They have come from all over to see, hear and simply stand near him. Poets, jack-leg architects, ecology majors, and corporation presidents whose lives and thoughts have been radically altered by his insights stand chatting with each other in the Cotillion Ballroom of the Sheraton Park Hotel waiting for Buckminster Fuller to appear. It is his 87th birthday and a large cake with a marzipan replica of Fuller's "dymaxion world map" on top awaits his arrival in the hall.
Fuller is in Washington to unveil his real dymaxion world map and accompanying World Game at the Fourth General Assembly of the World Future Society. But it is probably safe to say that one could pick almost anyplace on the globe to wait for Fuller and not be disappointed. He spends 90 percent of his time traveling. At last count, he had circled the world 54 times since his extraordinary career as a cosmic architect for a fail-safe world began.
At 9:45 Saturday night Fuller appears at the top of the stairs. He looks as fresh as a daisy, wearing a pair of white pants, blue linen blazer and black patent leather shoes. The whole room bursts into an affectionate "Happy Birthday" as he descends slowly and without any folderol into the room. There isn't one photovoltaic glimmer of ego about him. Fuller's humility is legendary, and in person he presses warmly upon your consciousness, like "E.T.'s" forefinger. A small, kindly man who says "bless your heart," "darling girl" and "darling boy" with unaffected feeling often, he seems to be a man who has merged with his original vow--to serve humanity. He is also a man who doesn't want to ruin his cake.
"It's such a beautiful thing," he murmurs protestingly. "I would hate to cut into it."
"Just let's blow out the candles then," says his assistant, Medard Gabel, "and we'll save the whole world if we can." A small collective laugh runs through the room as Fuller takes the knife and makes a careful cut around the eastern coast of South America. "There," he pronounces, in his soft Maine accent, "that's a start."
Balancing his piece of birthday cake insecurely on his lap, Fuller begins to receive greetings from everybody in the Room. They come, like children with presents hidden behind their backs, with greetings. Old men, teenagers, kids in paint-spattered jeans--it is rather like watching the footage of a World War II reunion between the G.I.'s and their wives as they raced down the gangplank at the end of the war.
"I made a poem for you," says one person.
"I waited 15 years to see you. I am Hannes Kristinsson, Dr. Fuller."
A lanky, 25-year-old comes forward with a paper glider. "I want to show you this plane I made." Fuller watches in amazement as the glider continually departs from the hand and returns in a single loop. "Astounding," he says. "Thank you so much."
"Hi, Bucky," says an engineer type. "I'm from San Diego and I just want you to know how much you have meant to me."
Then a very tall, earnest young man in a T-shirt and sandals comes forward and says formally, "On the part of humanity, I would very much like to thank you. I hope to carry on your work."
"What's your name?" asks Fuller.
"Paul," he says. "I just want to thank you for your deeds."
Fuller seems moved by this procession, within reason. He doesn't seem to know what to do with accolades anymore than he knows what to do with the piece of birthday cake on his lap. "When people trust you, this happens," he remarks. "Of course, some people write me, or come forward just to get a little attention. But sometimes even the show-offs only need to feel a little encouragement."
Most people think of Fuller as the inventor of the geodesic dome, facsimiles of which now grace the playgrounds upon which today's "post-moon children," as Fuller calls them, climb. Next they think of him as a genius, a spray of insights that confuse all but the most highly trained technical minds. In his lifetime, he has been called a crackpot and a crystal ball gazer. In that same span of years, he has lived to see his ideas vindicated, time and time again.
They laughed at Fuller in 1940 when he said that the best way to slow down the population explosion was to incrase the likelihood of survival. Now that thought is part of official U.N. policy. They continue to laugh, albeit behind his back, when Fuller insists that Malthus and Darwin are on the wrong track. There is enough to go around. It has been proven, like the structure of geodesic dome, that man can do more with less. And as one of his friends and lieutenants, Medard Gebel (who is Director of the World Game, Fuller's latest tool for global survival) remarked, "Bucky speaks of the current malaise of 'overwhelmed apathy.' But he has demonstrated, technologically, that you don't have to wallow in terminal nonchalance."
The World Game, which comes with the world's largest jet navigation demonstration map, roughly the size of a basketball court, was designed as a tool (aided by computerized data banks that would provide up-to-date information about the world's allocation of resources) to solve problems for 100 percent of humanity. Fuller cut out the map in such a way that the geographical integrity of each continent would remain intact. Laid out flat it looks somewhat like a top deck view of an aircraft carrier. Fuller calls it "Space Ship Earth." Standing on top of its plasticized covering in his brown suede slippers decorated with padded silver wings, Fuller looks like a lovable gnome with a vision. It was not always thus.
When Fuller was 27, his only child, Alexandra, died. It was a devastating loss. Five years later another daughter, Allegra, was born. "My wife liked that name. Byron had a bastard daugther by that name that he wrote to--I think she was in a nunnery somewhere. The year Allegra was born, 54 years ago, I made an experiment to see what, if anything, an unknown, penniless 32-year-old male with a wife and child could do."
Fuller was not hopeful that he could do anything. Standing alone at night by the shores of Lake Michigan, he considered suicide. "You have no idea how attractive the idea of just swimming out and not coming back was to me at that time. But I decided to commit myself to suicide or reorganize my life." It was the first time Fuller remembers thinking on his own.
"My father died when I was quite young and my mother taught me not to think. School reinforced this. But I asked myself a question--who am I? I decided that I was an inventory of experiences. And if I did away with myself I might get rid of some connecting link of experience in the universe that would turn out to be important. So I decided that I would only work for humanity, not for my family, or myself, or any one side."
There wasn't much time, according to the actuarial tables of 1927. "I had 10 years more to live," said Fuller. "A male born in New England in 1895 had a life expectancy of 42. It's doubled in my lifetime. And so I decided that I didn't have time to waste trying to persuade anybody or any political system of anything. Artifacts were the only way."
The light bulb was an artifact that profoundly altered human existence. Radio, television, the computer. "There has been an absolute break in history," said Fuller. "Each child born successively is born in the presence of a little more reliable information. Post-moon children have a completely new understanding of things." As for Fuller, "right from the beginning, I undertook to reform the environment instead of people. I am very powerfully convinced that the right environment will bring about clear thinking. Part of Fuller's boyhood reinforced this belief.
"Luckily, I am a sailor. I spent my boyhood summers in Maine on Bear Island, around fisherman families. Everything in their environment had meaning, like the Japanese, who are water people. Sailors are neat, not because they're aesthetic, but because every rope has to be coiled properly, free for throwing." Fuller, whose personal/professional biography is so packed that he has a 67-page booklet listing his various degrees, memberships, awards and even a chart showing how much he has traveled, belongs to six sailing clubs, three of them in Maine.
Fuller is asked whether he thinks that at least part of his theory about the biological instinct for having many children to take care of us when we are elderly hasn't had a side effect, apart from lessening population in developed nations--i.e., the neglect of the old by the young.
"I am greatly bothered by it," he admitted. "I don't think it's thoughtlessness or lack of love. It's our mobile society. You know, I was 7 when the first automobile came to Boston. The rich people had horses, but I was one of the walking world. We were very interested in how far we could walk. We wore pedometers and found that the average human being before World War I walked over 1,100 miles a year. By World War I, we were walking only 400 miles a year. But before World War I, everybody stayed within the horizon, which was approximately 14 miles from the second story of a house. In those days you saw a great deal of the old people. What's going on today is because of our mobile circumstances."
At the World Future Society gathering, which is continuing throughout this week at the Sheraton Park, a number of participants admitted that they had come because they were alarmed by how many young people no longer see any future for themselves at all. A survival posture, going to school not for learning but for job certification and despairing over the feasibility of risk in a nuclear world were themes that surfaced frequently as signals of worldwide psychological distress.
Fuller, often called an unreasonably "most happy fella" given the lack of global consciousness that abounds, takes a long view of what could, or should, happen. "At first," he said, people found a place where they could live, and then other people came along who were not so lucky, and so the first group began to put a lot into defense. That's how the nations began. But you can't have nations anymore. When we learned about tin cans, for instance, suddenly you could ship food around the world. Now you got the tin from the Malay Straits, and the manganese from Southern Russia. Metals were not under one nation's farmland anymore. Countries began to need each other. Good heavens, just look at that telephone there. There is material from three continents in it."
A fund of facts, and a greater fund of conclusions come spilling effortlessly from from Fuller's cat's cradle of a mind. Going back to the reality of walking, Fuller said "by 1919, we were still walking 1,100 miles a year. But then came the automobile, and the airplane. By World War II, the average housewife was traveling 10,000 miles a year, the average salesman 30,000. Now the whole world is crossing each other. We've got to give up the idea of nations . . . Individual nations are blood clots in the world's circulatory system. They're trying to protect their old resources. Of course, the president of the United States vows to protect the sovereignty of this country when he takes his oath of office. If he tried to de-sovereignize, he would be impeached."
Sovereignty is as outdated as Malthus and Darwin, in Fuller's view, which is certainly not the prevailing wind blowing over Geneva today. But it is rather simple, said Fuller. "All revolutions have been political in the past, with Malthus and Darwin assumed to be correct. It was Malthus who said that--according to his statistics--quite clearly the majority of human beings are destined to go through life in great want and pain. Because there wasn't enough to go around. Of course, 98 percent of the people were illiterate at that time, so hardly anybody knew what Malthus had said. But then 50 years later we had Darwin, who came up with his theory of survival of the fittest. Marx was a contemporary of Darwin's.
"Marx said 'I accept Malthus and Darwin and I consider the worker to be, by far, the fittest to survive. These other people are parasites.' But the other people said 'we're on top of the heap for good reason. We take risks and the world has to have us. The workers are too dull to survive.' "
Fuller took this historical sequence and turned it on its ear to his own satisfaction. "In all revolutions, it's always the serf going after the landlord. You pull down the top to the bottom. But all of a sudden I saw that with the new, invisible technology, that you could pull the whole bottom up. That's what I'm all about."
It was suggested that perhaps it would be practical for human beings to strip down to owning only those artifacts that they actually understand enough to use.
Fuller laughed. "Do you understand yourself? You have the custodianship of yourself and you don't understand yourself. Do you even know what happens when I scratch your arm and raise a welt. No? Well, neither do I."
Fuller has been accused of being optimistic. "I'm not an optimist or a pessimist. Optimists and pessimists are unbalanced people, although you don't have to know anything to be negative and you have to know a hell of a lot to be positive." Among certain things of which Fuller is positive is the existence of a Higher Intelligence. "I am o'erwhelmed by It," said Fuller, who had a 1962-63 poetry chair at Harvard, as if he didn't have enough else to do.
"I'm absolutely convinced that life is not physical. What is inanimate is becoming clearer and clearer all the time. Atoms are one example. It used to be that life was measured by the electromagnetic field of a needle. But whatever life is now doesn't move any needles. I'm 87, for instance. I've literally consumed over 300 tons of food. And then I took off 70 pounds. I said 'who was that?' 'Here I am.' "
Fuller on the nature of human beings uses architectural metaphors. "We were deliberately designed, darling, to learn only by trial and error. We're brought up, unfortunately, to think that nobody should make any mistakes. Most children get de-geniused by the love and fear of their parents--that they might make a mistake. But all my advances were made my mistakes. You uncover what is when you get rid of what isn't."
Fuller may be a citizen of the world who sometimes lives in Los Angeles (he resides there, with his wife Anne, a block away from his daughter and grandchildren), but he is a man from Maine who doesn't pay very much attention to himself as a phenomenon, or think that he is some kind of an answer man who has a satellite link-up with God.
"I have absolute faith in this Great Intelligence," he said softly. "I never try to suggest to God what ought to be done." The idea amuses him, that any human being could be so presumptuous. The one-time penniless, 32-year-old New Englander who contemplated suicide on the edge of Lake Michigan has a keen memory of that old moment. "What I do say," added Fuller, "is 'yours, dear God, is all the glory.' " When Fuller says "dear God" it puts slippers on the Divinity, brown suede slippers with wings on them. Fuller gives one hope for the fate of Spaceship Earth.