Condivergence: Remembering Buckminster Fuller

This article first appeared in Forum, The Edge Malaysia Weekly, on July 27, 2020 - August 02, 2020.
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July 12 this year marks the 125th anniversary of the birth of R Buckminster Fuller (1895-1983), the American architect, system theorist, designer, inventor and futurist who was one of the most creative minds of the 20th century.

Malaysians will vaguely remember Bucky, as he was fondly called by his admirers, as the designer of the geodesic dome that is housed in the Komtar complex in Penang. The author of 30 books in his long career, he harked back to the great thinkers of Classical Greece, India and China, who thought in cosmic terms.

Bucky’s genius, restless creativity and original perspectives are evident — he started inventing things at the age of 12, learnt to be a mechanic, then became a meat-packer, Navy radio operator, naval boat captain and entrepreneur, before attaining the status of Greenwich Village intellectual.

After studying at Harvard and teaching architecture at Black Mountain College, he invented many new words, concepts and products, emerging as the polymath Renaissance man, with followers around the world.

In his book Operating Manual for Spaceship Earth (1969), he expressed with shattering insight that the reason the world is in a mess is because we are taught to think as specialists: “Our failures are a consequence of many factors, but possibly one of the most important is the fact that society operates on the theory that specialisation is the key to success, not realising that specialisation precludes comprehensive thinking. … All universities have been progressively organised for ever finer specialisation. Society assumes that specialisation is natural, inevitable, and desirable.”

In short, the world is today divided into silos of specialists, all of whom think that they are experts on different parts, without realising that the whole does not add up.

Bucky was able to weave together history, power politics, mathematics, climate change, energy and nature. His naval experience convinced him that maritime power was how Britain and America came to dominate the world, previously held under sway by continental, land-based powers.

Being an inventor and businessman, he saw how commercialised technology and energy (coal, oil) enabled British pirates (later formalised as the government-backed East India Company) to take colonies and eventually evolve into what US president Dwight David “Ike” Eisenhower called the military-industrial complex.

The British used science and developed gunboats to control one quarter of the world. The US robber barons did one better, making money through steel, railways and land grabs, eventually getting hold of government military technology in the First and Second World Wars to emerge as giant multinational corporations that came to dominate global business and finance.

The Americans overtook the British empire as the global hegemon due to the scale of their home market, industrial power and new commercialised technology. America invented aircraft and then dominated air, space and, today, cyberspace. One must remember that the internet and much of modern computer technology came from US defence technology that became commercialised. There is nothing more successful than when technology is both commercially profitable and militarily superior.

Bucky’s image of Spaceship Earth is a 20th century perspective that we all live in the same boat and we must take care of it as “an integrally-designed machine that must be comprehended and serviced as a whole”. He understood that there is no operating manual on how to maintain and service Spaceship Earth. Climate warming, pollution, resource depletion, natural disasters and the pandemics of the present day are all reminders that humanity is, at best, the steward of Mother Earth, not her master to exploit at will.

In Critical Path (1981), Bucky preceded 21st century Yuval Noah Harari’s Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind (2014) by taking a cosmic view of the pre-history of human life on earth. He traces the critical path of evolution of religion and thinking, including the greedy drive for power that appropriated natural wealth for the few. By seeing man and Mother Earth as a systemic whole, he foresaw the need for humans to fully understand the patterns of human activity on the planet. He created the World Game as an exercise to simulate the true planetary costs of everything.

Today, with artificial intelligence and big data, super-fast computers and models can predict, for example, the path of pandemic infection and mortality at the national and global levels. In Harari’s terms, with information and biotechnology, governments or businesses can today hack the human brain, creating what he calls “data colonisation”. You do not need to have empires of land or resources, just technology to mentally colonise everyone else.

Critical Path is Bucky’s vision of a path or process to save humanity from the existential dilemma of being either destroyed by nuclear war or suffering from planetary disaster. In thinking through this path, he was among the first techno-optimists that seek technology as the saviour of humanity, but only if we do this through education, realising the mistakes of energy- and resource-wasting behaviour, and moving away from artifacts to changes in mindset.

In his last book, Grunch of Giants (1983), Bucky pulled together all his complex and comprehensive thoughts into one cohesive narrative. In the stark alternative paths for humanity as either “atom-bombed into extinction or crowding ourselves off the planet”, his choice was “technologically reforming the environment instead of trying to politically reform the people”.

He was among the first to appreciate how politics was bought and controlled by a minority, noting that since a “US presidency costs US$50 million, a senatorship US$10 million, and a representative’s seat US$5 million, observe that the TV era governments are corrupt, wherefore they (the people) abhor and abstain from further voting”. Sounds familiar?

The word GRUNCH stands for Gross Universe Cash Heist — namely, the invisible global corporations and elites who run the world by controlling the politics, global financial credit system and mass production and distribution networks. These networks involve global supply chains, media, technology platforms and financial systems that have made the system too concentrated, unequal and greedy.

Nobel Laureate economist Joseph Stiglitz calls the present inequality as “of the 1%, by the 1%, for the 1%”. Bucky understood that “planetary economics has now shifted from a physical land-and-metals capitalism to a strictly metaphysical, omniplanetary, omnicosmic-wealth know-how capitalism”.

We must pay homage to Bucky because his foresight has helped us understand the planetary challenges we face in rising social inequality and our precarious fragility brought about by threats such as the pandemic. Whether we are able to get out of the greed of Grunch of Giants and move to the ideal critical path of humanity remains an existential question.

The Baby Boomer generation that followed Bucky saw the greatest creation of paper wealth but bequeathed to the next generations the greatest debt in living history. The young are now more literate than before, but also more specialist and therefore integratively ignorant of all that Bucky had warned. In confronting the enemy, we realise that it is us. We are the Grunch of Giants of our own making.

As Bucky remarked hopefully, “We are called to be architects of the future, not its victims”. In this age of pandemics and march to global conflict, we all have a role in steering Spaceship Earth into a trajectory of peace and harmony, not mutually assured destruction.

Tan Sri Andrew Sheng writes on global issues from an Asian perspective

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