Beyond being only good ancestors

Beyond being only good ancestors

Markus Appenzeller

Recently a new book came out titled “The Good Ancestor”. Author: British Philosopher Roman Krznaric. In his book he makes a case for saving the planet. His suggestions: we need to behave in such a way, that our grand and grand-grandchildren think positive about us. He supports this with numerous examples of the effects that has – from a simple operation of adding a leading zero to our year numbers that puts time in a different context to a practice in Japan where in public consultations parts of a group are asked to advocate the interests of a future generation that lives in 50 years time. Both and many more examples are supposed to show us how to behave more responsibly and they are effective. But is it not only these practices that increasingly force us to do just that. Only in the last month, courts in Germany, the Netherlands and Australia have ordered governments and private enterprises to do more to reduce the effects of climate change. Just looking until the next election is not enough – long term thinking and long term action is needed.


I wonder why we need future generations to become better human beings. Why does our fear of them thinking badly about us drive us more than our own will to make life as good as possible for us and the planet? In times of tight-knit families and local communities with little exchange between each other, being a good ancestor might not only have provided the economical basis for the survival of your own tribe, it might also have had a big impact on the reputation of your family for generations to come. In our short-lived times both are not dominating motivation any more. Names can be changed if needed, local proximity is not a static factor and the richest people have made their fortune themselves. I think we don’t need to be good ancestors, we simply need to be good people in our lifetime – not for our descendants but for  our neighbours, friends, colleagues and all others we share this planet with.

The problem is sometimes – we don’t even know we are not good, or we sometimes forget that what we do is making us bad co-inhabitants of our spaceship. We need to change our habits and like any behavioural change, it takes time, and we need help with it. Reminders on products we buy not only about the sugar they contain, but also the impact on our planet could be a great tool. Why not labelling products according to their carbon footprint? If I have the choice between several of them who are comparable, I might choose the one with fewer consequences for the environment.

A similar thing could be developed for services or complex systems like cities and buildings. Often we assume our proposed solutions are sustainable because the result looks green, but there is no mechanism yet that allows us to fully understand it. We do roof gardens, green facades, vertical forests or timber construction but using them might not be the best option – green becomes greenwashing and whether the proposed is a good option or not becomes a question of belief and not knowledge. As architects and urbanists, we always have been great at rendering the former as the latter – with disastrous outcomes. Maybe it is too much to ask from our professions to make that distinction at all since they ultimately are about neither of them, but they are about operating in between these two states and in between many others.


Our strength is that we can imagine – we can create an image – of what a future consisting of all these aspects could look like, and we can write manuals how to turn them into physical reality. That is what we are good in. In turn, we should refrain from rendering these images and manuals as ‘the solution’ to a problem. Whenever we use this imperative we behave like a religion, or we claim to have found scientific basic laws. I wonder why we feel inclined to do that time and time again while we are good at something else – being imagicians.

by Markus Appenzeller

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