A Synopsis of “Operating Manual for Spaceship Earth” by Buckminster Fuller

datePosted on 21 November 2019 by cjf

To celebrate the 50th anniversary of the publication of Buckminster (“Bucky”) Fuller’s “Operating Manual for Spaceship Earth”, I re-read the book twice over the last four months. Doing so, I glimpsed a way to integrate its ideas into a brief overview. My idea is to read through its mythologizing and storytelling—fun though they are—to avoid getting distracted in interpreting and assessing all that. And to highlight its key ideas as I prepare for a group exploration of the book on 30 November 2019.

Operating Manual for Spaceship Earth by R. Buckminster Fuller

Note: All quotes are from the book.


Intellectual specialization precludes understanding our place in Universe. “[S]pecialization precludes comprehensive thinking.” Bucky argues for our innate comprehensivity meaning to comprehend comprehensively, to comprehend our worlds broadly and deeply, to be “macro-comprehensive and micro-incisive”.

“Comprehensively commanded automation” (the title of chapter 3) refers to the way in which “the omni-interrelated and omni-interaccommodative” generalized principles, such as the principle of leverage, Einstein’s E=mc², the conservation of energy, and the thermodynamics of entropy, intricately automates the basic operations and behaviors of our Universe. Everything in Universe (comprehensive) is subject to these principles (commanded) so that no one has to plan for, specify, calculate, or certify that the resultant behaviors fully accommodate all the principles when an apple falls from a tree (automation). Even you and I are predominantly automated in that we don’t consciously direct our foods to our bodily tissues, glands, and organs. Our automated energy supply ships, Sun and Moon, together with all our principles of astronomy, optics, and geology have hidden in plain sight the fact that we are all astronauts aboard Spaceship Earth and always have been. “Comprehensively commanded automation” also suggests how these principles generate “inexorable evolution”.

The storyline of the book hinges in chapter 4 “Spaceship Earth” where we apply our innate predilection for comprehensivity to examine the question of why did this exquisitely designed automaton, Spaceship Earth, include no instruction book? It could be that we were designed to have to exercise our intellects to figure out how the world works, to discover its generalized principles, with only a minimum of pre-programming as instinct. That implies that we have designed into us the facility to imagine and then apply (test out) an ever increasing array of ever more generalized principles which we accumulate as part of our cultural heritage. These imagined and verified principles have provided good enough models of the actual mechanism of automation for our spaceship that our design capability has attained an unprecedented aptitude. We have succeeded to an extraordinary degree: witness Einstein’s accomplishments, quantum electrodynamics, the Moon landing, Cassini-Huygens, global communication in a pocket-sized device, and so much more. We have discovered a function of our intellect in Universe: making sense of the world and how it works and putting that know-how to use.

“We have not been seeing our Spaceship Earth as an integrally-designed machine which to be persistently successful must be comprehended and serviced in total.”
— R. Buckminster Fuller in “Operating Manual for Spaceship Earth”

These comprehensivity-induced realizations suggest the practice of more systematically thinking in terms of wholes, in terms of systems, in terms of synergy (“behavior of wholes unpredicted by behavior of their parts”). Bucky asks “How big can we think?” Perhaps, we should start with the Universe and subdivide or specialize later? The Universe consists of the physical (as we all already knew) and the metaphysical (meaning, not ‘first principles’ as in philosophy, but those weightless things that matter like thoughts, ideas, conceptualizations, understandings, mathematics, etc.). Bucky defines Universe as “the aggregate of all humanity’s consciously-apprehended and communicated experience”. He clarifies the nature of this experience, “with the nonsimultaneous, nonidentical, and only partially overlapping, always complementary, weighable and unweighable, ever omni-transforming, event sequences.” Now we can start to see Universe as “an evolutionary-process scenario”. That is, “inexorable evolution” as a design process unfolding to fill out the space of our experience, our Universe.

These synergetic and general systems theory realizations with their orderly topologies (mathematical interrelationships) and geodesics (most economic or minimal energy pathways) of considerations can be discovered by starting “synergetically with Universe” and “bitting” (answering yes-no questions as in the game of 20 questions, but cosmically conceived: our cosmic computer). With this conceptual toolkit, we ask what is the purpose or function of humans in Universe? “Are humans necessary?” To answer the question we need to recognize that wealth is “our organized capability to cope effectively with the environment in sustaining our healthy regeneration and decreasing both the physical and metaphysical restrictions of the forward days of our lives.” Wealth has nothing to do with money! It is comprised of the physical (which is energy vis-a-vis Einstein’s E=mc²) synergetically combined with know-how and know-what (the metaphysical) which will connect back to “comprehensively commanded automation” and our cosmic computer.

Continuing with our big picture, cosmic, whole systems, synergetic approach, we realize that since Earth’s resources are unevenly distributed, a global industrial system is needed to combine this resource from here with that one from over there. Industrialization is the way to realize the vast wealth of humanity’s know-how and know-what. By realizing that tools are the externalization of the integral functions of humans, we see world industrialization as “a world-around-energy-networked complex of tools” that has brought unprecedented wealth to practically all modern humans even though that objective has never been on the agenda of any monarch, politician, or leader in religion, business, or science. It was designed without any individual’s or group’s intention!

The final chapter “the regenerative landscape” attempts to reintegrate these ideas into a vision for the future. Seeing world industrialization as “an externalized metabolic regeneration organism”, we apprehend that humanity’s function is predominantly metaphysical, to build the know-how and know-what component of wealth, to fulfill our function to further potentiate inexorable evolution through “the regenerative landscape” of our home, Spaceship Earth (and maybe soon, beyond Earth).


I think “Operating Manual for Spaceship Earth” provides a compact, accessible, and an adequately complete introduction to Bucky’s comprehensivism, his synergetics (as general systems theory expanded to epistemography and cosmography), and his vision for seeing our cosmic evolution in a “regenerative landscape”. Although the book is easy enough to read without a summary, it can be challenging to reintegrate Bucky’s ideas into a whole. Some may not be able see through his mythological storytelling to see the key ideas. I hope my synopsis helps you to see and to assess the significance of the book.

Is my synopsis accurate and incisive? Does it capture the essence of Bucky’s message in the book?

Did I overstep the scope of Bucky’s writing by defining comprehensivity which Bucky leaves implicit, by explaining his “discovery” and “objective employment” of generalized principles with my imagine and apply (test out), by adding know-what to his know-how? Or by suggesting that the eternally generalized principles of our experience are mere models of a possibly unknowable cosmic automation mechanism? Or by suggesting that our design scope may soon extend well beyond Earth? Is there anything else that I emended of Bucky’s writing in my summary? Do you object to or value these emendations?

I boiled away a lot of the book. What pieces are so important to your reading that I should have included them?

How would your synopsis of the book differ from mine?

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