Good at Being Gods

Caleb Crain

  • Buckminster Fuller: Starting with the Universe edited by K. Michael Hays and Dana Miller
    Yale, 257 pp, £35.00, July 2008, ISBN 978 0 300 12620 4

In the recent Pixar movie Wall-E there is a conflict between two different visions of technology. From one angle, technology appears to be humanity’s overlord: the movie imagines that in the future a megacorporation called Buy N Large will so exhaust and pollute the planet that it will have to whisk its customers away on a luxury outer-space cruise ship for their own protection. From another angle, technology appears to be the only thing capable of saving humanity’s soul. Wall-E, a scrappy, pint-sized robot left behind to tidy up Earth, scavenges for mementos of human culture, finds evidence of resurgent plant life and falls in love. The two visions are inconsistent but inextricable: Wall-E is himself a Buy N Large product.

A similar ambivalence colours the reputation of the 20th-century designer Buckminster Fuller. You might say that Fuller aspired to engineer a post-apocalypse outer-space cruise ship but in the end managed only to get himself adopted as technology’s mascot. The harmless side of Fuller is what a visitor saw first at ‘Buckminster Fuller: Starting with the Universe’, a show mounted over the summer at the Whitney Museum of American Art and memorialised in this reverential and lavishly illustrated catalogue. Parked in a niche on the museum’s ground floor was the only surviving model of Fuller’s Dymaxion car, a paramecium-shaped tricycle with a Ford V8 engine. Beside it, a black and white video showed the Dymaxion car slinking past a row of box-like Depression-era Fords and sidling with UFO-like ease into a parking space its own exact size. Fuller intended to add what he called ‘jet stilts’ to the vehicle someday, so it could fly, but they never got invented. Like most of his projects, the car failed utterly as a commercial enterprise. In the absence of jet stilts, one was left to contemplate the harmony between a man and his car – a tableau as homely and unthreatening as a boy and his dog.

Elsewhere in the exhibition, however, there were glimpses of something less benign. In early sketches, Fuller dreamed of a world made homogeneous by air travel, in which a corporation of his devising would send out blimps that dropped bombs, poured concrete into the resulting craters, and then lowered into place prefabricated houses. No need to plant your house near a city or even a road; to visit friends or the grocery store, just fly off in your Dymaxion car (once the kinks in the jet stilts have been worked out). Fuller imagined that the houses would be so fully automated that dishwashers would not only wash dishes but also return them to the shelves. Children could be safely neglected, because no harm could come to them from falling on the pneumatic floors or crashing into the shatterproof windows. Sun and wind would supply power. Best of all, one company would sell the whole package as a unit, plumbing and all.

Convenience, safety, automation, a vertically integrated monopoly and a brutal disregard for the pre-existing landscape: surely the Fuller house belongs in the Buy N Large family of products. Fuller lovingly drew by hand a portfolio of logos and branding concepts for the never realised housing company; they were displayed in a glass case in the exhibition as if they were studies an artist had made before starting on a grand canvas. Fuller never left his corporate-imperialist vision behind. At the height of his career, he was still imagining that people could live on the walls of an enormous pyramid-shaped mall, in gigantic bubbles that floated among the clouds, or in Manhattan under a sheath that kept out the ‘unpleasant effects of climate, heat, dust, bugs, glare etc’.

In the 1960s, the leaders of America’s counterculture embraced Fuller as a guru. Though many of them believed that technology and capitalism had got the world into a mess, many also believed that more technology and more capitalism could get the world out of it, if only the technology could be made smaller in scale and a market could be developed for people who wanted to do the right thing. (That Fuller wasn’t much interested in smaller scales or much good at making money was somehow no obstacle to their admiration.) When the price of oil rocketed in the 1970s, mainstream America began to take seriously the counterculture’s dream of redesigning industrial society. Solar panels flourished, empty six-packs became the bricks for houses, fish grew to edible size in plastic tanks and windmills appeared even in New York City. But when oil prices plummeted again in the 1980s, environmental problems were forgotten, along with many of these technological attempts to solve them.

So completely were they forgotten that last year, when the environmental consultants Ted Nordhaus and Michael Shellenberger rebuked the environmental movement for neglecting the resources of economic growth and human ingenuity, they seemed unaware that there had once been a movement in America that championed both. Nordhaus and Shellenberger wrote Break Through: From the Death of Environmentalism to the Politics of Possibility in the belief that the apocalyptic view of technology is a dead end.[*] Doomsaying doesn’t work, they warn, except among the intellectual elite. Rising oceans scare neither the poor, who are more frightened of starving, nor the middle classes, who are more frightened of being outspent by their neighbours. Indeed, Nordhaus and Shellenberger doubt that deep pessimism is really warranted. ‘We are the first species to have any control whatsoever over how we evolve,’ they write. As it happens, Fuller said the same in 1966: ‘For the first time in the history of the world, man is just beginning to take conscious participation in some of his evolutionary formulations.’

Richard Buckminster Fuller, who liked to be called Bucky, was born in 1895 to a family of stubborn, bossy New England individualists. Even the Fuller family cow was ‘tyrannical’, Nathaniel Hawthorne once complained. (Hawthorne was a friend of Bucky’s great-aunt Margaret Fuller, the Transcendentalist and feminist.)[†] Though near-sighted, young Bucky loved to sail and invented a new kind of oar. His childhood hero was Robin Hood, perhaps because his father’s death had impoverished the family. When he reached Harvard, he was snubbed by his wealthier classmates, cut classes, squandered his allowance by inviting a line of chorus girls to dinner, and was thrown out twice. After working in a Quebec textile mill and for a New York City meatpacker, he finagled his way into the navy by offering the government the use of his family’s boat during the First World War. As Lloyd Steven Sieden explains in his 1989 biography, the navy formed Fuller’s intellectual ideals. Ever after, he aspired to be as comprehensively informed and autonomous as a ship’s captain in the age before radio, when there was no higher authority once out of sight of land. The navy also influenced his style: most Fuller structures are as streamlined as the hull of a clipper ship, built round a central mast, and connected to the ground tenuously if at all.

During the war, Fuller married, and after an interval of drink and unemployment, was put in charge of selling wood-fibre bricks designed by his father-in-law. In 1927, having failed at selling them, Fuller, who was then living in Chicago, wandered down to the shore of Lake Michigan and considered drowning himself so that his wife could collect his life insurance. But at the crucial moment a voice from above announced, ‘You belong to the universe,’ and Fuller decided to devote himself to improving humanity instead. Or so he later claimed. Some scholars suspect that he made the story up, and that his real nervous breakdown came a few years later over the collapse of an extramarital affair with an 18-year-old. In any case, he acquired during these years of crisis a Micawberish faith that the universe – or, as he called it, the Universe – would take care of his finances.

After an interval of deliberate public silence, Fuller announced his design for a hexagonal house supported on a mast. The retail mogul Marshall Field invited him to display a model in his department store, to draw attention to Field’s new line of modern furniture, and hired a marketing consultant, who jazzed up Fuller’s concept with the invented name Dymaxion. Fuller ran with Dymaxion. The Dymaxion car, co-designed with a leading yacht builder, appeared in 1933. The all-copper Dymaxion bathroom, which looks like an airliner’s lavatory, was patented in 1938. In 1943, Life magazine printed the Dymaxion map, which minimises distortion by presenting the globe as an unfolded polyhedron.

Fuller’s greatest triumph, however, did not bear the brand name. In 1948-49, he developed a structure that looked like a sphere but was in fact made out of triangles. He called it a geodesic dome. It was lighter and could be built more quickly than almost any other structural means of enclosing space. The first attempt, made out of Venetian blind slats, collapsed, but Fuller’s wife cashed in $30,000 of IBM stock to invest in the idea nevertheless. Although the German optics company Zeiss had built a similar dome in Jena in the 1920s, Fuller managed to secure a patent, and at the start of the 1950s Fuller domes were constructed in Montreal and Baffin Island. The patent was soon earning more than a million dollars a year. The Ford Motor Company ordered one to cover a courtyard at its corporate headquarters in Dearborn, Michigan; the US Commerce Department asked for one to be put up in Kabul; the air force bought some to shield radar installations in the Arctic and on mountain-tops; and a 200-foot-high ‘skybreak’ dome sheltered the American pavilion at Expo 67, the Montreal World Fair.

The structure was inspiring in its democratic simplicity. It looked as if anyone who could piece together one of the triangles could piece together the whole thing – and more or less anyone could piece together a triangle. It suggested that a mind freed from the rectilinear could provide itself with shelter easily and cheaply, thereby escaping the constraints and responsibilities associated with the bourgeois home. In 1965, a group of art students heard Fuller lecture and began building multicoloured domes on farmland outside Trinidad, Colorado, in some cases recycling the tops and doors of cars. Drop City, as the site came to be known, turned into a way station for a generation of young hitchhikers en route to San Francisco, who nicknamed Fuller ‘Grandfather of the Universe’.

Fuller’s greatest acolyte among this generation was Stewart Brand, perhaps best known today as the person who first declared that ‘information wants to be free.’ Born in Illinois in 1938, Brand studied at Stanford with Paul Ehrlich, the biologist who wrongly predicted that human population growth would cause mass starvation in the 1980s. No such dour thoughts ever troubled Brand. After two years in the army, he tried LSD legally in 1962 as a scientific experiment. He took to it, and for the next few years organised happenings and toured the West with Ken Kesey’s Merry Pranksters. In 1966, after an especially visionary trip, he put on a white jumpsuit, a black top hat and a day-glo sandwich board and began selling badges that asked: ‘Why haven’t we seen a photograph of the whole Earth yet?’ Not long after, Nasa did indeed release a photo of the whole Earth seen from space, and by November 1969 Look magazine claimed that the image had brought a new understanding of the planet’s fragile ecology.

Brand had another brainstorm in March 1968. He imagined creating an L.L. Bean catalogue for the counterculture: a resource for people who wanted to get hold of a windmill or learn how to keep bees. Typeset on an IBM Selectric and printed on folio-size newsprint later that year, Brand’s Whole Earth Catalogue was driven by ‘a philosophy of pragmatic environmentalism that celebrated technological achievement, human ingenuity and sustainable living’, as Andrew Kirk writes in Counterculture Green (2007). ‘The insights of Buckminster Fuller are what initiated this catalogue,’ read the first line of the first edition. It opened with a section entitled ‘Whole Systems’, which explained Fuller’s ideas in a series of book reviews. (Brand’s catalogue reviewed all books positively, on principle, but personally I find Fuller’s books to be written in a mystical, jerky, jargon-crammed idiolect that is almost wholly unreadable.) Brand took Fuller’s optimism about technology to its Nietzschean conclusion. ‘We are as gods,’ he wrote, ‘and might as well get good at it.’ In the pages that followed, Brand’s readers learned how to order by mail all the tools necessary to achieve godhead, from looms to aircraft to calipers to business stationery. As the Apple founder Steve Jobs later recalled, the Whole Earth Catalogue was ‘like Google in paperback form’.

It sold in the millions, turning Brand into a media celebrity and further elevating Fuller’s status as a guru. Brand magnified the impact by sharing his profits through a philanthropic foundation. Kirk writes that he didn’t believe in funding ‘efforts that were opposed to something, such as environmental efforts to block, stop or preserve’. He preferred groups that were trying new ways of living: the New Alchemists, for example, a group of scientists and writers who lived in solar-heated, wind-powered ‘arks’ in Woods Hole, Massachusetts and Prince Edward Island in Canada, where they grew tilapia, white amur and algae in tanks, and developed ‘living machines’ that purified wastewater biologically. Steve Baer, who had built domes at Drop City, was commissioned to develop low-tech solar technologies, including a double-pane window that let in sun by day but filled up with tiny Styrofoam beads at dusk to provide nighttime insulation.

Baer rejected more complex solar technologies, such as photovoltaic cells, as anti-democratic. The rejection would have made no sense to Fuller, who once said that he saw no greater value in hand-made domes than in mass-produced ones. But as Fuller’s technophilia spread through the counterculture and into the mainstream, it was forced to confront another, more sceptical idea called ‘appropriate technology’, or AT. According to Witold Rybczynski’s history, Paper Heroes (1980), AT first gained currency at a 1968 conference in Oxford convened by E.F. Schumacher, an economist who worked for the National Coal Board. Schumacher had noticed that when First World technologies were introduced into the Third World, their tremendous efficiency sometimes led to unemployment. Also, because they required a lot of capital, Third World countries were often unable to replicate them without outside financing. Believing that it was ‘more important that everybody should produce something than that a few people should each produce a great deal,’ Schumacher called in his 1973 manifesto, Small Is Beautiful, for technologies that were cheap, easy to use, easy to understand, small-scale, and ‘compatible with man’s need for creativity’.

The same year that Schumacher published his book, Egypt and Syria attacked Israel, launching the Yom Kippur War. Nixon had sold Phantom jets to Israel, and in retaliation Arab nations cut off oil exports to America and other Israeli allies. By January 1974 the cost of oil had quadrupled. Suddenly, America began to have second thoughts about energy consumption. Nixon asked Americans to form car pools and lower their thermostats. The governor of Oregon threatened to disconnect any resident who displayed Christmas lights. Fuller had always thought of energy as inexhaustible, and his chief concern was how to provide as much of it as possible to everyone in the world. But his optimism now began to look naive. The less confrontational Schumacher was the 1970s guru of choice. Schumacher wasn’t against technology per se; he just wished it were more appealing. This was a project America could get behind, especially when it was blended with the consumerist ethos of Brand’s Whole Earth Catalogue. ‘There is something especially American in the kinds of changes we have to make,’ Jimmy Carter said hopefully in 1977. ‘We’ve always been proud of our ingenuity.’ Carter had himself photographed with Schumacher in the Oval Office while leafing through his book, and installed solar panels on the White House roof in June 1979, a few months after the Islamic revolution in Iran threw the world into a second oil crisis.

In the 1970s, a love of technology co-existed with a dread of it, a dialectic whose consequences are surveyed in Sorry, Out of Gas, the catalogue of an exhibition mounted last winter in Montreal. A black and white photo shows stringy-haired women and a moustachioed man lounging in an underground solar-heated pool. Do-it-yourself handbooks give instructions for mounting solar panels on what look like overgrown ski chalets. Michael and Ellen Jantzen build a house by adapting the roof of a grain silo, adding mirrors and bubble windows to make the most of the sunlight. An Illinois couple mow the grass roof of their underground home, while in a commune near Taos, in New Mexico, the architect Michael Reynolds builds what he calls ‘Earthships’ out of car tyres filled with dirt. In 1976, a co-op in New York’s East Village puts a windmill on its roof and wins a lawsuit that forces the utility company to buy its excess electricity.

It didn’t last. In 1980, the Republicans demonised Carter for his ‘grim predictions’ about energy and proclaimed that ‘the proven American values of individual enterprise can solve our energy problems.’ As president, Reagan ended the regulation of oil prices. Coincidentally, prices sank in the decade that followed, thanks in part to Carter administration laws that raised the efficiency of cars from an average of 13.8 miles per gallon in 1974 to 27.5 in 1989. In 1986, Reagan had the White House solar panels removed, and in the 1990s, US oil consumption jumped again. Today the average American car does only 24 miles to the gallon.

There are close parallels between our decade and the 1970s. The car industry has again been caught off guard by consumers’ quick shift to smaller cars. Solar and wind power have again become trendy overnight. (New York’s mayor recently proposed placing wind turbines on skyscrapers or offshore.) Republican politicians are playing down the need for conservation and pretend to believe that an increase in domestic drilling will protect Americans against rises in oil prices.

Americans still hope technology will save them. According to the Economist, new technologies have brought the cost of wind power down to 8 cents per kilowatt-hour and solar power down to 20 cents (coal costs 5 cents per kWh, and nuclear energy 6.5). What’s different this time is that no one expects new technologies to be democratic or to encourage ‘self-reliance and non-violence’, as AT was supposed to. Perhaps that’s just as well. The rebels of the East Village eventually gave up on their windmill because it required too much maintenance. Geodesic domes, too, failed to live up to their promise. The dome that Fuller built for Ford leaked; while it was being patched up in 1962, it caught fire and burned down. Later, the same thing happened to the dome used for Expo 67. By 1973, shelter experts in the counterculture were advising against domes, and in 1994 even Stewart Brand called them ‘a massive, total failure’.

Designed for the Third World, AT never worked as planned in the First. In America, as Rybczynski pointed out, the wood-burning stove succeeded mostly as a middle-class indulgence: ‘It is not an alternative to affluence, it is a by-product of affluence.’ Moreover, Rybczynski asked, ‘What if no one wants to buy homemade soap?’ It is nearly impossible to convince people to forgo a cheaper, better product because an outdated manufacturing process is thought to be socially more equitable. You can still build a solar water heater of the black-pipes-in-a-glass-box variety, but there’s a good reason almost no one does. Yet few can afford a photovoltaic cell of their own, and that’s a pity. Conditions may be ripe for a renaissance of environmental technology, but it won’t be possible to order it from a catalogue. Barack Obama, caught on tape during a debate-prep session last year, identified the need for a collective solution: ‘We can’t solve global warming because I fucking changed light bulbs in my house.’

[*] Houghton Mifflin, 256 pp., $25, October 2007, 978 0 618 65825 1.

[†] Megan Marshall wrote about Margaret Fuller in the LRB of 15 November 2007.