Buckminster Fuller’s work was diverse and prolific, but there was an approach and a set of principles as the common thread. His work as an inventor, theorist, designer, and philosopher was all predicated on the value of viewing things in their appropriate context, which was usually a much larger context like the planet, our species, and the universe.
When one decides what needs to be done, they choose what level is appropriate to look at to make that decision. For instance, a mother taking care of a household makes her decisions based on the level of the household and organizes her time with a view of the whole household. A mayor usually looks at a city and strategically prioritizes matters according to the needs of the city. Buckminster Fuller usually looked on the level of the entire planet when deciding what to focus on and how to analyze things. This was a very forward-thinking approach at the time, particularly because adversarial nation-centrism was (and probably still is) the predominant way of looking at the world and organizing our resources and the precious time of individuals. Nowadays, when most of us direct our lives we look at a very low level. We look to have as much comfort as possible, have a nice life, play by the rules, etc.
Additionally Buckminster Fuller argued that all people should, like, him think on the level of the entire planet when deciding what needs to be done. He said that, “Coping with the totality of spaceship earth is ahead for all of us”. He argued that the computer would take care of the specialized tasks that are currently drawing our focus away from the planetary level.
So how could Fuller take such a different approach that was virtually unthinkable at the time? It’s largely because he made the conscious decision to value his own reasoning about his life and the world. This is uncommon common sense. He returned to this theme throughout his life: “I am convinced that human continuance depends entirely upon: the intuitive wisdom of each and every individual . . . the individual’s integrity of speaking and acting only on the individual’s own within-self-intuited and reasoned initiative . . . the individual’s never joining action with others as motivated only by crowd-engendered-emotionalism, or a sense of the crowd’s power to overwhelm, or in fear of holding to the course indicated by one’s own intellectual convictions.” Remarkably, this approach isn’t new (you hear similar ideas in the work of the Stoics, enlightenment thinkers, American transcendentalists, and some ancient Chinese philosophers). Actually following this approach, however, is rare.
As a young man, while preparing to commit suicide, he famously decided that he would give his life to “an experiment, to find what a single individual [could] contribute to changing the world and benefiting all of humanity.” When asked why he’s the only one he knows who is in any way like him in this regard, he said, “I chose a very different grand strategy. It’s not because I have capabilities that others don’t have”. This is interesting. According to him, then, it’s not his superior abilities, it’s his very different starting point.
Fuller’s body of work is so vast that it is difficult to decide what to highlight. He described himself as “an emerging synthesis of artist, inventor, mechanic, objective economist and evolutionary strategist”. One of his most significant contributions was the idea of learning from the mechanisms and principles that the universe uses to solve challenges facing humanity and use them to design practical solutions.
Fuller’s work was somehow both the ultimate in practical while simultaneously the ultimate in idealistic. It turns out practical and idealistic can actually be complementary qualities when you think for yourself about what actually matters. For Buckminster Fuller, his life was about doing work that was practical and was informed by crystal clear beliefs about humans and nature, that were, to him, confirmed by principles of nature.
Significance for Today’s World
Buckminster Fuller’s legacy is buoyed by the current trend of sustainability, for which he was the foremost pioneer. But some of the basic principles that allowed him to approach life and inform his work are, in my view, among his greatest contributions. His simple, common sense, practical philosophy of life would transform the world for the better.
As alluded to above, one of the core principles of his approach was that he didn’t rely on other people’s ideas of what would make him useful. He decided for himself how to be useful and admonished other to do the same. He said, “The Things to do are: the things that need doing, that you see need to be done, and that no one else seems to see need to be done. Then you will conceive your own way of doing that which needs to be done — that no one else has told you to do or how to do it. This will bring out the real you that often gets buried inside a character that has acquired a superficial array of behaviors induced or imposed by others on the individual.”
Of course this isn’t a license to run off into left field, ignore the views of others, and live in a fantasy. Perhaps it’s more of license to think for yourself about what matters, have a belief system that is innate to you, and use it to contribute to the world.
This notion seems very much at odds with the way that most people look at things. We think of usefulness as something that the world predefines for you. For example, the New York Times uses phrases like “the Global Useless Class”. As another example, people seem to have adopted a notion that when robots take your specialized job from you, you will be “useless” and until then, you are “useful”. So it’s assumed that if you want to be useful, look to what we’re told is useful and do that. And now that society admits it doesn’t know how everyone can be “useful”, then there is an inevitable wave of “uselessness” on the horizon. Read some Buckminster Fuller selections and it will be crystal clear that Fuller would reject this notion very quickly. The individual, doing his or her own thinking should decide how he or she can be useful.
Now, there’s no question Buckminster Fuller was very interested in being not only useful but highly practical. So it would obviously be a mistake to write off his approach as “impractical”. This couldn’t be farther from the truth in the most obvious sense.
The average person today can learn a lot from Buckminster Fuller on how to determine one’s own direction and what to do with one’s scarce time on this planet. Buckminster Fuller decided what he was going to do with his life based on his own independent thinking. Today, however, many people are competing with one another to do the things they’re told are desirable and do not choose a path based on independent thinking. If they took a broader focus and thought about what needs to be done and what they want to do, they wouldn’t be competing with others to do the exact same thing. This would be totally irrational, suboptimal behavior, from this perspective.
If you take a look at all of the top universities around the world, you will notice something striking about the student body. These students at elite universities are extremely fortunate by any conventional standard. So what are they doing with this fortune? They are mostly competing with one another for literally cookie-cutter jobs. We hear about the student that drops out of college to build a startup. This is not the norm. Most are competing for 100% standardized jobs from large companies. Literally, many (and at some schools, the majority of kids) are looking to fill an undifferentiated role, that was probably created years before they entered university. Buckminster Fuller asked ‘What do I think is going on in the world, what do I think needs to be done, and what can I do?’ But these kids are more in line with the question, “how can I fit into a standardized role that I’m told is the best I can do and that hundreds of others want”. All of the nuances to their perspective, character, aptitude, etc. are pretty much squandered.
This is related to Fuller’s idea of “doing more with less” on the planet. If (our standard of) the brightest minds are going towards cookie-cutter positions, this is not doing more with less. This is doing less with more. Doing more with less, would necessarily be each individual considering for him or herself what needs to be done and doing it in the way that he or she thinks is best. Each individual would be putting their minds toward useful endeavours. Instead, they are converging toward the same, narrow tasks and positions. I’m not saying that the world doesn’t need McKinsey to hire undifferentiated business analysts from Harvard. But the world doesn’t need a sizable portion of the world’s smartest people converging towards standardized roles.
At the end of the day, Buckminster Fuller’s common sense philosophy of life was about how people think about the world. Individuals must do their own thinking, not think in a narrow and inappropriate ways, broaden their scope to the appropriate level, and live lives for the sake of humanity. We often think of American “rugged individualism” as being somehow selfish. But Fuller’s approach was both very individualistic and fundamentally oriented towards living his life for the sake of all of humanity. In fact, his approach suggests that individualism, in some sense, is a necessary precondition to actually maximizing one’s contribution to humanity.
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