My essay-review “Good at Being Gods,” about Buckminster Fuller and the alternative energy movement of the 1970s, is published in the 18 December 2008 issue of the London Review of Books. It begins thus:
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 article is available online, but you have to subscribe or buy an electronic copy to read it. (I encourage you to, because ultimately that’s how I find the money to buy my daily allotment of toast and peanut butter.)
The file folder containing my notes for this review is titled “Utopian post-oil,” because when I started thinking about the issues, it seemed to me that a lot of the utopian alternative-energy notions of the 1970s were returning to haunt (or inspire) us today. The review focuses on K. Michael Hays and Dana Miller’s Buckminster Fuller: Starting with the Universe, because much of the 1970s movement crystallized around Fuller, and the Whitney Museum show and Yale University Press exhibition catalog provided an opportunity. But I also take account of Andrew G. Kirk’s Counterculture Green: The Whole Earth Catalog and American Environmentalism (University Press of Kansas, 2007), an informative book on an aspect of technological and social history that hasn’t been much chronicled; Ted Nordhaus and Michael Shellenberger’s Break Through: From the Death of Environmentalism to the Politics of Possibility (Houghton Mifflin, 2007), an analysis and manifesto that seems to have been taken to heart by the Obama campaign, if I’m reading the tea leaves correctly; and Giovanna Borasi and Mirko Zardini’s Sorry, Out of Gas: Architecture’s Response to the 1973 Oil Crisis (Canadian Centre for Architecture, 2007), a sort of visual encyclopedia of the 1970s alternative-energy movement and as a book an object of great charm. The “Sorry, Out of Gas” website is also well worth a visit. I also tapped the following for more information:
- Geoffrey Carr, “The Power and the Glory: A Special Report on Energy,” The Economist, 21 June 2008
- Daniel Horowitz,
Jimmy Carter and the Energy Crisis of the 1970s: The “Crisis of Confidence” Speech of July 15, 1979: A Brief History with Documents (Bedford St. Martin’s, 2005)
- Ivan Illich, Energy and Equity (Harper & Row, 1974)
- Lloyd Steven Sieden, Buckminster Fuller’s Universe (Basic Books, 1989)
- Karen R. Merrill, The Oil Crisis of 1973–1974: A Brief History with Documents (Bedford St. Martin’s, 2007)
- James Sterngold, “The Love Song of R. Buckminster Fuller,” New York Times, 15 June 2008
- Nelson D. Schwartz, “Asleep at the Spigot: A Thirst for Oil Comes back to Haunt a Nation of Gas Guzzlers,” New York Times, 6 July 2008
- John Tierney, “An Early Environmentalist, Embracing New ‘Heresies’,” New York Times, 27 February 2007
- Witold Rybczynski, Paper Heroes: A Review of Appropriate Technology (Anchor Books, 1980)
- E. F. Schumacher, Small Is Beautiful: A Study of Economics as if People Mattered (Blond & Briggs, 1973)
- J. Baldwin and Stewart Brand, eds., Soft-Tech (Penguin, 1978)
- Newsweek staff, “How He Did It,” Newsweek, 17 November 2008
As close students of my work, if there are any, will have noticed, this is part of an ongoing obsession about the history of energy. Or anyway, a trilogy, comprised of my recent New York Times Book Review piece on horses as a nineteenth-century energy supply, this one for the LRB on windmills and solar power, and another forthcoming in the New Yorker.
Happily for those who disagree with my skepticism about do-it-yourself environmentalism, the website Treehugger recently released a buying guide to “Hot Home Wind Turbines You Can Actually Buy.” (Hot as in stylin’.) And for those in search of more Fulleriana, here are links to Stanford University’s R. Buckminster Fuller Archive, which features an entertaining slide show; a sort of interactive information tree of Fuller’s ideas called the Fuller Map; and for explications of the Fuller terminology that flummoxed me, the R. Buckminster Fuller FAQ.
2 thoughts on “Buck-E”
I recall Bucky's telling us we are in outer space, and earth is our ship. While his production may have been uneven, functionally – in a utilitarian sense, one can't accuse him of having a normal mind; his argument for the distinction of brain and mind (in his Operation Manual for Spaceship Earth), his redoing of the Lord's Prayer and other poems (Intuition), and other writings suggest something happened, some self-wising, scientific epiphany, that correlated to his discovery that he might use his experience and knowledge to help the world. Around the same time, John Cage, a Fuller fan, produced his masterpiece “How To Improve the World (You Will Only Make Matters Worse)” (A Year from Monday). In those days it was important to believe not so much that one could change the world, but that one could change one’s life, one’s own world – through drugs, science, literature, the creation of a personal myth – that one didn’t have to play the earth one was given, but could partake in the creation of a wholly new earth. In any case, whatever it is, or was, one could only do it oneself, as in “do-it-yourself.” The terminology continues to flummox, as does the sentence structure – he’s the Henry James of science.
In my article itself, I'm a little clearer that my skepticism about do-it-yourself environmentalism is not disapproval, but rather wistfulness that the 1970s aura of promise in this arena probably can never return, because today it's widely acknowledged that serious progress can only be made by a society-wide effort. It's also clearer in the article, I hope, that I find the movement around Fuller very inspiring, if at times and in places a little silly. Fuller himself I think made an effective and provocative guru, though I'm not persuaded that his own writings are the best way to appreciate him.
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