent use of these two thirds of the planet’s surface?

And even more urgently: What can be done to turn Africa into an economically thriving continent that can feed its people in safety and peace while preserving it’s unique wealth of life? How do we stop the circle of violence on the Middle East by eliminating its causes and not its effects?

Can these problems even be solved with intent and resources? Is any such idea compatible with capitalism and private enterprise?

I have no answers. What I know is that we’ve trained ourselves to think in terms of financial quarters and “minimum viable products”. We worship fresh starts, and short-lived flares of “disruption”. In technology, we’ve built a culture that celebrates miniscule incremental progress steps as grand achievements. Meanwhile, there’s no solid plan for how we’re even going to travel across an ocean and take any significant payload along for that ride without burning fossil fuels, except with a sail boat. Forget flying.

What’s your cathedral? What is an idea that can inspire two or more generations to follow to pursue the same vision How big can you think? What is a project which neither you, nor anyone alive today will see through in your own lifetime? Can any of us think that big?


(Thank you to Sarah, Alasdair, and Pieter for your thoughts and input, and to Jeff, Miles, Dean and others for the inspiration)