The photos and videos of yesterday’s fire at Notre-Dame were difficult to watch but hard to avoid. For a while, when it seemed like the structure would be a complete loss, I couldn’t help but contemplate the same sense of the impermanence and futility of human existence that I felt when I visited the ruins of ancient civilizations in Egypt. What hubris the Egyptians must have had to think that they could build something–structural and societal–that would last forever.
In the 800-some years since the Notre-Dame was conceived, governments, cultures, art, and values have shifted and evolved. In western society, the church (Catholic or otherwise) holds a tiny fraction of its former authority. Grand civic works of 50- to 100-year duration are seldom, if ever, undertaken. We debate the incontrovertible evidence of the threat posed by climate change as if it were fashion or politics, while committing only symbolic levels of resources to action. We, as humans, are capable of more than ever before. But what will be our generation’s Notre-Dame? What are we building that will be treasured and celebrated 800 years from now?