Saving Spaceship Earth

Buckminster Fuller was a great admirer of Leonardo di Vinci, calling him “The outstanding example of the comprehensively anticipatory design scientist.” That’s also a good way of describing Bucky. He was a visionary, who saw things not only as they are, but the way they could be. He wrote Operating Manual for Spaceship Earth in 1969, and was one of the first to warn of our current climate crisis. Citing our over-reliance on fossil fuels, he described our current industrial path as “lethally ignorant and utterly irresponsible.”

At the end of my last post, I wrote about how Fuller challenged the whole modern concept of wealth. Such wealth, we wrote, was “a worthless pile of chips of an arbitrary game which we are playing, and does not correspond to the accounting process of our real universe’s evolutionary transaction.” In other words, our current conception of wealth is arbitrary, contrived and unnatural. Fuller saw constant competition between economies/nation states as a global problem that has to be solved, if Spaceship Earth is to remain sustainable. He called nation states “blood clots” in the global metabolism.

Although he saw us on a lethal trajectory, Fuller believed that mankind could re-design the way the world is run, and that the lives of our descendants depend on doing just that. He believed “(that)  humanity can afford to do anything it needs and wishes to do, and that it cannot afford to do anything else.” He believed that we’re in an era of over-specialization, and that we have to learn to think comprehensively. “All other living creatures are designed for highly specialized tasks. Man seems unique as the comprehensive comprehender and coordinator of local universe affairs.”

Observing that the Earth didn’t come with an operating manual, Fuller did his best to remedy that. Actually, Operating Manual for Spaceship Earth is more like a roadmap than a manual. Bucky first provides an explanation of how we got to where we are. He shows how the Great Pirates secretly ruled the world (from the Renaissance  until WWI) and shaped the modern world order. He then proceeds to show us how we  can “make the world for 100% of humanity,” if we have the will to do it.

A world divided into nation states just seems to be the natural order of things; it’s all we know. But Fuller tells us that it doesn’t have to be that way. Constant economic competition between nation states creates myriad local and national zero-sum games (i.e. in order for someone to win, someone has to lose), all over the world. This is the opposite of synergy. One of Fuller’s long-term goals for our spaceship was “complete world de-sovereignization.” We’re a long way from creating a world without borders and competing sovereign leaders. Will we ever get there? Fuller said that we must, if we want to preserve life on Spaceship Earth.

Even back in 1969, Fuller could see how the use of computers would transform our lives. He characterized the computer as “the evolutionary antibody to the extinction of humanity.” He was an optimist, and believed that computers had a tremendous potential to unite people. He wrote,”. . . we can make all of humanity successful through science’s world-engulfing industrial evolution. . .” Fuller observed that as societies become more industrialized, birth rates inevitably fall. He concluded that world-wide industrialization would result in a significant slowing of population growth.

A world made up of competing economies isn’t conducive to world economic synergy (i.e. doing more with less). “The synergistic effectiveness of a world-around integrated industrial process is inherently vastly greater than the confined synergistic effect of sovereignly operating separate systems.” As an example of synergy within a society, Fuller writes about the synergistic effect of the GI Bill, after WWII. There were too few jobs for the returning soldiers. Both as a reward for their service and as an economic stimulant. the GI Bill enabled thousands of servicemen and servicewomen to attend college. The consequent explosion of knowledge, as well as the increased availability of professional services, enriched our society economically and culturally. The ripple effect is still being felt.

Fuller concludes, “We can no longer wait to see whose biased political system should prevail over the world.” The task we should be about is “making humanity comprehensively and sustainably successful.” If we don’t come up with comprehensive, synergistic solutions to our most pressing contemporary problems, we face extinction as a species and, possibly, the death of the biosphere. We’re all astronauts on Spaceship Earth.

If you want to find out more about Bucky, the World Game, or the “comprehensive, anticipatory design science” approach to solving world problems, check out the Buckminster Fuller Institute’s website.

Buckminster Fuller

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.

What the hippies got right

I didn’t attend Woodstock – I was in ROTC summer camp at Fort Bragg – and never made a pilgrimage to Haight-Ashbury, but there was a time in my life when I considered myself a citizen of the Woodstock Nation. Recently, looking over my faded and dog-eared copy of one of the Whole Earth Catalog editions that came out in the sixties and early seventies, I reflected on what the hippies got right.

Each Whole Earth cover displayed that first iconic image of Earth seen from space and bore the subtitle “access  to tools.” The series was like a Sears & Roebuck catalog (ask your grandparents) of resources for alternative lifestyles, with all you needed to know about guides to living off the land, healthy lifestyles, sustainable energy, spiritual development, affordable shelter – including geodesic domes – and anything else you might need to drop out and start a farming commune. In retrospect I see the Whole Earth Catalog as the Bible of the hippie ethos. I had never heard about ecology or the benefits of meditation until I read the catalogs, and editor Stewart Brand became one of my primary culture heroes. Steve Jobs described the catalogs as a predecessor of the World Wide Web.

I came to hippiedom long after the funeral for the movement had been held in San Francisco, and five years after Woodstock. I’d been a Citadel cadet during the Summer of Love and an Army officer until 1974. But in grad school I grew my first beard, let my hair grow out to shoulder length, and rebelled (culturally, at least) against The Establishment for a few years. But once I had my degree and was starting my career I decided, like so many of the idealistic flower children of my generation, to drop the costume and the self-indulgences of the movement and “join the System to change it from within.”

Hippies were essentially a media invention to explain a very real generational rebellion. I expect  that when most people who never identified with the movement think about it, they think about long hair , tie dyed clothes, drugs and free love. But those were only the outer trappings. Some of the hippest folks I knew in the day dressed conventionally, and didn’t do drugs or sleep around. True hipness is a state of mind, not a conformity to unconventional dress and habits. Most hippies believed that marijuana should be legalized, long before the mainstream became tolerant of its use and recognized its medicinal benefits. Free love never went mainstream, but I think the hippies’ tolerance for sexualities other than heterosexuality was influential in the gradual mainstream acceptance of LGBTQ persons. And hippies were part of the core of early feminists.

When I look at certain positive trends in the 21st century, I see their origins in the hippie counterculture. The notion that we should question authority and conformity has proliferated in my lifetime. Unconventional hairstyles are no longer “freak flags” that brand the wearer a presumed pot-smoking anarchist; they’re simply preferences in style. The hippies challenged the idea that being “normal” (conventional) was a virtue. I think that the “Rainbow Tribe” view of mankind – tolerance for people who don’t necessarily look like you or act like the majority acts – has endured and spread within our culture.

The whole Green Movement, everything from organic farming, recycling and composting, to renewable energy got its initial momentum from the Whole Earth crowd. The hippies promoted the notion of the Earth as our mother – or alternately as Spaceship Earth, on whose life support system we all ultimately depend. “You are what you eat” was a hippie mantra. Hippies were ridiculed as granola eaters and “health food nuts,” but now we have public service campaigns about healthy diets, and detailed nutritional information is printed on the packaging of most processed foods, to help us make better choices. Granola, yogurt and tofu have gone mainstream, and vegetarians/vegans are no longer regarded as weirdos.

Hippie resources like the Whole Earth Catalog introduced many of my generation to yoga and other forms of meditation. What we called living in the here-and-now is now widely known as mindfulness. Such practices have been scientifically validated as activities that promote wellness, and have become mainstays of behavioral medicine. Now yoga and meditation have gone mainstream.

The hippie ethos was a rejection of the unquestioning conventionality of the post-war era and an embrace of new possibilities. Some of its seeds have taken root in the wider culture and flowered, helping to cultivate more tolerant, free-thinking, health-minded, and environmentally conscious Americans.