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!



  1. Hope Wabuke says:

    Lovely; thanks for sharing! xo


  2. A sliver of a thought came when I challenged myself to read this … these days it’s surreal when the network (brain)-identified traveller assumes mastery yet comprehends so little beyond the spaceship’s logical functioning, producing energy (knowledge & wealth) but not measuring up in intelligence, let alone spiritual identity. Time for coffee :)


    1. Joe Linker says:

      Yes, his sentence structure can be confounding and his idiosyncratic style seemingly unnecessarily confusing (he invents words – well, after all, he was an inventor), and it’s true the word “spiritual” does not appear in Operating Manual, though “metaphysical” appears multiple times (elsewhere, Fuller talks of the soul and wisdom – his book of poetry, Intuition, is interesting – example here: )
      But I find in Fuller (in part) an antidote to ideas from some of today’s neuroscientists who call the mind simply a piece of meat. And he is so optimistic. I feel challenged writing about him, for quoting him can be hard – he’s a run-on sentence. Maybe summary would work better. There is also the (possible myth, but based on some element of truth) story of his despair after his daughter died and his having a literal epiphany, a “spiritual,” if you will, awakening that led to much of his later thought and work. But thanks for reading more! Hope all’s well.


      1. I like his Lord’s Prayer, the way he put ideas. Words like omni-transforming, or
        … We have learned retrospectively and repeatedly that the seeming trespasses are in fact the feedback of our own negatives – realistic recognition of which may eliminate those negatives …

        Buckminster had a difficult life and great integrity. A friend of mine was much influenced by his work. Here is a link to one of his books.


    2. Joe Linker says:

      Another thought in response: there is a great sense of technical achievement, I think this may be in part what you are suggesting, such as getting to the moon and all that, the advance of technology, computerization (which Fuller thought would save us), advances in medicine – all these knowledge and wealth achievements, all accomplished while the spiritual candle of the world sputters, as evidenced by continued wars, poverty, famine, hunger. Is that it?


      1. You’re right. So much mastery has been achieved in our lifetime. And it evokes Goethe’s Zauberlehrling. The surreal is brought about by narrow minded applications, quick fixes – and a neglect of the function of aesthetics, the play with meaning in the realm of the imagination. This is my gripe. Individual scientist are the exception. The public has become very blasé, not surprising with the amount of stupendous information that flies about..
        A challenge to find the right words to express the dis-ease without jumping on the cliché wagon. Poetry and stories that engage work well, I think :)


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