R. Buckminster Fuller was surely one of the most original thinkers of the twentieth century. He was an architect, author, designer, systems theorist and futurist, best known for popularizing the geodesic dome and coining the term Spaceship Earth. He obtained over 28 U.S. patents and published more than 30 books. Some of his writing is nearly incomprehensible in its density of thought, but his best writing is brilliant. Acknowledging his unconventionality, he sometimes referred to himself as Guinea Pig B – an intellectual rebel who thought outside the box and encouraged others to do the same. Along with many others, I consider him a genius, who thought and wrote comprehensively about how mankind could unite and innovate, to prevent “man’s spin-dive toward oblivion.”
Fuller’s geodesic dome had intrinsic design flaws that kept them from being widely-used as permanent structures, but captured the world’s attention, as did “Bucky’s” conception of our planet as a self-sustaining “spaceship” on which we all depend for survival. He wrote about the comprehensive propensities of whole systems and synergetics within systems. He also wrote about ephemeralization – doing more with less, or as he put it, “maximum gain. . .from minimal energy input.” He envisioned a world with practical, inexpensive housing and transportation for all.
Bucky was big on neologisms, among them “dymaxion,” which was cobbled together from dynamic/maximum/tension. He used it as a descriptor for a number of his inventions, which included a dymaxion car, a dymaxion house, and a dymaxion toilet. He also designed a dymaxion map of the globe, which eliminated the distortions of the commonly-used Mercator projection. He envisioned a single, world-wide electrical power grid. He also came up with the World Game (really a learning tool), in which players attempt to solve world problems by cooperating and thinking comprehensively.
Of himself, he wrote “I am not a thing – a noun. I seem to be a verb, an evolutionary process – an integral function of the universe.” Fuller was self-employed for most of his life, but amassing wealth was never a goal. He made money from some of his patents and from lecturing, all over the world; but few of his inventions made it past the design or prototype phase. His dymaxion car, house and toilet never went into mass production. It was his ideas that made him an influential designer, systems theorist, and writer.
Of the several books by Fuller that I’ve read, my favorite is Operating Manual for Spaceship Earth, which is just over 100 pages in length. Although short, it’s very dense with ideas. It’s a briefly-comprehensive analysis of how capitalism and communism came to be the dominant economic systems on the planet, and what need to be done to keep life on Spaceship Earth sustainable.
Fuller contends that we’re clinging to outdated notions, in trying to solve contemporary problems. “Society operates on the theory that specialization is the key to success, not realizing that specialization precludes comprehensive thinking.” Universities, he points out, have been organized around specialization. But then he gives examples of how over-specialization, in tribes and in animal species, leads to extinction. He argues that we need to think comprehensively, in terms of whole systems, if we are to keep life on Spaceship Earth sustainable. We are all astronauts, he writes, who rely on Earth’s life support system; but we have been “mis-using, abusing and polluting this extraordinary chemical energy-interchanging system for successfully regenerating all life aboard our planetary spaceship.”
Our current world political/economic system, Fuller writes, is the legacy of men he calls the Great Pirates. “The Great Pirates came into mortal battle with one another, to see who was going to control the vast sea routes and eventually the world.” The Great Pirates were fabulously wealthy men who developed a comprehensive view of the disparity of wealth around the world, and used their knowledge to further enrich themselves. “Knowledge of the world and its resources was enjoyed exclusively by the Great Pirates, as were the arts of navigation, shipbuilding and handling, and of grand logistical strategies.”
The Great Pirates propped-up monarchs to advance their agendas. (For instance, the British East India Company was chartered by the Crown to trade, to plunder, and to build the British Empire.) They recruited the best and brightest as specialists, to keep them informed and in power. Universities were endowed, to turn out specialists to serve the Great Pirates. They developed a model of wealth – and competition for wealth – that persists to this day, in both capitalistic and communistic societies.
Fuller challenges the whole modern concept of wealth as something to be accrued by the rich at the expense of the poor, and re-imagines it as a commonwealth on which our planetary survival depends. He indicts both capitalism and communism as outdated models for the distribution of wealth, defining wealth as what benefits all of mankind and preserves our spaceship for future generations. Bucky’s life goal was to set the wheels in motion to “make the world for 100% of humanity.”
More about Bucky in my next post.