"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
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.