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At the age of eighty-five, R. Buckminster Fuller, one of the best-known scientist-engineers of the twentieth century, wrote Critical Path, a book ranging far beyond science and technology into the realm of history and autobiography, philosophy and economics, and, at times, even theology. It describes his personal commitment, made in 1927, to use himself as a “scientific guinea pig . . . in a lifelong experiment” in order to discover what one individual, without money or university degree, could accomplish to improve the quality of life for all humanity aboard “Spaceship Earth.” This experiment was to be performed using his own experientially gained information, “the products of his own thinking and intuition.” Critical Path concludes by describing his subsequent technological accomplishments: the geodesic dome, the Dymaxion 4-D house, the Dymaxion Sky-Ocean world map, the geoscope, and the concepts of “ephemeralization” and “World Game”—all created to solve the problems of mankind.

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When Buckminster Fuller began his personal experiment in 1927, he decided that at least a half century must pass before any improvement to the planet could be measured. This book, which he considered his most important work, offers an assessment of those improvements.

Critical Path covers an enormous amount of territory. It is divided into three major sections bracketed by a lengthy foreword and introduction and two extensive final appendices: a “Chronology of Scientific Discoveries and Artifacts” and a “Chronology of Prominent World Events: 1895 to Date.” Throughout the book, Fuller’s intention is to overcome humanity’s inability to see itself in the broad contexts of time and space. He attempts to clarify the relationship of man to the planet Earth—his only refuge—moving in the dimension of time at a rate which humans cannot physically perceive.

Reflecting this concern with an understanding of time, section 1 begins with a 120-page history of mankind. Fuller suggests that the human need for and use of water was a motivation for development of the species, specifically, the development of river and ocean travel. The need to travel and explore rivers and oceans, in turn, stimulated considerable technological progress. For example, Fuller suggests that the Bronze Age began in Bangkok, Thailand, since that city was a boat-building center. The accidental mixing of bronze from copper and tin, both naturally available there, was quickly developed because bronze was useful in the building of large ocean vessels.

Fuller views history as a series of scientific and technological advances which were either encouraged or discouraged by the prevailing political powers. He notes that the Roman Catholic church combatted the concept of the spherical Earth orbiting in a heliocentric solar system; similarly, Western acceptance of the zero cipher was slow in coming since it was an Arabic innovation. He illustrates his theory of power maintenance through fear and specialization in the histories of the Roman Catholic church, England, and the United States, especially as the latter gained superpower status.

Section 2 outlines Fuller’s technological method of attack upon this misguided though benevolent world. In great detail, Fuller explains his life plan, begun in 1927 at the nadir of his career, when he had lost all of his money. Most important in this life plan was his personal resolve “to comprehend the principles of eternally regenerative Universe . . . and employ these principles in the development of the specific artifacts that would benefit humanity’s fulfillment of its essential functioning in the cosmic scheme.”

With this as his stated lifetime commitment, Buckminster Fuller lived a life of spiritually inspired intellectual pursuits, focused upon his optimistic notion of “ephemeralization,” doing more with less, and his view that “You and I seem to be verbs—evolutionary processes.” These concepts led him to his rational (not belief-based) acceptance of God. His observations of design and order in the world are the source of his spiritual respect for science as the expression of cosmic omniscience and omnipotence.

Lest one worry that Buckminster Fuller thought too much and created too little, the remainder of section 2 outlines his most important scientific contributions, often with accompanying patent histories. These include the Geoscope, a huge globe which he describes as “a gossamer, open trusswork spherical structure wherewith humanity can see and read all the spherical data of the Earth’s geography as seen from either its inside or its outside.” Set in place so the polar axis is parallel to that of Earth, the Geoscope is intended to improve man’s understanding of Earth. More famous is his geodesic dome, which became a symbol of the 1967 World’s Fair in Montreal. Fuller never places “artifacts” such as these in a vacuum; he recognizes that they are objects which represent the human accumulation of wealth, as he defines it: “physical energy (as matter or radiation) combined with metaphysical know-what and know-how.” Such technology increases the chances for the success of humanity. Herein is illustrated the concept of “ephemeralization,” the use of stronger and lighter material to achieve greater strength, a combination of greater knowledge and less matter. Finally, Fuller outlines his “World Game,” a comprehensive computerized modeling of Earth’s resources, beginning with the proposal that “we have 4.4 billion billionaires aboard our planet, as accounted by real wealth.” In Fuller’s vision, the planetary overview afforded by such modeling should provide the basis for the rational redirection of humanity’s course.

Accordingly, section 3 offers a four-part description of the critical path to be followed in the immediate future. While Fuller acknowledges that “humanity is in peril of extinction,” he remains hopeful: He sees a critical path leading not to self-destruction, but rather to an “unprecedented high standard of living for all . . . to be accomplished within a generation.” The “Whole Earth” perspective that will make such goals realizable requires humanity “to assume as closely as possible the viewpoint, the patience, and the competence of God.”


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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 82

Anderson, Jerry. Review in Library Journal. CVI (May 15, 1981), p. 1061.

Hubbard, B. M. “Critical Path to an All-Win World: Buckminster Fuller Designs the New Age,” in Futurist. CXV (June, 1981), pp. 31-37.

Kenner, Hugh. Review in Saturday Review. VIII (February, 1981), p. 58.

McBride, S. D. Review in The Christian Science Monitor. April 13, 1981, sec. B, p. 3.

Murchie, Guy. “Bucky Fuller Orbits Spaceship Earth in High Gear,” in The Chicago Tribune. March 22, 1981, sec. 7, p. 11.

Traub, James. Review in The New York Times Book Review. LXXXVI (April 19, 1981), p. 12.

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