Earth-Glass Half Empty or Fuller?: Operating Manual for Spaceship Earth

“Now there is one outstandingly important fact regarding Spaceship Earth, and that is that no instruction book came with it,” says Buckminster Fuller, explaining the title of his 1969 book, Operating Manual for Spaceship Earth, in the chapter titled “Spaceship Earth.”

The whole idea is a metaphor, comparing the planet to a machine. Is Earth a machine? What are the implications of our thinking of the planet as a machine? If it’s a spaceship, who’s in control? Who’s the captain? Where is the crew, and what are their jobs, or roles? Where are we going?

We may think of an operating manual as not quite the same thing as an instruction manual, yet Fuller continues, “I think it’s very significant that there is no instruction book for successfully operating our ship.” So the manual, whatever we call it, should provide both physical and mental information for the user to successfully work the machine. In Fuller’s terms, this includes physical and metaphysical work, for “In view of the infinite attention to all other details displayed by our ship, it must be taken as deliberate and purposeful that an instruction book was omitted.” Omitted by whom?

“We are forced,” Fuller says, “because of a lack of an instruction book, to use our intellect, which is our supreme faculty, to devise scientific experimental procedures and to interpret effectively the significance of the experimental findings. Thus, because the instruction manual was missing we are learning how we safely can anticipate the consequences of an increasing number of alternative ways of extending our satisfactory survival and growth – both physical and metaphysical.”

Seeing Earth as a machine provides metaphorical instruction (seeing Fuller’s title as a metaphor provides rhetorical instruction). If we think of Earth as a machine, we justify certain uses of it, and these justifications explain our behavior. Our current thinking of machines includes the idea that they break down, or wear down (entropy). Property insurance contracts include the terms “depreciation” and “actual cash value.” The actual cash value of an old machine is its value new minus its depreciated value from wear and tear, damage, and obsolescence. Using this formula of valuation, what’s the current value of Earth? What would it cost to replace it (replacement cost)?

Thinking of Earth as a spaceship reorients our position. We need not think of going into space, outer space; we are already in outer space. We are already out in space. Are we lost in space? And are we running out of fuel? Are we beginning to feel entropic effects? Should we start shopping around for a new planet? A new spaceship?

But Fuller argues that “the physical constituent of wealth-energy cannot decrease and that the metaphysical constituent-know-how can only increase. This is to say that every time we use our wealth it increases. This is to say that, countering entropy, wealth can only increase. Whereas entropy is increasing disorder evoked by dispersion of energy, wealth locally is increased order – that is to say, the increasingly orderly concentration of physical power in our ever-expanding locally explored and comprehended universe by the metaphysical capability of man, as informed by repeated experiences from which he happens in an unscheduled manner to progressively distill the ever-increasing inventory of omniinterrelated and omni-interaccommodative generalized principles found to be operative in all the special-case experiences. Irreversible wealth is the so far attained effective magnitude of our physically organized ordering of the use of those generalized principles.”

Fuller is the eternal optimist, literally. His glass is more than half full; it’s continually running over. “Wealth is anti-entropy at a most exquisite degree of concentration,” Fuller says, but one must get his brain/mind dichotomy to be persuaded by the argument: “Brain deals exclusively with the physical, and mind exclusively with the metaphysical. Wealth is the product of the progressive mastery of matter by mind, and is specifically accountable in forward man-days of established metabolic regeneration advantages spelt out in hours of life for specific numbers of individuals released from formerly prescribed entropy preoccupying tasks for their respectively individual yet inherently co-operative elective investment in further anti-entropic effectiveness.”

Systems check: Mind? Functioning near full capacity. Brain? Showing some signs of wear and tear. Coffee? Need a refill.

Update: This post selected at Berfrois for Earth Day!


Plato was a Neuroscientist, too; or, Plato’s Purple Haze

A new Oliver Sacks book is out, The Mind’s Eye. We are kicked in the eye with metaphor, philosophy, and dichotomy, and we have not even opened the book yet: metaphor because Sacks is talking about the brain, for the mind, as Jonah Lehrer put it, “is really just a piece of meat” (Buckminster Fuller defined the mind as the capability to leverage ideas from single case experiences – see Operating Manual for Spaceship Earth); philosophy and dichotomy because to speak of the mind as an idea distinct from the brain is to cross into Plato territory (a very large country of philosopher states).

We came across Sacks’s new book in the April Harper’s Magazine, in a review by Israel Rosenfield, “Oliver Sacks and the plasticity of perception.” The brain is on the move again.

We ordered The Mind’s Eye; meantime, what does Rosenfield have to say about it? Rosenfield makes this claim: “There is a simple fact about evolution that, although rarely mentioned, is very revealing: plants don’t have brains.” (Of course, why mention the obvious, a claim about which there is no disagreement?) Yet here’s his explanation for why plants don’t have brains: “Plants don’t have brains because they don’t need them; they don’t move from place to place.” In grade school we called this moving from place to place “locomotion.” The classic example is the amoeba, but do amoebas have brains? We understand that plants don’t have the same locomotion that animals do, but we question Rosenfield’s claim that plants don’t move from place to place, because plants do move from place to place. They travel underground and in the wind, float down rivers and out to sea, appear in the most unlikely places, out of cracks in the hot summer asphalt. In fact, as Michael Pollan has suggested (The Botany of Desire, 2002), plants manipulate animals: we taxi them around, ferry them, fly them to the moon. Plants may not have brains, or locomotion, but they do get around.

Rosenfield says that brains “create something that is not there; and in doing so they help us to make sense of our environments.” To illustrate, he uses the phenomenon of color. According to Rosenfield, there is no color outside of the brain: “There are no colors in nature,” he says. (Tell that to Van Gogh, whose paintings reveal the brush of a butterfly and the heart of a hummingbird.) Nature, without a brain to perceive it, is like Jimi Hendrix’s “Purple Haze”: “If we were aware of our ‘real’ visual worlds,” Rosenfield says, “we would see constantly changing images of dirty gray, making it difficult for us to recognize forms.” But Zoe, our cat, has no problem recognizing forms. Then again, she does act like she’s on Purple Haze most of the time. In any case, the mention of separate realities brings to mind Plato as well as Purple Haze. Any mention of forms brings us back to Plato. We might also work in Carlos Castaneda’s A Separate Reality. Is there something outside the brain? Is there something inside the brain? What does it look like when the brain is asleep, or astroke?

But it’s a sunny morning in Portland, the first in some time, the sky a solid blue, fronting the promise of a solid gold weekend. Both our brain and mind seem to agree that we should get out and into this sun. Zoe’s already out there, chasing the forms around the Salsa Garden. Ah, Bartleby; Ah, locomotion!