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Operating Manual for Spaceship Earth by Richard Buckminster Fuller (1969) (read in 2019)

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Disclaimer: these are notes I took while reading this book. They include citations I found interesting or enlightening or particularly well-written. In some cases, I’ve pointed out which of these applies to which citation; in others, I have not. Any benefit you gain from reading these notes is purely incidental to the purpose they serve of reminding me what I once read. Please see Wikipedia for a summary if I’ve failed to provide one sufficient for your purposes. If my notes serve to trigger an interest in this book, then I’m happy for you.

This is an essay by one of the 20th century’s preëminent thinkers about the state of the planet in 1969. Things weren’t any better or worse or even significantly different then than they are now, 50 years later.

“Because yesterday’s negatives are moved out of sight from their familiar locations many persons are willing to pretend to themselves that the problems have been solved.”

Yup. That still sounds a lot like us.

“I feel that one of the reasons why we are struggling inadequately today is that we reckon our costs on too shortsighted a basis and are later overwhelmed with the unexpected costs brought about by our shortsightedness.”

Oh yeah, he’s got our number. Jesus, haven’t we changed one bit over 50 years? Didn’t we kind of have to improve in order to accomplish all that we did? Shouldn’t we get started on that? You know, in order to get this climate crisis under control?

Fuller was also not very hopeful, though he was more hopeful than our subsequent behavior warranted: he actually thought we’d have conquered nationalism by now.

Fuller hypothesizes that a main part of the problem is that, regardless of ideology, all of the “political leadership […a]ll the great ideological groups assumed Armageddon.” With such a fatalistic starting point, what’s the point of planning for a long future? Just get yours, Jack, and screw everybody else. Fuller dismisses this idiocy as utterly beside the point—as the only worthwhile point would be survival as a species. He puts it quite lucidly.

“It is really a worthless pile of chips of an arbitrary game which we are playing and does not correspond to the accounting processes of our real universe’s evolutionary transactions.”

You hear that billionaires? You’re not going to Mars. You’re sitting on a worthless pile of chips that won’t help you at all when the revolution comes or the crisis intensifies—or both. You’ll be the first against the wall (no you won’t, not as long as you control media, you won’t).

Were people of Fuller’s caliber and level of education aware of climate change? It’s kind of unclear. On one level, he’s hyper-aware that industrialization is ruining the “spaceship”,

“[…] up to now we have been misusing, abusing, and polluting this extraordinary chemical energy-interchanging system for successfully regenerating all life aboard our planetary spaceship.”

As for global warming, he worries about mankind’s depletion rate of fossil fuels, at most. He worries about “pollution” but not specifically greenhouse gases, even though the idea was first proposed with supporting evidence in 1938 (Wikipedia) and I would have expected him to be aware of the concept.

“We cannot afford to expend our fossil fuels faster than we are “recharging our battery,” which means precisely the rate at which the fossil fuels are being continually deposited within Earth’s spherical crust.””

But on the other hand, he still idolizes the process of industrialization for having lifted so many people out of abject poverty and misery.

“The labor movement made possible mass purchasing; ergo, mass production; ergo, low prices on vastly improved products and services, which have altogether established entirely new and higher standards of humanity’s living.”

Remember, though, that he was writing in 1969, arguably the high point of a global economic golden age when mankind was largely unaware of the scope of the folly of its mode of operation. It was only in the late 70s and early 80s that hyper-financialization took over to centralize operations and began to reverse the gains of the mid-20th century.

Fuller’s writing style is not exactly representative of his intelligence. It’s full of bizarre and exceedingly complex constructions, has a unique approach to hyphenation (using too many even for me) and he leaves off many articles. It came as a surprise as he was raised and educated in the United States, had graduated from Harvard and was a member of many prestigious scientific societies.

Citations

“First, I’d like to explore a few thoughts about the vital data confronting us right nowsuch as the fact that more than half of humanity as yet exists in miserable poverty, prematurely doomed, unless we alter our comprehensive physical circumstances. It is certainly no solution to evict the poor, replacing their squalid housing with much more expensive buildings which the original tenants can’t afford to reoccupy. Our society adopts many such superficial palliatives. Because yesterday’s negatives are moved out of sight from their familiar locations many persons are willing to pretend to themselves that the problems have been solved.”
Position 28-32
“I feel that one of the reasons why we are struggling inadequately today is that we reckon our costs on too shortsighted a basis and are later overwhelmed with the unexpected costs brought about by our shortsightedness.”
Position 32-33
“This “sovereign–meaning top-weapons enforced‹”national” claim upon humans born in various lands leads to ever more severely specialized servitude and highly personalized identity classification. As a consequence of the slavish “categoryitis” the scientifically illogical, and as we shall see, often meaningless questions “Where do you live?” “What are you?” “What religion?” “What race?” ’“What nationality?” are all thought of today as logical questions. By the twentyfirst century it either will have become evident to humanity that these questions are absurd and anti-evolutionary or men will no longer be living on Earth.”
Position 94-98

Not quite yet.

“Because of the working concept that there was not enough to go around, the most aggressive political leaders exercised their political leadership by heading their countries into war to overcome the rest of the world, thus to dispose of the unsupportable excess population through decimation and starvation-the age-old, lethal formula of ignorant men. Thus we had all our world society specializing, whether under fascism, communism, or capitalism. All the great ideological groups assumed Armageddon.”
Position 268-271
“Our little Spaceship Earth is right now travelling at sixty thousand miles an hour around the around the sun and is also spinning axially, which, at the latitude of Washington, D. C., adds approximately one thousand miles per hour to our motion. Each minute we both spin at one hundred miles and zip in orbit at one thousand miles. That is a whole lot of spin and zip.”
Position 310-312
“You and I can go out and take a sunbath, but are unable to take in enough energy through our skins to keep alive. So part of the invention of the Spaceship Earth and its biological life-sustaining is that the vegetation on the land and the algae in the sea, employing photosynthesis, are designed to impound the life-regenerating energy for us to adequate amount.”
Position 322-324
“It is therefore paradoxical but strategically explicable, as we shall see, that up to now we have been misusing, abusing, and polluting this extraordinary chemical energy-interchanging system for successfully regenerating all life aboard our planetary spaceship.”
Position 331-332
“Thus under lethal emergencies vast new magnitudes of wealth come mysteriously into effective operation. We don’t seem to be able to afford to do peacefully the logical things we say we ought to be doing to forestall warring-by producing enough to satisfy all the world needs. Under pressure we always find that we can afford to wage the wars brought about by the vital struggle of “have-nots” to share or take over the bounty of the “haves.””
Position 538-541
“It is really a worthless pile of chips of an arbitrary game which we are playing and does not correspond to the accounting processes of our real universe’s evolutionary transactions.”
Position 580-582
“Now we can account wealth more precisely as the number of forward days for a specific number of people we are physically prepared to sustain at a physically stated time and space liberating level of metabolic and metaphysical regeneration.”
Position 595-597
“It is also worth remembering that the validity of what our reputedly rich man in the shipwreck had in those real estate equities went back only to the validity “in the eyes of God” of the original muscle, cunning, and weapons-established-sovereign-claimed lands and their subsequent legal re-deedings as “legal” properties protected by the moral-or-no, weaponsenforced laws of the sovereign nations and their subsequent abstraction into limited-liabilitycorporation equities printed on paper stocks and bonds.”
Position 586-589
“What man has done is to decentralize his functions into a world-around-energy-networked complex of tools which altogether constitute what we refer to as world industrialization.”
Position 828-829

Fuller’s writing style is odd. Hyper-hyphenation and a lot of missing articles.

“As we study industrialization, we see that we cannot have mass production unless we have mass consumption. This was effected evolutionarily by the great social struggles of labor to increase wages and spread the benefits and prevent the reduction of the numbers of workers employed. The labor movement made possible mass purchasing; ergo, mass production; ergo, low prices on vastly improved products and services, which have altogether established entirely new and higher standards of humanity’s living.”
Position 850-853
“Man can and may metaphysically comprehend, anticipate, shunt, and meteringly introduce the evolutionarily organized environment events in the magnitudes and frequencies that best synchronize with the patterns of his successful and metaphysical metabolic regeneration while ever increasing the degrees of humanity’s space and time freedoms from yesterday’s ignorance sustaining survival procedure chores and their personal time capital wasting.”
Position 887-890

This is another bizarre sentence, almost stream-of-consciousness, with missing hyphens and aggressive and inappropriate use of adverbs.

“Only by understanding this scheme may we continue for all time ahead to enjoy and explore universe as we progressively harness evermore of the celestially generated tidal and storm generated wind, water, and electrical power concentrations. We cannot afford to expend our fossil fuels faster than we are “recharging our battery,” which means precisely the rate at which the fossil fuels are being continually deposited within Earth’s spherical crust.”
Position 903-906