High Times Greats: Buckminster Fuller

A 1981 interview with the late architect, futurist, and proponent of the geodesic dome.
High Times Greats: Buckminster Fuller
Buckminster Fuller by Black Star

For the May, 1981 issue of High Times, Robert Anton Wilson interviewed designer, author, and inventor, R. Buckminster Fuller (1895-1985). On the occasion of Bucky’s birthday July 12, we’re republishing the interview below.

“Bucky Fuller’s state of being is an historical event,” Barbara Marx Hubbard, co-founder of the Committee for the Future, wrote. “His life marks the transition in human awareness from unconscious to conscious participation in designing our own futures.”

Such hyperbole is normal in discussing the astonishing career of Richard Buckminster Fuller. He would be simply the most successful and influential architect in all history (with 200,000 of his buildings now standing) if he were not also 10 or 12 other men living in the same body: poet, mathematician, social scientist, educational theorist, computer expert, endless source of innovation.

He has invented, among other things, a bathroom that operates mostly on compressed air, uses minimum water, and folds up into the wall like an old Murphy bed. He created the Dymaxion map, the first flat map to show all continents without any distortion.

Fuller’s biographer, Alden Hatch, concluded, “The cliché of comparing him to Leonardo and Benjamin Franklin is so obvious that it is made in dozens of articles every year. But its banality does not vitiate its truth.” Indeed, if Fuller’s most daring scientific claim is vindicated—his assertion that he has discovered “the coordinate system of Universe,” the geometry out of which all things are designed—his ultimate stature will be higher than that of Newton and Einstein.

It was in 1927, after failing in the construction business and seeing his first daughter die of polio, that Bucky Fuller, then 32, reached the bottom and started bouncing back toward the top. Standing on the shore of Lake Michigan and contemplating suicide, Fuller asked, “Do I know best or does God know best whether I may be of any value to the integrity of Universe?” He decided that he had no right to terminate his life until he had made an intelligent effort to discover what purpose God might have had in creating him.

Bucky actually stopped talking for a year while he worked that Zen-like koan out in his head. During that year of silent meditation, he decided that “in my first thirty-two years of life I had been positively effective in producing life-advantaging wealth—which realistically protected, nurtured and accommodated X numbers of human lives for Y numbers of forward days—only when I was doing so entirely for others and not for myself….Thus it became obvious that if I worked always and only for all humanity, I would be optimally effective.”

Having been thrown out of Harvard twice for unruly behavior, Fuller had no academic degrees; having failed in business, he had nobody willing to invest in him. For the next 25 years, 1928-52, he produced one astonishing innovation in building and mathematics after another—and all were generally ignored by industry, although occasionally featured in the newspapers as designs for the world of tomorrow. Then, in 1952, the U.S. Marine Corps discovered that Fuller’s geodesic domes could be built more cheaply and would deliver more strength per pound of material than any other structure known. The Marines began building Fuller domes everywhere, and others gradually began to sit up and take notice. Since then more and more of Fuller’s ideas have been applied successfully by more and more corporations and governments in more and more parts of the world: His stature and influence have grown astronomically. His coined word “synergy”—meaning “behaviors of whole systems not predictable from the behaviors of the individual elements”—has been taken up in dozens of fields of science, in management, in encounter groups. His expression “Spaceship Earth” is used almost daily in the media. He has even been invited back to Harvard as a full professor.

A third phase of Bucky Fuller’s career began at the age of 85, with the publication of his apocalyptical and controversial book, Critical Path (New York: St. Martin’s Press). In this work he bluntly declares that humanity as a whole would cross an evolutionary threshold, emerging at the other end of this process either by destroying ourselves or by achieving what he called “Total Success in Universe,” defined by him as “everything for everybody” or “comprehensive design to advantage all without disadvantaging any.”

Robert Anton Wilson met with Fuller in his winter home in Pacific Palisades, north of Los Angeles, to discuss the prophecies in Critical Path. Only a few blocks from Fuller’s home, Wilson relates, he had passed a gas station with a large banner proclaiming, “This Is Reagan Country.” Fuller, at 85, is increasingly hard of hearing and limps slightly; otherwise, he is as bright and incandescent as ever. Aware that Critical Path will shock and anger many people, Fuller remains intransigent. “I can prove everything I say,” he repeated more than once during the afternoon of the interview. “Come to the World Game Center in Philadelphia and look at the computer readouts,” he added.

The World Game Center, which has been operating in various locations since 1969, is a computer complex that Fuller and a staff of scientists and graduate students have used to inventory all known resources and determine strategies to meet all humanity’s needs abundantly. Fuller rejects on principle any strategy that meets the needs of only part of humanity or that meets the needs of all humanity less than abundantly. He has been seeking a “design-science revolution” that will be acceptable to everybody and he now claims to have found it. He told Wilson again at the doorway, after the interview, “I am not deceiving humanity. Everything I say can be demonstrated.”

High Times: In Critical Path, you say that there are now four billion billionaires living on Earth. Would you explain that?

Fuller: [Sternly] You didn’t read the book, sir.

High Times: Well, yes, I did, but I’m asking for our readers, some of whom might not have read it yet.

Fuller: I simply mean that in terms of real wealth, defined as the capacity to nurture and accommodate human life, everybody on this planet could have a standard of living as high as that of any billionaire. I have foreseen this coming since 1928, but it has only been achieved in the past ten years, and specialists are still unaware of it. Our seemingly desperate situation is caused by the fact that ninety-nine percent of the human race are specialists and, hence, unaware of our collective good fortune. Our vast wealth is being held in probate by a combination of fear, ignorance, greed, archaic laws, zoning restrictions, national boundaries and conditioned reflexes.

High Times: In other words, you are saying there is no real energy shortage. Right?

Fuller: Energy cannot be created or destroyed; that’s fundamental. Wealth is energy times intelligence, or the manipulation of energy by intelligence. How much wealth or life support we get out of a given amount of energy depends on our intelligence. Let me give you some examples. All of our automobiles are only fifteen percent efficient: What you get out of them in performance is only fifteen percent of the energy you need to put into them. Turbines are thirty percent efficient, jet-propulsion engines are sixty-five percent efficient, and the fuel cells developed by NASA are eighty-five percent efficient. The overall efficiency of the United States today is only five percent; that is, ninety-five percent of all the energy we use is simply wasted—down the drain. Working with others at the World Game computers, I have proven that by using our present technology to the maximum, we could increase this average efficiency threefold immediately, to fifteen percent. That means that our overall energy consumption could be cut by two-thirds. That is mathematically certain. If you are getting fifteen percent efficiency, you only need one-third as much energy as when you are operating with five percent efficiency. That’s for starters.

High Times: Let’s go back a bit. Your concept of getting more out of each bit of energy is related to your idea of invisible wealth. Could you explain that to our readers?

Fuller: Most of our wealth, our capacity to nurture life by intelligent design, is invisible for two reasons. First, there is the historical fact that we have been conditioned to accept species failure and only individual success. That is, we have been trained to believe “there is enough for me, or enough for you, but not enough for both of us.” That conditioning is so powerful that we automatically think in terms of me or you, not both, so we don’t notice that the whole species is now capable of success.

Second, since Marconi, most of our wealth is literally invisible. I am not just referring to electronic waves and information systems, but to such things as alloys, for instance. I can show you two bars of metal that look exactly alike. To traditional thinking, these bars must contain the same amount of wealth, in terms of how much we can get out of each pound of them. In scientific fact, the second bar contains many hundred times more wealth than the first, because it delivers more. Unfortunately, this wealth is invisible to the naked eye; you need microscopes to see it and the science of chemistry to understand it. All of our problems result from the fact that for more than eighty years we have been creating wealth in that form, invisible wealth that politicians cannot see or understand, so our nations are all still acting on obsolete Malthusian principles.

High Times: Would you explain who Malthus was and why our politicians are still following his ideas?

Fuller: Thomas Malthus was an employee of the British East India Company, who made the first study of resources and population on worldwide scale. He discovered that at that time, near the end of the eighteenth century, population was increasing much faster than known resources. He jumped to the conclusion that this would always be true, so there would never be enough for everybody. This was developed by other political economists and became the governing philosophy of the British ruling class, and then of all other ruling classes who were trying to compete with the British for world domination. For instance, an uncle explained it to me when I was in my teens, telling me that the Christian ethics taught to me by my mother and our church simply would not work in the real world. All ruling elites still believe this. “Pray all you want,” they think, “but most must perish and only a few can be successful.”

In 1928, I began asking myself if this philosophy was still true. I began by listing everything that had changed since the year Malthus died. The first thing I discovered was that the telegraph was invented the year after he died. I went on from there, listing every invention, every new wealth-producing tool, from that time to 1928. I then began drawing curves, projecting the trends I had found into the future. I deduced that within fifty years Malthus would be obsolete, and there would be abundance for everybody. We have now passed that point.

High Times: So the energy shortage is a kind of shared hallucination?

Fuller: Yes. I can prove this with computer readouts of known resources: how much we can get out of each unit of energy and matter, and so on. Abundance exists. The remaining problem is to make people aware of it. Selfishness is obsolete, because it is now, at this date, no longer rationalizable as mandated by survival. We all have more to gain by cooperating now.

High Times: What do you say to people who reply that you may be right in terms of what is scientifically true, but people don’t behave in a rational way? That is, how do you answer those who say humans will continue to compete and scheme and go to war just because they have an instinct for selfishness?

Fuller: Such people are ignorant. The behavioral sciences have demonstrated that all species have primary and secondary behaviors. The primary behaviors are all designed for species success, and normally function to balance survival of self, survival of the gene pool and survival of the whole species. The secondary behaviors only appear in emergencies, and cancel out all interest in species survival while attention is directed only to personal survival. This is why ordinary parents—human or animal—will risk death to protect their offspring in normal conditions; but in the most terrifying emergency, such as a fire where people are literally suffocating even before the flames have burned them—because the fire withdraws oxygen from the air—they will stomp on their own children in blind panic to get to a door. That is madness caused by extreme terror. You see, we can live only thirty days without food in most cases, about a week without water, but only two minutes without oxygen. When oxygen is withdrawn, all the emergency reflexes take over and secondary behavior overrules primary behavior. But when such emergency does not exist, primary behaviors function quite smoothly to maintain the whole ecosystem. We are living with secondary behaviors at present because we have been conditioned by emergencies in the past, when scarcity was real. When we recognize our new situation is one of abundance for all, we will return to primary behaviors.

High Times: The pessimists say that people would rather fight than think.

Fuller: You don’t have to know anything to be brilliantly negative. Do you understand that, sir? Anybody who can speak can be brilliantly negative. The only sign of intelligence is to be brilliantly positive. Anyone can say that there are no solutions; that’s being brilliantly negative. To assert that there are solutions, and demonstrate them, is being brilliantly positive.

High Times: If most of our wealth is invisible as you say, people are going to have to get smarter before they see it and use it, right?

Fuller: People are getting smarter every generation. I can assure you that almost everything I was taught as a child was wrong; it was simply misinformation. I spent a lot of time trying to invent the airplane, along with a million other kids born in 1895, and what did our parents tell us? They all told us that it was impossible. They said nothing heavier than air could fly. Then the Wright brothers succeeded and I began to wonder if I should believe everything the grown-ups told me.

What happened to me in 1905 happened to our whole culture in the 1920s when radio came in. Kids spontaneously began to notice that the voices on the radio, even if not infallible, really knew a lot more about the world in general than their parents did. The parents didn’t know anything beyond their small town, their church, the clubs they belonged to. The radio brought the whole world to the child. “Papa knows best” has never recovered from that shock. Television was the knockout blow.

Some people asked me to go to Berkeley in 1968, at the height of the youth revolution, to talk to the students. I discovered that everybody involved in those events had been born within one or two years of the appearance of TV in American homes. Over and over they told me basically the same thing: “We love Mom and Dad, but they simply don’t know what’s going on.” The kids had learned, for instance, to think globally, in whole systems, while their parents were still thinking locally—my team, my town, my nation.

High Times: Then you agree with Marshall McLuhan that TV causes people to perceive the world differently?

Fuller: Young people simply react to the reality available to them. If all that’s available is one small town and its small prejudices, that’s all they know. If more is available to them, their brains integrate more. Unfortunately, beyond a certain age people stop noticing more even if more is available. That’s why my hope is entirely in young people. Every child is born naked, hungry, helpless and intensely curious. Before that curiosity is stifled, they notice and integrate everything available.

A few years ago, some Los Angeles newspaper got me together with some children to interact. I asked them what they wanted to be when they grew up. One boy, age twelve, wanted to get into electronics. Another boy, also twelve, wanted to be a magician. A girl who was ten said, “I want to be a comprehensivist like you are, Bucky.” I subtracted ten from that date and I found she had been born the year Neil Armstrong walked on the moon. You see, she had grown up inside the new reality, the space age.

High Times: What happened to the first youth revolution, the one you say was provoked by TV?

Fuller: They became more intelligent. They began to realize that politics provides no real answers. They stopped using their heads as battering rams against policemen’s clubs and started using them to think with. This is an inevitable progression, because every generation enters the world with less and less misinformation. You don’t have to tell young people to think globally and comprehensively; they spontaneously integrate the information that there are no local solutions to our problems.

High Times: You say in Critical Path that nationalism is obsolete.

Fuller: Yes. We simply cannot continue navigating Spaceship Earth with a hundred and fifty separate and supreme admirals all steering in different directions. That could work only when peoples were relatively isolated from each other. Now with the planetary system omniinterconnected, a hundred and fifty separate admirals steering in a hundred and fifty directions merely causes us to go around in circles and get nowhere.

High Times: When will humanity as a whole realize it?

Fuller: They will either realize it in the next eight years or they will not survive. I am not speaking idealistically but with total realism. It’s all touch and go for the next eight years. Either we all make it, and humanity achieves total success in Universe, or we all go down together. All hundred and fifty nations will have to be abolished.

High Times: And you think that can happen in eight years?

Fuller: We will continue to experience accelerated change. No persons or races or nations or clubs will be exempt from the evolutionary transformations inherent in our technology. We will either adapt intelligently as a species, or we will fail as a species and perish.

High Times: It is hard to imagine Ronald Reagan surrendering the national sovereignty of the United States.

Fuller: Of course. In the first place, he’s just a puppet, a dumb actor who can memorize his lines, and no more. In the second place, even if he tried to do it, he would be impeached, since it would violate his oath of office, which compels him to maintain our national sovereignty.

High Times: So how do we get beyond nationalism?

Fuller: It is happening despite the politicians. Everything is being transformed by our invisible wealth, our new technology of doing more with less by thinking comprehensively and globally. The United States will be forced to adapt or perish, because ignorance has a high price now.

Because our government has made so many ignorant decisions in the past, we are now bankrupt. Everything is being done to hide that fact, but you find for instance that we cannot even pay the interest on the national debt. As long as we continue our obsolete practices based on obsolete bookkeeping and scarcity economics, we will remain bankrupt and plunge toward disaster. Only when we see that our real wealth is global and can only be used globally can we begin to bail ourselves out.

High Times: Would you advise people to migrate then? What country is better off?

Fuller: No, no, no. There is no place to hide. This time it has to be everybody or nobody.

High Times: But how did we get bankrupt?

Fuller: The corporations simply moved out. They shifted most of their wealth to other parts of the world. They were thinking globally but selfishly, within the old Malthusian parameters. We have to think globally and cooperatively to survive.

High Times: How do the Russians fit?

Fuller: They outsmarted us. We went in for nuclear weaponry on a bigger and bigger scale, and they went ahead with conventional weaponry, reasoning that nuclear war would not happen. With modern satellite surveillance, nobody can fire nuclear missiles without the other side knowing it at once. That means that the target country has twenty minutes before the missiles arrive, twenty minutes to fire off everything they’ve got. Within that twenty-minute detection period, nuclear war is un-winnable, and the military on both sides understands that. But the politicians do not have to understand anything, except how to get elected. So we find ourselves unable to win a nuclear war and inferior to the Russians in conventional war. That is why the next eight years are so critical.

High Times: What might the Russians do that would provoke our politicians to war?

Fuller: Further Russian incursions into the Persian Gulf area could trigger real panic in Washington. But let me emphasize that this would happen if and only if everybody believes that we still need all that petroleum. The oil companies are all trying to make us believe that, printing those giant ads about solar power being forty years in the future, and so on. That is all lies and ignorance, of course—we can have the abundance I spoke of before without any further use of fossil fuels, and without nuclear plants, either—but everything depends on enough people understanding the real facts soon enough.

High Times: You speak of “ignorance and greed” constantly, but you also insist in Critical Path that there are no “bad” people.

Fuller: Universe contains no good and bad. Everything is plural and balanced, but good and bad are human inventions. We walk right foot, left foot, not right foot, wrong foot. Ignorance and greed are part of the evolutionary process, which is just to say that mistakes are part of learning. There is nothing bad about behaviors or perceptions that do not work; they simply have to be given up and replaced by behaviors and perceptions that do work. Edna St. Vincent Millay wrote over forty years ago, “The tidal wave devours the shore/There are no islands anymore.” The people who have not integrated that information yet are not bad but simply ignorant.

High Times: What do you say to people, like Theodore Roszack, who reject all technological solutions to our problems, who say that technology itself is the problem?

Fuller: They are specialists, and all specialists are profoundly ignorant. To become a specialist is to ignore more and more things, to become more and more ignorant. Nobody is born a specialist; infants are curious about everything. If nature wanted us to be specialists, we’d be born with one eye and a jeweler’s lens attached.

If you train yourself to think comprehensively, you will quickly observe that Universe is nothing but technology, from the inside of the atom to the farthest galaxy. The human hand is beautiful technology. Use one finger, you’ve got a prod. Use two fingers, you’ve got pliers. Use three fingers, you’ve got a tripod. A tree is beautiful synergetic technology, employing tension and compression exquisitely to get maximum performance. The equations for gravity are all technology and possess a staggering beauty.

High Times: Incidentally, why do you always say “Universe” instead of “the Universe”?

Fuller: The comes from theos, God. It seems to me that “God God” is a bit redundant.

High Times: Universe and God mean the same to you then?

Fuller: God is a rather small concept to contain the intricate harmonies and omniinteraccommodating structural integrities I find in Universe.

High Times: You have said that God is a verb…

Fuller: Everything is a verb, a wave function. I am a wave. You only see me because of interference, because light is bouncing off me. We don’t understand Universe or Mind because we keep thinking of them as nouns, static things, and they are not static at all, not nouns.

High Times: What is Mind?

Fuller: Patterned integrity. I am not the tons of food, water and air that have gone into supporting this patterned integrity for eighty-five years; I am the patterned integrity itself. You breathe out everything you breathe in. A little bit of flesh gets rubbed off by friction against other things or air molecules every second. The patterned integrity organizes the food, water and air into this wave function in time that you recognize as Bucky Fuller.

Suppose you had a different-colored telephone for each friend. Then when the pink phone rings, you would say, “That’s Mary.” If you never left your room, all you would know of Mary is the pink telephone. The pink telephone would be Mary for you. If the pink telephone was destroyed, you’d think Mary had ceased to exist.

High Times: Sounds like Plato’s parable of the prisoners in the cave, who think only shadows are real.

Fuller: I am simply saying that patterned integrities are more real than the matter on which they are imposed. I can make the same knot in cotton or nylon string, but the knot is not cotton or nylon. It is a patterned integrity.

High Times: Sometimes you sound like a Buddhist.

Fuller: I see absolutely no difference between Buddhism and Christianity. Let me put it this way: When I was a student at Harvard, they told me there was a difference between the animate and the inanimate. Then along came biochemistry, genetics and virology. The line began to blur, especially around the viruses. Now we have biophysics and the line has disappeared completely. We are made up entirely of atoms and atoms are inanimate. Then must we be inanimate? I find that impossible to believe. We are the patterned, structural integrities that hold the system together. Instead of thinking of animate and inanimate, we should think electromagnetically, in terms of the tuned in and the not tuned in. When the pink telephone goes, we would simply say that Mary is not tuned in. The not tuned in is not nonexistent.

High Times: Did you find all this out when you went through your famous year of silence in 1927?

Fuller: I had nothing mystical in mind. I was simply trying to break my conditioned reflexes. I reasoned that most of what we think is caused by conditioned reflexes and I wanted to start over fresh. I assumed that if Universe had any purpose in putting me here I could discover it by breaking the lines of misinformation that had been poured into me since I was born in 1895.

I resolved on certain disciplines that I have continued ever since. I sought to do my own thinking, confining it only to experientially gained information instead of following everyone else’s opinions, credos, theories and beliefs. I pledged myself to reduce every idea to a physical working model before asking anybody to credit what I said about it. I resolved never to talk about anything until it could thus be physically proven or demonstrated. I was using myself as a guinea pig to discover what Universe needed mankind for; what one typical human of normal intelligence could accomplish when working always and only to advantage all humanity without disadvantaging any.

High Times: Many people would doubt that your intelligence was ever simply normal.

Fuller: Let them repeat my experiment. The patterned integrity of Universe, like any other construction, depends on the integrity of each element. I simply unleashed what every man and woman contains within them. I am no special child of God. You all are.

High Times: Since you rule out political solutions to our problems, what can the average man or woman do to achieve the total success of our species and to stave off the dangers we’ve mentioned? You wouldn’t suggest that they write to Congress…

Fuller: Live with integrity.

High Times: Is that all?

Fuller: It is both necessary and sufficient.

High Times: Suppose we get through the “critical path” of the 1980s. What do you foresee in the ’90s?

Fuller: There will be no more jobs. Employment as we understand it will vanish along with the nation as we understand it. People will share in the abundance available to all and will start remembering what they were interested in before they had to get jobs and earn a living. We will begin to discover Universe at last. We only knew of one galaxy until 1928, and now fifty-two years later we know of over two billion. We will discover much, much more. We’re already living in the space age and we will move into it further and faster.

High Times: Is there any one idea—one most important thing—that you want to leave with our readers?

Fuller: Absolutely not. There is no “one most important thing,” since every system in Universe is plural and at minimum six. No, I have never found one most important thing. I deal in Universe always and only.

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