There are not many people in their Eighties who travel to dozens of colleges every year to give three- to four—hour lectures to enthralled students about the future of the World. Quite possibly, until he passed away this month, Buckminster Fuller, age 87, was _the only such person.
Bucky Fuller, as everyone called him, was a Harvard undergraduate dropout who never returned to school. But as a thinker, builder, inventor and -communicator, he produced 25 books, held 26 patents and, without any degrees, was described as an architect, planner, mathematician, scientist, philosopher, poet, cartographer and engineer. The American Institute of Architects gave him its Gold Medal in 1970, in part for his pioneering invention of the Geodesic Dome.
As a full-time thinker and citizen activist, Fuller’s portfolio was nothing less than the Universe. His ability to hold the attention of young people, who were a fifth of his age, was riot due to charisma or to evangelical’ rhetoric. He spoke the language of a humanitarian technology that he believed would eliminate quickly poverty, disease and illiteracy everywhere if politics and militarism would only get out of the way. The choice, he would repeat, is between “livingry,” or “weaponry”.
A few years ago I shared a platform with Fuller at a lecture in Philadelphia. He was the last of the speakers to speak. Minutes melted into hours as he. wove world view after world view before his audience. His words were often his own—quite literally– when the dictionary could not provide the word he wanted, he created the terminology. What came across that evening was the idea of global capability if “Earthians” (Bucky’s word) would raise their sights beyond the pettiness of their daily routines, beyond the suicidal conflicts between nation states and beyond the view that people gain only at the expense of each other.
“Jointly the two political camps have spent $6.5 trillion in the last thirty-three years to buy the capability to kill all humanity in one hour,” wrote Fuller, adding that “Jointly, we Earthians have always had adequate physical resources to take care of all humanity but lacked the metaphysical know-how resources with which to employ effectively the Earth’s physical wealth.” Food, energy, housing, communications, transportation, education and health aplenty constituted his creed. He grew increasingly critical of the exploitation and usurpation of peoples’ assets by, the “invisibly integrated supranational corporate giants.”
Fuller described himself in his last book, Grunch of Giants (St. Martin’s Press, NY, 1983): “I have been a deliberate half-century-fused inciter of a cool-headed, natural- gestation-rate-paced revolution armed with physically demonstrable livingry levers with which altogether to elevate all humanity to realization of an inherently sustainable, satisfactory-to-all, ever higher standard of living.”
At first, a reader is entitled to exclaim: “whaaat!?” But after reading or listening to Fuller, his superficial incomprehensibility becomes genuine insight. His demand that you see things synergistically as an “integrated world-techno-economic system” or comprehensively (“omni” was a favorite word of his) runs counter to the rampant micro-specialization of careers and thoughts these days. Though Fuller was a specialist in many fields, he gave them greater meaning because he wove them together into his strategy of “livingry”. He defined this approach as “technologically reforming the environment instead of trying politically to reform the people.”
Fuller’s view of “politics” was uncharacteristically categorical and narrow. He called for “an alternative to politics and its ever more wasteful, warring, and inherently vain attempts to solve one-sidedly all humanity’s basic economic and social problems.” It was a rejectionist approach and that limited his impact.
For example, one of his greatest disappointments was an inability to gain acceptance for his lightweight house designed for mass prefabricated production. He ran headlong into vested building interests in existing building codes. His technical cause needed a countervailing politics that he would riot recognize. For him, good technology had its own imperative, exclusive of politics.
Nonetheless, with Fuller gone, the world that he traveled over so often is much the poorer for it. He once said that in his early Thirties he decided never to do anything for money or power. As a result, he observed, life was full of interesting surprises, and, one might add, the first of which was Bucky Fuller himself.