As of last year, more than 37,000 articles had been published about Richard Buckminster Fuller and his work. The first of these appeared in 1917; half were written in the past twenty years. Fuller, now 87, is a one-man global institution: the genial grandfather of American inventiveness, the man who geodesically squared the circle, the best-known American thinker alive. The universal adoption of his dome designs has made him the most prolific architect in human history. He has been awarded 39 honorary doctorates, a gold medal from the National Institute of Arts and Letters, one from the British monarch, and at least five other gold medals, two grand prizes from the Milan Triennale exhibition, and five awards from the American Institute of Architects — although he was expelled from college, earned no degrees and is not licensed to practice architecture. Fifty years after his Harvard class graduated without him, Phi Beta Kappa awarded him its key. He always wears it.
Dr. Bucky Fuller’s discipline is global thinking. His spherical “systems geometry” called Synergistics, the theory behind the geodesic dome, developed in part from thinking about the great circle routes followed by long-distance aircraft. He has traveled around the Earth 47 times. An early invention was the Dymaxion Sky-Ocean Map, a distortion-free projection of the continents onto triangular panels, joined at the North Pole, together forming a single, sprawling island. Fold the triangles’ edges together, and you have a geodesic Earth, designed by Fuller.
Of course, a map is just a picture. The core of global thinking is the World Game, Fuller’s antidote to Pentagon war-gaming. “World game means how to make the world work,” he told me at breakfast last September, in the first of four scheduled interviews that day. “What are the total resources, what is the total knowledge in how to use Spaceship Earth — the total knowledge to make the total resources take care of everybody. That’s all I’ve ever done. World Game all the way.” Fuller’s discipline is to deal only with the whole planet and to support the advantage of all humanity. The World Game has no teams.
Buckminster Fuller, first man to land on the Whole Earth. A latter-day Adam, he has a passion for naming things, and his invented words point to the world-scope of his other inventions: “geodesic,” “whole systems,” “Spaceship Earth,” “syntropy,” “Geoscope,” “synergy.” World scope describes Fuller, too. Patents in 81 countries mark that Bucky Was Here. It gratified me to discover that he has worked at Black Mountain College and at the State University in Raleigh, North Carolina, where I am from.
Synergy is defined as “the behavior of whole systems unpredicted by the behavior or integral characteristics of any parts of the system when the parts are considered only separately.” The whole is more than the sum of its parts. This is Fuller’s Law of Surprises. Like other of his principles, it applies to himself.
I expected to talk with Fuller about his inventions and projects: domes, World Game, geometry. I was surprised by his outspoken remarks on stock market manipulation, condominium conversion, and the demise of national states. I did not expect radical politics and revolution. But these days the sum of parts in Buckminster Fuller equals a forceful, urgent concern for current events.
Fuller sees humanity moving ever deeper into an unprecedented crisis, created by dangerous misapplication of technology and greed of transnational corporations. He sees action as imperative responsibility. The evening before our breakfast, he told an audience of psychologists and social workers that if, knowing anything about the dangers of radiation, they do not do everything in their power to stop the nuclear energy industry, then they are gutless. He yelled it. He disrespects secretiveness, and he isn’t shy. Much of what surprised me in the conversation that follows had already been said by Dr. Fuller in testimony before the Foreign Relations Committee of the U.S. Senate.
With Fuller’s permission, I have excerpted passages from his current book, Critical Path, as expansion and illustration of some interview topics. Much of Critical Path deals with the future, and much with the present. I chose descriptions of the past because of some of the insights they contain, and because of their evident likeness to present, if not future, crises. The sum of this book much more than what is considered only separately here.
Buckminster Fuller tells us that he has traveled over 3 ½ million miles, and consumed 1,025 tons of food, water, and air. At 87 he is a slow walker and hard of hearing, but he thinks — and talks — at top speed through two speaking engagements and many, perhaps similar, interviews per week, and now, through his twenty-fourth book . He is impatient. For years he has been able to speak without bother of “nature’s gestation rate,” which has required scores of years before his inventions were put to use. Now, he wants to see the borning.
— Lightning Brown
SUN: It seems to me this country is getting stingier all the time.
FULLER: What you are sensing is that the world economy is in a very serious situation. Many less-developed countries are unable to repay their debts, and the leading banks will not agree to put up more funds, because the world banking system is in great peril. Mexico is very deeply in debt, the Philippines are deeply in debt, and unless the very top level of the world’s bankers can find some way to help them carry on, then the whole game of money is on the way out. All the people who monopolize money are very scared, very scared. Of course, when you don’t know whether you’re going to have money you get very cautious with your pennies. They know that their system is in trouble and they may not have any money, so they’re holding on. That’s what you’re feeling.
This enormous stock market boom last week — the great insurance companies, and the trust funds and all the banks can come together, and go in and boom the market. Note that when it got to the top, they bought gold. Gold usually goes in the opposite direction from the stock market. But it went up, too. The bankers were getting rid of their shares. They’re scared to hell. The big money is scared to hell.
SUN: It surprises me that you predict scarcity. Do you no longer believe in technology’s ability to provide prosperity for everyone around the world?
FULLER: There is no scarcity. Forty-one million people are dying of starvation each day around the world and there is plenty of food for all of them. We lack a marketing system. All we have is this game of money, how to acquire things. And that’s the problem. It isn’t working.
I have made a great differentiation between wealth and money. Money is not wealth. Wealth is the technological ability to protect, nurture, and support the needs of life. Money is only a means of exchanging items of real wealth. Those who make money with money deliberately keep it scarce. There is ample wealth right now, but people have been too involved in the game of making money with money. There is such incredible avarice. They have loaned their money out all over the place at enormous usury terms, and they’re not collecting. Now they need even more money to play their game. They are completely disconnecting money from wealth. The system is destroying itself. Nature will not go along with that which is not true.
SUN: Dr. Fuller, are you a revolutionary?
FULLER: Very much so. But not political.
SUN: Yet you envision a world economy which would do away with national states. Aren’t those political changes?
FULLER: I don’t talk about revolution accomplishing those changes. Evolution is bringing these changes about. Evolution will not tarry. The money system doesn’t mean to make changes. Evolution finds that the money system is inadequate and does not express wealth. Evolution is going through with a world market. It’s cutting off the nations, and so the money of the nations will go right along with them.
I tend to environment and artifacts, things like computers and electric lights. These are the things which change us, very specific things. For example, if I increase the strength of an alloy, I can do the same amount of work with less weight. I am a mechanic. I am talking about getting higher performance out of each erg of energy, each pound of material, each second of time invested.
SUN: The strength of a metal is invisible. Invisible changes in our environment are important to you, aren’t they?
FULLER: The whole history of technological advance is one of doing more with less, of starting with elephants and ending up doing work with mosquitoes. It is the greatest source of power when you know how to do something that no one else does. Real capital is know-how.
I say that capitalism has given up altogether on land and property. They’re dumping them, forcing the public to buy condominiums, forcing you to buy things so that they can unload them. They won’t rent anymore. They want to get completely rid of physical property. They’re interested in know-how now. Know-how is the key.
SUN: Ownership of ideas. Do you mean trade secrets, patents?
FULLER: Patents are a powerful way of controlling know-how, but the know-how itself is what they care about. They monopolize know-how by taking on all the educated people, all the scientists and technologists.
But the word ownership has no meaning whatsoever. You can’t own information. There’s nothing you can own. You can seize the land if you want to, and say, “Is there anybody says this isn’t mine?” That doesn’t mean that it belongs to you. There’s no deed from God to anything. One of the things that’s going to come out in the laundry in the next decade is that there’s no such thing as ownership. There are custodianships, natural custodianships such as the father or mother of their child. But no ownership.
There is no scarcity. Forty-one million people are dying of starvation each day around the world and there is plenty of food for all of them. We lack a marketing system. All we have is this game of money. . . .
SUN: All this control of ideas depends on a high degree of secrecy. What kind of democracy can we have when secrecy is the basis of wealth?
FULLER: People don’t know what is going on. How can they make any decisions? The capitalists want to control who is going to do what using which materials. So much is invisible, monopolized and kept secret that society doesn’t have any decisions to make.
SUN: Then what is the function of politics?
FULLER: Politics is policy. What policy should you follow in view of the idea that there isn’t enough to go around — the power of the few, or the needs of the many? Political economy is based on misassumptions at the time of Thomas Malthus, when the British Empire was formed after the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805, when the British gained dominance of all the world’s lines of supply. At that time, the data showed that humanity was increasing its numbers at a geometrical rate and increasing its life support at only an arithmetical rate, so that the majority of humans would have to go through life in great want and pain, because there was not enough to go around. That’s the basis of all politics: it has to be you or me, there’s not enough for both of us. Survival of the fittest.
But we can do so much now, with so little, that we can take care of everybody. That’s why the idea of scarcity is all wrong. Up to now, the world of politics doesn’t know that. That’s why all nations are dependent on armaments, why we have the arms race. People can’t see the invisible doing more with less. The politicians still say that it’s you or me, and that’s why they go for the gun.
SUN: Do you see this changing now, or soon?
FULLER: The young world is giving up any interest in their political system. They have decided that it is absolutely corrupt. The young world finds that it costs $50 million to buy the presidency, $20 million to buy a senatorship, $2 million to become a representative. It’s obviously corrupt. When a president like Reagan can go in and force his program through the Congress, it is because he can threaten its members with a comeuppance, threaten to get back at them in the elections. It’s absolutely corrupt. So the young world has no faith whatsoever in the political system. They don’t want to vote. They consider it contaminating to vote.
SUN: This sounds very pessimistic to me.
FULLER: I think it is absolutely touch-and-go whether we are going to make it. It depends on our integrity; it depends on your integrity. Is the human being a good invention? Does nature find us fulfilling our function? If the individual is not strong enough to really dare to go wrong based on their own observations, then we’re all doomed. It depends on integrity and correct information on relationships and interrelationships, or we may not stay here.
The word ownership has no meaning whatsoever. You can’t own information. There’s nothing you can own. You can seize the land if you want to. . . . That doesn’t mean it belongs to you. There’s no deed from God to anything.
SUN: If people are more dedicated to institutions than to the truth then we won’t survive.
FULLER: Then they’re not human beings. Human beings are born with the capability of making their own judgements.
SUN: Nevertheless, there is not a nation on Earth which does not engage in economic and technological planning. Do you imagine that we can rescue ourselves through planning, or will we build out of the rubble of collapse?
FULLER: There are two kinds of evolution. There is nature’s evolution, and there is what human beings think they’re doing. That almost always turns out to be wrong, but it plays into the hands of nature, and what nature is trying to do.
We have a system which cannot be vacated without the risk of getting into trouble in a big way. That’s what is going on now.
SUN: Integrity and judgement can hardly exist without information, though, can they? What will free correct information from the monopoly system you have been describing?
FULLER: There is so much stupid information, misinformation around. You can’t really get anywhere until you get out from under all that. Science has kept itself so pure, so specialized and so complicated in the ways it does its calculating that approximately nobody going in at a basic level can gain any sense of the whole.
Science tells the young world that mathematics is something very difficult. In the front of my engineering notebook I have a New Yorker cartoon from about 1950. Two kids are whispering in the schoolroom while the teacher is at the blackboard. She is writing 1+ 1 = 2. One says , “Here come Calculus. Just what I was dreading.” Science makes things difficult to hide its secrets, to keep the pikers out. Ninety-nine percent of humanity cannot understand the mathematical language of science. This is the prime reason for humanity’s failure to exercise its option to attain universal physical success on this planet.
Nature’s coordinate system is called Synergetics — systematic geometry. Synergetics explodes secrets. It will let any child do nuclear physics. You can’t hide it. I am finding out more about the nucleus of the atom through Synergetics than physicists are, and I’m not spending millions and millions smashing atoms to find it out.
SUN: Assuming that wide public understanding of science will overcome secrecy, how will you carry out this sort of re-education?
FULLER: More and more, Synergetics is embodied in mathematics courses for schools. Senior physicists have balked until right now. They’re not yielding. Young mathematicians are yielding very rapidly. I find myself being invited to give the annual discourse to the American Mathematical Society and to teachers societies.
Macmillan Publishing handles my two-volume book, Synergetics. They say that the sales go up and up, more and more. More people are using Synergetics. And the publishers say that the amazing thing is that there has not been one word printed by anyone anywhere finding any fault with Synergetics. If I were wrong, they’d make me back down. But the physicists don’t acknowledge it, and they won’t accept the fact that they can’t find anything wrong. I’m right and they’re wrong. Physicists and scientists are wrong! Boy!
SUN: Any community of intellectuals has an investment in its certain brand of knowledge, and it holds on to it to make sure that its marketability is maintained. Will the physicists change?
FULLER: Max Planck says, “The opposition never yields; they just die off.” It’s just a question of time. They are dying off. Luckily, I’ve been at this for fifty-five years. If I had started yesterday, I’d be in trouble.
I think it is absolutely touch-and-go whether we are going to make it. It depends on our integrity; it depends on your integrity.
SUN: I could blame mis-education for it, but I don’t find it easy to think in terms of tetrahedrons, great-circle arcs, and spheres. My world is filled with squares. I live in a rectangular room in a rectangular building on a rectangular street. Our environment pushes cubical geometry on us all the time. Look at the room we’re in now.
FULLER: Completely arbitrary.
SUN: Of course it’s arbitrary. But, living in the midst of a cubical world, it’s hard to be mindful of the geometry of nature.
FULLER: There is no such thing as a square. There is no such thing as a square, not anywhere on the Earth. Nature doesn’t have any. You don’t have a cubical head on you, cubical nuts. There is nowhere a whole cube. You really have to read the books. Critical Path has the definitions. They are very clear. But it can hardly be read in a week. It takes some study. Critical Path is a way to dig yourself out from all that misinformation.
SUN: What are you writing now?
FULLER: There’s a book coming called Grunch. It should be out before Christmas. I found that there was no word for a collection of giants, so I gave it the name Grunch. The giants are the supra-national corporations. The book is about how evolution must cope with them.
SUN: What role do multi-national corporations play in the evolutionary process which is replacing national states?
FULLER: They are not multi-national, but supra-national — above nations. They don’t need any passports. They can go in and out of countries without permission from anyone. They manipulate nations, and make them do whatever they want. They found out that if they changed their figures on the account-books in another country, then they didn’t need to go through Customs. In this way, they have stolen all the wealth of the United States. They are using American factories, but they’re not situated here, and they have stolen all the wealth of Americans.