During the 1960s Buckminster Fuller began promoting an educational workshop he called the ‘World Game.’ Participants were pooled and tasked with making “the world work, for 100% of humanity, in the shortest possible time, through spontaneous cooperation, without ecological offense or the disadvantage of anyone.” Although Bucky initially proposed the World Game idea as a core component of Southern Illinois University’s curriculum, he also had tremendous success offering the workshop to high school students. The World Game derives from Bucky’s idea of ‘comprehensive anticipatory design science’, which he proposed as a method of resolving many of humanity’s greatest challenges – poverty, despotism, education, access to health care and energy independence, to name but a few. However, within a few years Bucky identified energy independence as the essential link in the chain of socio-political tyranny:
When Buckminster Fuller was asked by a 12 year old boy, “How would you suggest solving international problems without violence?” he answered: I always try to solve problems by some artifact, some tool or invention that makes what people are doing obsolete, so that it makes this particular kind of problem no longer relevant. My answer would be to develop a world energy grid, an electric grid where everybody is on the same grid.
All of a sudden there would be no problems any more, no international troubles. Our new economic basis wouldn’t be gold or dollars; it would be kilowatt hours. – Richard Brenneman, Fuller’s Earth
“This now feasible, intercontinental network would integrate America, Asia and Europe, and integrate the night-and-day, spherically shadow-and-light zones of Planet Earth. And this would occasion the 24-hour use of the now only fifty per cent of the time used world-around standby generator capacity, whose fifty per cent unused capacities heretofore were mandatorily required only for peakload servicing of local non-interconnected energy users. Such intercontinental network integration would overnight double the already-installed and in-use, electric power generating capacity of our Planet.” – Buckminster Fuller’s telegram to Senator Edmund Muskie, Earth, Inc.
• For more on Bucky’s global energy grid concept, see GENI
Unfortunately for us, Bucky’s genius was largely underutilized during his lifetime and most of his ideas for resolving humanity’s seemingly intractable problems have been forgotten, corrupted or trivialized. Here in Vancouver we have one of Bucky’s enduring legacies – a geodesic sphere – as well as two geodesic domes in the downtown core. How many millions of people pass by these architectural marvels every year without knowing anything about Bucky? How many realize the mathematic elegance underlying geodesic structural integrity? Or, even when he is remembered – as in the case with Bucky Balls – it’s a shallow, decontextualized acknowledgement. Bucky might would’ve been giddy over the discovery of spherical carbon molecules, but I think this enthusiasm would’ve been overwhelmed by his disgust with the pervasiveness of our economic inequalities. This might even apply to his attitudes towards O.S. Earth, a corporate venture which conducts modern versions of Bucky’s World Game for businesses and schools. Rather than making the concept open source, they’ve packaged it into a commodity and control its dispensation – all in the name of profit. And, given that access to energy is even more conflicted today than in Bucky’s day, I have to think he would see this corporate subversion of his ideas as an abomination. He wanted to create artifacts that liberated, and he *never* prioritized his own profit. If he had, he would have been interested in very different endeavours.
Considering Bucky’s interest in energy independence, if he were around today I think he would be an incisive critic of the petrol economy, peak oil doomsayers, and techno-economic political posturing. Admittedly, petroleum lies at the centre of the global economy, and I don’t think Bucky would be so naive as to disregard its impact and relevance in pharmaceuticals, fertilizers, synthetics, and all manner of plastics. But the amount of petroleum used for such endeavours pales in contrast with that consumed by and for internal combustion engines. For example, how much petroleum is expended extracting crude oil and transporting it to a refinery? Do you think those giant super-tankers get very good gas mileage? How far do you think a barrel of gas would take one of those giant vessels? Then, more petroleum is needed to refine the crude oil before it is loaded into giant tanker trucks (which also get abysmal mileage) and transported to refueling stations across the country. The amount of energy expended in the process of getting the energy to the consumer dwarfs the amount of energy consumed by the consumer by several orders of magnitude. Bucky would’ve seen this situation as absurd.
Although this line of criticism feeds into the rhetoric of the peak oil doomsayers, Bucky probably wouldn’t consider their critiques valid. He was never impressed by technophobic regressivism and dull minds. At the core of peak oil analysis lies the implicit assumption that we need all the petroleum we’re pulling from Earth. If we cut back by 10%, for example, we would need to sacrifice a portion of our mobility (e.g., loss of independent modes of transport), high crop yields, and/or plastics. But this is a straw man. The amount of petroleum we’re pulling from the Earth is disproportionate to the amount of petroleum we ‘need’ to pull from Earth. We have several alternative modes of personal transport available right now which could significantly reduce the amount of petroleum used by consumers on a daily basis. However, fearing a loss in profits, the automotive industry has done everything it can – up to and including industrial espionage – to stymie these lines of innovation. Fertilizers, meanwhile, are in bountiful supply so long as animals keep pooing – and dying. Furthermore, we’ve literally got hundreds – if not thousands! – of alternatives to plastics available right now. In spite of alarmist rhetoric, there’s really no legitimate fear of a social disruption if we were to begin intentionally phasing out unnecessary applications of plastic. For example, here in Vancouver Andrea and I have noticed our straws are often made from bamboo cellulose and our utensils are often made from potato starch. And then there’s the wonder-plant, hemp! It has a list of practical benefits longer than a union contract. Obviously, fears of societal impacts following a reduction in petroleum are largely overblown.
In keeping with his emphasis on energy independence, I think Bucky would have been highly supportive of alternative solutions to our addiction to petroleum. One of the potentialities that may have piqued his interest is Low Energy Nuclear Reaction/Chemically-Assisted Nuclear Reactions – a.k.a., ‘cold fusion’. Although the theory of cold fusion began its life mired in controversy, it’s difficult to argue with the US Navy. Furthermore, additional verification has come by way of Japan and India, where cold fusion is seen as a possible panacea for all sorts of societal ills.
For more on the history of cold fusion, see:
• Cold Fusion: Fire from Water – “What happened to the claim that cold fusion would be the ultimate renewable energy source? This carefully crafted film examines the controversy following the discovery of cold fusion, a process by which abundant energy can be generated from simple materials. Despite the “war on cold fusion” waged by scientists and the media, the process could still possibly become a practical reality. By presenting interviews with scientists involved in its discovery, the viewer is invited to decide whether cold fusion will become the greatest energy revolution of the 21st century.”
• Heavy Watergate: The war against cold fusion – “On March 23, 1989, respected chemists, Dr. Stanley Pons and Dr. Martin Fleishman made an announcement that rocked the world of science.
Their tabletop experiments with heavy water, a renewable resource readily available in ocean water, yielded enormous amounts of heat energy. Appropriately named, “Cold Fusion,” this breakthrough challenged many basic scientific concepts.
In response, a group of powerful physicists, heavily reliant upon government funding for their hot fusion research, leveled an unprecedented smear campaign against Pons, Fleishman and the entire field of Cold Fusion science. Was the discovery of Fire From Water too good to be true? Or was it the discovery of the millennium?”
Another version of nuclear power Bucky might have been interested in is thorium:
“Weinberg and his men proved the efficacy of thorium reactors in hundreds of tests at Oak Ridge from the ’50s through the early ’70s. But thorium hit a dead end. Locked in a struggle with a nuclear- armed Soviet Union, the US government in the ’60s chose to build uranium-fueled reactors — in part because they produce plutonium that can be refined into weapons-grade material. The course of the nuclear industry was set for the next four decades, and thorium power became one of the great what-if technologies of the 20th century.” – (Wired)
But even with years of development LERN and thorium cannot be expected to totally replace the omnifunctionality of petroleum-based energy, so Bucky probably would have been supportive of a diverse range of alternative energies. At the consumer level, autonomously-powered domestic units would probably be high on Bucky’s list of priorities. Dean Kamen’s Slingshot/Stirling Engine Regenerator combo seems like a big step in that direction, as does solar powered wireless power transmission technology, energy ‘teleportation’, the conversion of WiFi to energy, and spintronics, to name a few. However, even adding all these together, we’ll still need other, larger-scale methods of energy cultivation to insure global access to energy independence. Along those lines, here are two innovative technologies I think Bucky might have appreciated:
“There is enough energy in high altitude winds to power civilization 100 times over; and sooner or later, we’re going to learn to tap into the power of winds and use it to run civilization.” Says Ken Caldeira, Professor of Global Ecology at the Carnegie Institution for Science.”
“Magenn Power’s high altitude wind turbine called MARS is a Wind Power Anywhere™ solution with distinct advantages over existing Conventional Wind Turbines and Diesel Generating Systems including: global deployment, lower costs, better operational performance, and greater environmental advantages.” – (Magenn.com)
“BioPower Systems is commercialising ocean power conversion technologies. Through application of biomimicry, we have adopted nature’s mechanisms for survival and energy conversion in the marine environment and have applied these in the development of our proprietary wave and tidal power systems.
Our technologies inherit benefits developed during 3.8 Billion years of evolutionary optimization in nature’s ocean laboratory.The resulting systems move and sway in tune with the forces of the ocean, and naturally streamline when extreme conditions prevail. This leads to lightweight designs and associated low costs.
The inherently simple bioWAVE™ and bioSTREAM™ devices are designed to supply utility-scale grid-connected renewable energy using efficient modular systems. These systems will reside beneath the ocean surface, out of view, and in harmony with the living creatures that inspired their design.” – (BioPower Systems)
In the world of energy, the Holy Grail is a power source that’s inexpensive and clean, with no emissions. Well over 100 start-ups in Silicon Valley are working on it, and one of them, Bloom Energy, is about to make public its invention: a little power plant-in-a-box they want to put literally in your backyard.
You’ll generate your own electricity with the box and it’ll be wireless. The idea is to one day replace the big power plants and transmission line grid, the way the laptop moved in on the desktop and cell phones supplanted landlines. – (CBS News)
In conclusion, if we are to give authentic memorial to Fuller’s genius it shouldn’t be via a cheapened name-sake but through energy-based liberation. Although many politicians, technophobes, and analysts wax romantic about how they wish greener options were available, the reality is that they’re here now – all that’s lacking is the will to implement them. Previously I’ve discussed the concept of negative responsibility – responsibility for what one does not do but could have done. I think that concept applies here because we’re in a situation where people are dying as a result of our patterns of energy usage and we have the means by which to mitigate this situation, but these solutions are not being implemented. In Bucky’s time many of his ‘solutions’ challenged ruling economic hierarchies, and as a result they languished or failed outright. This frustrated him, but he continued to develop his ideas with the assumption that there would come a time when people would realize the value in comprehensive anticipatory design science. Sadly, that day has yet to arrive. Nevertheless, given the breadth of viable alternatives available, I think it’s clear that fears of a petroleum-based social collapse serve no constructive purpose. Instead, I think we should take Bucky’s lead and figure out how to use what we’ve got to equitably benefit humanity.
What other alternative energies do you think might contribute to a Bucky-approved version of the future? Do you think you’ll live to see a society wherein energy independence is pervasive? The devil, as they say, is in the details. That being the case, by what means do you think pervasive energy independence might be achieved?