Monday, November 10, 2014

R. Buckminster Fuller. Operating Manual for Spaceship Earth (1970)

     R. Buckminster Fuller. Operating Manual for Spaceship Earth (1970) Fuller has a deserved reputation for inventing the geodesic dome, except for the fact that it’s devilishly difficult to make it leak proof. Reason: the differential expansion and contraction of the geodesic frame and the covering. It works best with membranes, and worst with sheet wood and sheet metal. I enjoyed the airy and open feel of the USA’s geodesic dome at Expo 67. I have no idea how it performed in the Montreal winters, though.
     Fuller in his day had a reputation as a visionary, and in one sense he was: he understood that the Earth is a system, and that making it habitable over the long haul, that is millennia, requires system thinking, which at the time he wrote the book was still an arcane ill-understood subject. This book was received as his Best Word on the subject, but rereading it forty-some years later it is depressing. Fuller loves portmanteau words, no doubt intended to express his vision of the allatonceness of the system he is trying to describe. But his vision is surprisingly narrow. He has no inkling of the complexity of biological systems. I mean, he can’t be faulted for not knowing what we now know, that the interconnections in an ecosystem are generally counterintuitive and surprising. But back then there was a lot of ecological knowledge out there already, yet Fuller blithely assumes that engineering will solve the problems. The metaphor of Earth as a spaceship indicates both the breadth of his vision and the narrowness of the knowledge base on which he builds it.
     Fuller does have the ability to pose serious questions. He notices that the economic system is not built to maximise wealth, but to maximise money, which is not at all the same thing. his solution is an economic system that will deprive the Great Pirates of their power. And that solution shows the problem with his solutions generally: he states them in terms of desired outcomes with hardly any indication of how to achieve them. Thus he gives us a vision of a prosperous peaceful Earth that will sustain humankind for ever, more or less, without much in the way of processes or methods to achieve it.
     Fuller helped spread the word on systems and how necessary it is to think about them. If for no other reason, this book is worth reading. But it gets tedious pretty quickly. I stopped halfway through. That’s all you need to get the thesis: that unless we create an economic system that respects Earth as a system, we will destroy it. **

No comments: