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Pithy optimist

08 March 2013

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"TREES have roots, men have legs." "Be total man, not local man." These aphorisms, and more, were the creation of the unique and indefatigable Richard Buckminster Fuller, whose life made for an entertaining half-hour in An Operating Manual for Spaceship Earth (Radio 4, Friday).

A hippy mentality dressed in the uniform of a CEO of General Motors; an engineer who dreamed of flying cars and floating cities; a drop-out from Harvard who returned as a Professor of Poetry - Fuller was part Renaissance man, and part Old Testament prophet.

Except that, as the witnesses in Tom Dyckhoff's documentary made clear, Fuller had none of the judgemental pessimism of a Jeremiah. He was the sort of optimist who would fail and fail again with a naïve gusto that became part of his self-mythologising persona.

After his manufacturing business went bust in the early 1930s, he entertained a myriad ventures before emerging in the 1960s as a guru, his lectures ranging from visions of world government to designs for sustainable buildings.

If one metaphor remains constant through this career, it is that of the sailor and his boat: the navigation of the oceans in charge of a solitary system, whose limited resources must be sensibly apportioned. Earth was just such a system, which we navigate, as astronauts, around the cosmos. To be a follower of Fuller, you had to "be in orbit" with him.

The legacy of Fuller is the geodesic dome, a structure that, he rightly predicted, would serve as a robust shelter in areas of natural disaster. That the dome has not been taken up wholesale does not diminish the importance of Fuller's pioneering work.

His influence on the environmental movement is frequently noted, although, if Samira Ahmed's guests on Night Waves (Radio 3, Wednesday of last week) are right in their caricatures, then the doom-laden nature of mo- dern eco-politics is a long way from Fuller's optimistic creativity. Notionally about the apocalypse, the Night Waves conversation turned to the eschatological character of the environmental movement.

Just as religious notions of the end of days involve sin, a fall from innocence, and a day of reckoning, so, Martin Palmer argued, does the green narrative of world history. It is an entirely anthropocentric and selfish view, the historian Justin Champion continued. The cockroaches don't care: they'll survive. It'll just be humans who will find the going tougher.

But, as Alexander McCall Smith reminded us in Lent Talks (Radio 4, Wednesday of last week), people need their myths. The main character in his Botswana novels, Mma Ramotswe is a regular Sunday worshipper, and the narratives that religion provides bolster the sense of society and civilisation.

McCall Smith identifies himself more with the Scottish philosopher Isabel Dalhousie, from another of his series of novels, and does not claim any firm religious conviction. But his talk provided a defence of the notion of civilisation based on shared moral and religious values rather than individualism. "Be total man, not local man." Perhaps that is what the guru meant.

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