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.