Publications / Annual E. F. Schumacher Lecture

A Global Perspective on the Green New Deal

Introduction by David Bollier
Reinventing the Commons Program
Director, Schumacher Center for a New Economics

It is my distinct privilege to introduce our second speaker, Greg Watson. This is a challenge because Greg is such an iconoclastic thinker and doer and such an accomplished polymath and pioneer that it is difficult to distill his eclectic career and journeys into a short introduction. Maybe I should just make an illusion to his favorite musician, Bob Dylan, who like Greg is a self-directed visionary and a serial collaborator on all sorts of projects. I’m sure Greg would appreciate that plug for Bob.

But let’s start with the basic facts. Greg is director of policy and system design at the Schumacher Center, and his work focuses chiefly on community food systems and the dynamics between local and geo-economic systems. Many of you might say, “Geo-economics, what’s that?”

Well, it’s not a term that one hears often, but you can quickly deduce that it points to the linkage between eco- logical systems and the human economy known as market capitalism. As the looming catastrophe of climate change and so many other environmental problems continue to advance, this is a field of inquiry that we humans, and especially we activists, need to learn much more about. Fortunately, Greg has been immersed in this topic for nearly 40 years. He is just the person to help us under- stand systems thinking and apply that understanding to how we can build a more just and sustainable world.

His great early mentor in this project was Buckminster Fuller, the legendary architect, systems theorist, designer, and futurist. “Bucky” was famous for probing deep design principles of nature and then using them to build, among many other things, electrical grids and housing in ways that are efficient, resilient, and socially equitable. Greg got to know Bucky through the New Alchemy Institute on Cape Cod, an ecological design incubator where Greg worked as education director and then as executive director in the 1980s. The twelve acres of New Alchemy had organic gardens and sail windmills, solar algae ponds, a passive-solar greenhouse that host- ed one of the first-generation aquaponic systems, along with, of course, the signature geodesic domes that Bucky was famous for.

It was the kind of place where one’s imagination could run wild, and that’s exactly what Greg has done in the intervening years with food and agriculture, ur- ban neighborhoods, ecological design, renewable energy, climate change, and social justice. One of his boldest adventures was to help in reviving a troubled inner-city neighborhood of Roxbury, Massachusetts, serving as the executive director of the Dudley Street Neighborhood Initiative. Instead of pursuing the usual models of economics by, say, bringing in a Walmart, he helped catalyze and lead a multicultural, grassroots project that established a community land trust to help reclaim some 1,300 largely abandoned lots filled with rubble. The initiative helped bring the area back to life as a thriving, sustainable neighborhood in the Boston area through agricultural projects and affordable housing, among other things.

I could go on and on about Greg’s amazing career, but let me mention only a few other notable facts. He served as Massachusetts Commissioner of Agriculture under three governors: Dukakis, Weld, and Patrick, during which time he helped launch a state-wide agricultural program and oversaw the planning and construction of the Boston Public Market. He’s organized a network of urban farmers markets in the Greater Boston Metropolitan area. As the first executive director of the Massachusetts Renewable Energy Trust, he’s been involved in offshore wind-energy development. He helped promote agro-ecology in Cuba to help enrich and reclaim agri- cultural soil. Here’s an amazing fact: in 1988, more than 30 years ago, Greg presented a paper preparing policy makers to address the problems of climate change. This was at the second annual conference of the North American Conference of Preparing for Climate Change, so he’s been in the vanguard for quite some time.

Much of his time today is devoted to developing the World Game Workshop, an idea first proposed by Buckminster Fuller in the 1960s that proposes a great logistical, non-zero-sum world peace game used as a tool to help solve governance problems. This is a tantalizing strategy if you’re trying to move us beyond some of the limitations of the nation state in dealing with these problems. The point, I think, is that Greg has been consistently ahead of his times, in the vanguard, and on the cusp of finding solutions to major societal problems, which is why I’m so eager to hear what he has to share with us today. I’m thrilled to present Greg Watson.

Thank you, David; I want to make sure you’re around to write my obituary.

I’m going to talk about global perspective on the Green New Deal. I’m using the Green New Deal because a lot of the work I do, especially as I start to pursue the concept of World Games, seems to be a little bit in the stratosphere, and I want to ground it in something I think we could all identify with and something I think is important with respect to how we can see ourselves becoming involved in the existential threat that climate change poses. The difficulty is that a problem or crisis like climate change can, at times, seem to be so overwhelming as to be paralyzing.

I am going to refer often to Buckminster Fuller because he changed my life and gave me the self-confidence to pursue many of the activities and career paths that I have been able to follow. He could easily have been a cult figure. But his major emphasis—if you distill his efforts to discover nature’s coordinate system as well as synergetic geometry and whole systems thinking—was to encourage us all to think for ourselves. He didn’t mean for us to think like him or to parrot him but rather to create a context.

Bucky called what he did explorations in the geometry of thinking. It was about thinking but thinking for ourselves. We aren’t going to solve global problems if we all try to mimic someone else. What we need is diversity of ideas and diversity of perspectives because they always are fueled by personal experience. He once said that each one of our lives is a way that the universe could have unfolded. He talked about general principles: a general principle, he said, is an eternal principle of nature and of the universe. You might ask, “How can anyone be so presumptuous as to say that he has discovered anything close to an eternal principle?” But it was one of his pursuits to ask, “How does the universe work? How does the world work? What can we learn from observation about principles that are eternal?” He said, “I’ll state a couple of principles, and all you have to do to prove that they are not eternal principles is to show one instance in the history of humanity, written or otherwise, where they’ve been contradicted.” He tried to present the essence of how the world works. Intuition was one of his major tools, and so it seems like a contra- diction to say that some of the results of his work and of his thinking are almost counterintuitive.

Bucky coined the word “dymaxion” to combine dynamic, maximum, and tension. The dymaxion map is referred to as the “one island, one ocean” map. I equate its impact with providing humanity with a different perspective of the Earth, with the image of the Apollo astronauts as they were making their first journey to the moon. While they had their cameras pointed toward where they were going, someone at mission control asked, “Why don’t we turn the cameras and look at the earth?” That’s how we got the first photo of the earth—or Spaceship Earth, as Bucky called it—floating in space. It really did impress people greatly in terms of that one fragile-looking planet surrounded by the darkness and vastness of space. This image is important because it’s the most accurate portrayal we have of the whole earth at one time, with all the continents correctly oriented spatially and with virtually no distortion. As you know, trying to transfer the spherical globe to a flat surface, like the Mercator map, always distorts Greenland as bigger than the United States.

I want to talk about solutions and where we’re headed with policy. I’m the director of policy and systems design at the Schumacher Center for a New Economics. I like titles like that because “policy and systems design” gives me latitude and flexibility to do a lot of things. I am a policy person. I’ve worked in government; I’ve worked in nonprofits, and I do believe policy is a powerful tool if it’s used correctly and if it’s an inclusive process. Here is a quote from Naomi Klein’s latest book, On Fire: The (Burning) Case for a Green New Deal: “In the process of transforming the infrastructure of our societies at the speed and scale scientists have called for [to address climate change], humanity has a once-in-a-century chance to fix an economic model that is failing the majority of people on multiple fronts.”

 

We need a Green New Deal. Some might ask, “Do we really need a Green New Deal?” The answer is yes. The question I’m putting forward is, “Can the Green New Deal be the real deal?” Does it have substance? I realize there is more than one Green New Deal proposal floating around out there: there’s Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s, and there’s also one from Bernie Sanders; in essence they are basically trying to address the same major goals.

I was at Bioneers in San Rafael, California, last weekend. I had lunch with the director of an organization I wasn’t aware existed. Called New Consensus, it’s one of the organizations that has come into being—with, I believe, Ocasio-Cortez’s blessing—to begin drafting the Green New Deal in greater detail. It raises a lot of questions for me when it states, “The world needs a new worldview.” It certainly does, but here’s the statement: “A truly beautiful world is possible—one without poverty or pollution, and with prosperity and dignity for everyone.” There’s more to it, but that’s the bold, grand statement, not your characteristic kind of government statement; it’s a vision. As you’ll see a little later, it’s very close to the vision that Bucky puts forward in terms of the goals of the World Game Workshops.

What are the span and the scope of the Green New Deal? What is it attempting to do? What is it attempting at least to address? Without going into details: emissions, power use, meeting all U.S. power demand through clean, renewable, and zero-emission energy sources. I always say both the devil and the angels are in the details. If we’re really serious about coming up with solutions and address- ing the climate change that we’re already in the midst of, I think it’s clear that what we’re trying to do is avoid the worst-case scenario.

I’m going to backtrack a little bit because my colleague Paul Hawken, with his Project Drawdown, would say that in addition to taking some of the steps I’ve mentioned, we have to look for ways to pull out of the atmosphere as many as possible of the greenhouse gases that are already in the atmosphere, perhaps providing the opportunity or the hope for more mitigation than some people would otherwise expect. I commend him because I think it’s a bold step to take.

Power usage and agriculture are mostly two-way streets. Agriculture is a source of many of the greenhouse gas emissions, but it can also be, as Sallie Calhoun pointed out in her lecture, a big part of the solution in terms of infrastructure and jobs. Sometimes people ask, “Why are you taking this much broader look and including the idea of welfare and social justice? Is that necessary? Is that relevant? Does it in any way dilute the effort to talk about mitigating or addressing climate change when you start to add in these issues of social justice and welfare?” I’ll address that.

The most obvious distinction between the Green New Deal and the old New Deal is that the latter was addressing a problem that was pretty much affecting everyone. It was felt across the board, and people were suffering. Climate change is an existential threat, and even though I think we are feeling its impacts today, they are dispersed and come at different times. Because the wildfires are put out or the heat spell ends, people can say, “Maybe that wasn’t climate change.” If you were in the heart of the Depression, there was no question that you were there. You were in the heart of it. That was a real and present crisis. It was a challenge for democracy.

Democracy was imperiled in terms of people questioning the ability of democracy—that is, our form of liberal government with its different branches of government—to put aside partisan politics and actually deal with this type of problem. I think you can hear the same sort of concern expressed today. Unfortunately, we see every day that we can’t pull ourselves together to deal even with the manufactured crises that are out there. There were at time folks in the F.D.R. administration who were actually consulting with legal and constitutional experts, wondering if there was a constitutional pathway to authoritarianism. There was a widespread fear that if democracy failed, the whole country could fall apart. It was very serious business in terms of what was being addressed at that time.

There are questions about the New Consensus and someone coming up with a plan, any plan, even the Green New Deal. I have to ask myself: Who is developing this new worldview? What assumptions underlie it? Is it a political worldview; is it a scientific worldview? Do we have a chance to provide any input? At the Bioneers conference I attended in California, I agreed to chair some panel discussions; one was on the Green New Deal, and it was a stimulating roundtable. Afterward I was pulled aside in-between sessions (that’s when everything happens) by a number of people with very different perspectives: a senior planner from Portland, Oregon; an African-American community organizer; health advocates. They all had the same questions because, I think, I was chairing the panel, and they assumed I knew more than I did. The questions they all asked were, How do we get involved in this? Are there any avenues or opportunities for our input? Will there be hearings? Their concerns were not necessarily raised in a critical context but because they all thought they had something to offer. “We’re doing things that are working; is there any way we can inform the process so that you don’t have to reinvent the wheel but can learn from some on-the-ground experiences that are actually working?” They wanted to provide us with avenues to do that.

Another question I always raise is, “What are all the options available, and how do those of you who are draft- ing highly critical and important types of policies know that you’re exploring as many options as you can?” That was one of the main aspects about Bucky and his thinking, and some people didn’t quite get it. He said that when he starts to think about a problem, he always starts with the universe. And people asked, “What do you mean, start with the universe”? He responded, “I start with the universe, and then I whittle my way down, discarding all the macro- irrelevancies, and I get closer and closer, and then I start to discard the micro-irrelevancies, but I don’t want to leave anything out.” If you start with the universe, everything is included, and then you whittle your way down to the core issues that are relevant to the problem you’re trying to solve. I know that may sound weird, but it’s what I do every time I try to solve a problem, and it actually does work. Try it.

What are the implications of the proposed actions? Have you had a chance to implement them, or is there any mechanism to do so? What process have you put in place that gives you a sense that you’ve thought this through and you understand what the implications are? And then finally, given that vision, at Bioneers there was talk about an equitable world, a beautiful world. Is that world even possible?

I think we do indeed need a new worldview, and I think the good news is that we have a head start on it. An article that appeared in The Guardian entitled “The Circle of Life,” written only a few weeks ago, refers to the creation of living machines, to research projects on renewable energy technologies, to sustainable architecture—all near and dear to my heart because of having spent a number of years at the New Alchemy Institute. The question The Guardian posed is: “Did these eco-pioneers design a blueprint for the future?” If you’re asking me that, you know what the answer is going to be. Clearly they did, and it had nothing to do with me. It had everything to do with people like John Todd, Bill McLarney, and Nancy Jack Todd, who together co-founded New Alchemy in 1969, right around the time of the first Earth Day, a time when youth were out in the streets, protesting and challenging the status quo.

John and Bill were marine biologists; they both had PhDs in marine biology and were working at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, one of the most renowned research organizations in the world. Nancy was and still is a writer, dancer and activist. They agreed that somebody had to start working on the alternatives. It’s important to point out what the problems are—fossil fuels, chemical fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides—and why they are problems, but at some point we have to start building a better model. Bucky reminded us that the best way to address the problems of the world is to build models that make them obsolete.

New Alchemy was an exceptional place, but it was not alone in the pioneering work done there: Rodale Institute was focusing on organic agriculture and Rocky Mountain Institute was doing research in renewable energy. It was a heady time when an amalgam of hippies, scientists, poets, and artists were coming together to try to come up with solutions. The key was that nature provided the model for most of the designs. It was biomimicry in its infancy. David beat me to the punch in his introduction when he mentioned some of the main accomplishments at that time. Here’s one I want to emphasize: Bucky pointed out that new ideas and innovations have a gestation period. He understood that different industries operated within different time frames. Each industry has its own gestation period during which a new idea is incorporated, whether it’s into an industry or into society. One of the shortest is aeronautics, where a new and good idea can be incorporated within two or three years. The building/construction trade is the slowest, with 25 to 50 years for a new idea or innovation to make its way.

When I was at New Alchemy Institute, we renovated an old barn. We turned it into one of the country’s first superinsulated buildings, with no central heating system, air-to-air heat exchangers, and Tyvek, a synthetic mate- rial used to wrap the building. We made a presentation to the building trades association on Cape Cod; a number of people looked at the Tyvek and asked, “What is this stuff?” They stormed out of the meeting, which was indicative of the fact that there was an almost industrial-cultural resistance, not so much an individual resistance, coming from a perspective that Fuller and others were starting to observe, namely, “How many of these trends and patterns can we pick up?” As you start to understand that, you get a better sense of how to address problems. You get a better sense of what the culture you’re trying to deal with accepts or rejects, in some cases even how you can perhaps circumvent the process.

As we were rethinking technology at places like New Alchemy Institute and Rocky Mountain Institute, there were those—such as E. F. Schumacher and Bob Swann—who were rethinking economics. There’s no question Small is Beautiful: Economics As If People Mattered is a seminal book that did a lot to embolden people to think differently about economics. It wasn’t usual for people to think that you could actually question science, or that you could challenge economic theory and practice. Most people didn’t understand economics; I still think most economists didn’t understand economics. Its tenets weren’t questioned because, for all intents and purposes, they were givens, and they were automatically and unknowingly accepted.

We can add to books like Small is Beautiful two books by Jane Jacobs, The Death and Life of Great American Cities and Cities and the Wealth of Nations, which both had a major impact. Jacobs made clear what Yogi Berra, my second favorite philosopher, meant when he said, “You can observe a lot by looking.” Jane Jacobs was a great observer. When she walked the streets of New York, she saw what the dynamics of cities and city life were. She understood the importance of preserving local neighborhoods, and she had the courage to stand up to the big developers of New York City like Robert Moses.

Then there is the Dudley Street Neighborhood Initiative community: poor African-American, White, Cape Verdean, and Latino residents victimized by redlining, disinvestment, racism, and arson for profit—all of which reduced their community to rubble. In part because of consultation with Bob Swann and Susan Witt here at Schumacher, they had the vision to understand—probably more than some of the academics and people who are experts—the power of community land trusts. They understood that building community wealth was an important process, and they realized that to some extent they had to sacrifice maximizing individual wealth in order to build community wealth, which in the end helped everyone. It was a different way of looking at economics from what most economists—and even some foundations—would tell you. The Ford Foundation was a little reticent about giving a grant because the people didn’t own the land; hence, their opportunity to build wealth was taken away. Ford learned something from this community on that occasion.

Many of us are questioning science and technology and even economics, and we also think we have to rethink globalism because it has gone awry so that we can’t participate. But as long as we all carry cell phones around with us, globalization is a reality. The components of our consumer electronics—including our renewable energy technologies, which are part of our toolkit of solutions to our climate- change problem—have now become inextricably part of a global supply chain. As Hazel Henderson pointed out, we really have to do everything we can to understand what it means to think globally and act locally and, I would add, vice versa. I don’t know how you can do otherwise.

Let me now segue into the World Game Workshop. What we’re trying to do with the World Game is revitalize a concept that Bucky developed. We actually feel honored. I’m working with Elizabeth Thompson, who was formerly executive director of the Buckminster Fuller Institute as well as founder and director of the Buckminster Fuller Challenge, an annual $100,000 grant that was part of a competitive process for soliciting proposals designed to meet basic human needs by solving major problems using the overall design science approach that Bucky developed. The World Game Workshop is a simulation game that challenges players to look for solutions to those problems. We also think it will serve as a tool for improving what we’re calling “global systems literacy,” our understanding of how global systems work and our relationship with that world.

The goal of the World Game Workshop is “to make the world work for 100% of humanity in the shortest possible time through spontaneous cooperation without ecological offense or the disadvantage of anyone.” Most people would say: “How can we possibly do that? Is it possible?” Here’s what I would say to that point: go to Google and search for any other organization or institution that is try- ing to make the world work for 100 percent of humanity and doing it without ecological offense or disadvantage to anyone. Please challenge me in an email if you find one. You won’t find any.

Bucky suggested as a step in that direction that we “look to see what needs to be done that no one else is doing, that you think you may have the ability to do, and do it.” It doesn’t mean you’re going to find anyone who’s going to pay for it, but you should try anyway. The centerpiece of this is the DymaxionTM map he invented and patented, the map I mentioned earlier that has no distortions. Not only are there no distortions but no country or area has a privileged position. You could flip it around and nothing would change. It also shows you a different relationship among the continents. Remember Pangaea, the original supercontinent that broke apart? You can see from this that the DymaxionTM Map shows we are still connected. Instead of being one massive continent, we’re now part of a necklace, which is important when considering some of the opportunities we have.

Elizabeth Thompson and I, working through the Schumacher Center, have been given the privilege of stewarding the re-imagining of what the World Game Workshop might be. Particularly in our time of global crisis, we feel that a tool like this is important. Before going any further, I want to be sure everyone understands who Buckmister Fuller was. In addition to being the inventor of the geodesic dome and the person who would give 24-hour lectures about everything he knew (I went to one, and I tell you I was glued), he was a cartographer, mathematician, inventor, and poet. He was a polymath. One of the things I particularly like about him is that he was kicked out of Harvard twice.

His understanding of whole systems did not come from academia; it came from serving in the Navy in World War I. He understood that if you’re on a ship, you’ve got to know everything you can about what is on that ship, how it’s equipped, what’s there in terms of your life sup- port. You also have to know everything you can about the environment that the ship is operating in if you want to survive. That led him to the perspective of whole systems derived from experience.

Bucky wrote a number of books; also an inventor, his Geodesic Dome was on display at Expo 67 in Montreal. He developed a Dymaxion car during the Depression that could get 40 miles to the gallon and seat up to 11 people; it had three wheels and could pivot on one wheel. He did not envision that the geodesic dome would necessarily at- tain widespread use, but he wanted to demonstrate, among other things, that it was designed to address a housing crisis in a world with an exploding population. He had to figure out what he wanted to do, and “how do you do more with less?” became a mantra for him.

A sphere, as you all remember from geometry, is the shape or structure that encloses the maximum amount of volume using the least amount of surface area to do it. You can’t enclose space any more efficiently than with a sphere. But spheres are also inherently unstable, so he triangulated the sphere. A tetrahedron actually encloses the least amount of area, using the most amount of surface area to do it, but if you integrate the two, what you get is a very efficient, lightweight structure; about 20 people could pick one up, set it down, reestablish it, put it on a cinder block foundation, and it could withstand hurricane force winds. Bucky designed in extreme ways so that we could see what he wanted us to see.

Synergetics was his major work. It’s a difficult but fascinating book that encapsulates what he described as his discovery of and articulation of nature’s coordinates. Its geometry helps you understand the principles of biology and ecological design and, I dare say, even Einstein’s theory of relativity, but you don’t need abstract mathematics. He felt that the whole idea of initiation into the scientific world—through algebra, calculus, and abstract mathematics that people couldn’t quite comprehend—was a way of keeping a closed fraternity. His use of language makes it difficult to read, but his language is precise. He even would invent language, as my friend Deborah reminded me before I spoke. He used language in a way that forced you to think. Bucky felt that often when we read and come across familiar words and sentence structure, they trigger a reflex action in our brains, i.e., jumping to a logical conclusion (“I know what the writer means”) as opposed to the act of processing and understanding what we’ve read. His use of language made that difficult to do because it was so unorthodox.

What would happen if you really put effort into reading Synergstics? I can’t speak for you, but for myself, for the first time I grasped what it meant to understand something that was vitally important and, in fact, I was convinced that I had come to understand some eternal principles of the universe. There, I said it! Eternal principles of the universe.

O. B. Hardison, Jr., wrote about Synergetics in The New York Times Book Review of June 29, 1975: “You grope for analogies. The Notebook of Leonardo. The Opera of Paracelsus. Pascal’s ‘Pensées.’ Or Alexander Pope’s remark about creation, ‘A mighty maze but not without a plan.’ It is alternately brilliant and obscure, opaque and shot through with moments of poetry. What becomes clear with patience is that the virtues and liabilities are one. Synergetics could not have been written in any other way because its language and mathematics are vehicles for vision.”

It is the Cartesian coordinate system, with everything going out into infinity, that Bucky challenged. He said, “I don’t think nature works that way.” He said, “I think nature works in closed systems.” There’s another way to see intersecting planes that have the same angular orientation, not 90 degrees but 60 degrees: he called this the vector equilibrium, and he said it was nature’s operating system. I realize that you can’t take my word for it, but here is what Morris Kline says in Mathematics: The Loss of Certainty: “Creations of the early 19th century, strange geometries and strange algebras, forced mathematicians, reluctantly and grudgingly, to realize that mathematics proper and the mathematical laws of science were not truths. . . . Apparently mathematical design was not inherent in nature, or if it was, man’s mathematics was not necessarily the account of that design.”

What is Synergetics? Buckminster Fuller discovered and articulated the nonlinear logic of the structural mathematics of nature, what he called Nature’s Coordinate System and Synergetics. It is a triangular-tetrahedral system that employs 60-degree coordination rather than a 90-degree coordinate system. You can then see it articulated. It’s the way he thinks nature coordinates. With the Cartesian coordinates, you’ve got infinity; pollution can go out into its wide-open system. With Synergetics the system is closed, there is feedback (consequences), and you can see that it is also scalable (the same basic design structure can be seen in atoms, honeycombs, and galaxies). Form and function become integrated in real ways. Nature is beautiful, not because it has ornamentation that was put there just to make it look pretty but because nature is totally functional. And the total functionality of nature then emerges as beauty to our eyes because it’s designed right. Design may be anthropomorphic, but that’s the word I’m going to use.

I would say, “Dare to be naïve.” Bucky Fuller’s World Games were designed as a direct counterpoint to war games. War games are linear; they are analytical games that are used to create opportunities to play out strategic situations, with the ultimate goal of defeating adversaries. If you use data and information from around the world in terms of resources, in terms of trends, in terms of population, in terms of what’s going on in the world, that becomes part of your inventory for developing a strategic defense strategy.

World Game uses the same information. This is important. Bucky asked, “What would happen if you or I, instead of developing weapons, used that same information to address human needs for everyone aboard Spaceship Earth?” He said “World Game does make it eminently clear that we have four billion billionaires aboard our planet in terms of real wealth,” which is a fact that he says has been obscured by our traditional economic system. His definition of real wealth is the technological ability to protect, nurture, and support the needs of life. It is not a matter of making money but of whether we are enhancing and building and nurturing and supporting life. “Real wealth is the product of energy times intelligence: energy turned into artifacts that advantage human life,” wealth being a human concept.

 

Now for climate change and renewable energy. While working in state government in 1989 I founded and ran the Massachusetts Office of Science and Technology; one of our first publications focused entirely on climate change. Later I worked for the state’s Renewable Energy Trust. Massachusetts, by virtue of its location, became the first place where offshore wind technology was developed. William Heronemus, a University of Massachusetts professor, was the first to identify the offshore wind resource as being enough to supply electricity for the entire world, and he was the first person to design floating platforms.

Here we are now, and just look at renewables. Renewable power prices are lower than the cost of natural gas; I think they are even approaching the price of coal. Bill McKibben points out that the price of solar is going down too. There are calls for stopping the extraction of fossil fuels and building 100 percent renewables. Yes, but we’ve got to start realistically by asking what the “buts” are.

We’ve inherited World Game Workshops from the past; we’re going to update them by offering a series of real-time, data-driven, immersive educational experiences. I want to illuminate global systems dynamics by first asking, “Can we take a look at these proposals and assess or evaluate their ability to do what they say they are designed to do?” Some of what we see are world resources. That was one of the keys for Bucky. What are those resources? I’m go- ing to point to my geeky thing—the periodic table, which I love. The periodic table is nature’s minimum-inventory, maximum-diversity toolkit for creating everything. Our chemistry teachers attempted to show us that everything in the natural world is built from either the elements or some combination of the elements. These elements were born where? In stars. We are the result of stardust and Nova explosions. The elements are also the toolkit for everything we make in society. The chemical elements are important; they have economic value, which varies over time. It varies with the development of technologies that use them. A few years ago nobody talked about cobalt. Now, all of a sudden, as a result of our smart phones, for example, cobalt markets are soaring because they are vital to the performance of those phones.

Here’s the most important thing: those elements, those minerals are distributed unevenly around the world. Interpreted from nature’s point of view, that uneven distribution of elements and minerals leads to diversity: there are different flora and fauna in different parts of the world because there are different mineral contents to support them or not support them. Renewable energy technologies— wind turbines and solar panels—rely on a combination of chemical elements and minerals. Offshore wind turbine components are sourced from elements from many different parts of the world, China being a major supplier. In some cases, rare earth elements come from nations mired in conflict. I think as much as 54 percent of cobalt comes from the Congo. Thus, there are now logistical, economic, ethical, and moral issues that arise from developing these new technologies, which in fact have the potential of ad- dressing climate change, but we would be remiss not to understand that there are a lot more implications than meet the eye. In addition to resources, we are looking at existing technologies and technology development because they factor mightily in defining which minerals and elements are important.

Prior to the Second World War, one of the areas that the original New Deal focused on, and one of the areas that today’s Green New Deal focuses on, is research and development. If you look at today’s economy, you realize that nearly all the core technologies that characterize the digital age came from military R&D labs. Over the years, our economy has been driven by obsolete military technologies. There are major corporations such as Halliburton, Boeing, and Raytheon that consider no-longer-classified technologies and ask, “How can we introduce these to the economy?” Not in order to meet human needs but to make a lot of money.

You realize there’s a skewing in terms of what would happen if the focus of R&D programs really were to try to address human needs instead of lining the pockets of some of the major corporations. By the way, the other day when I had to get the airbag replaced in my car, I used a rental. It was a brand new car. I get into it, and all of a sudden I’m saying, “Is this thing out of control?” I’m getting jerked around. My car is old, so I had never driven one equipped with all the new accessories that are part of the field tests the military is developing for their autonomous vehicles. We actually are field-testing that technology. The military has identified the next area for a major war as mega-cities and has determined that the way those wars are going to be fought is with autonomous vehicles and drones and facial recognition technologies. In essence the technologies that are being developed are for the next phase of warfare. Maybe we love these features, but that’s what they are for.

Bucky advocated replacing technologies for weaponry and transferring them to technologies for “livingry.” What would it look like if we had an R&D budget that went to projects like eco-designs or the floating offshore wind farms or soil carbon sequestration or electric vehicles? All that is about human needs and trends. We need to find out what’s going on in the world that might affect us and that might give us, as Sallie mentioned, some surprises about where some of the solutions lie by making the invisible visible and by looking at supply chains. How many of you have heard of the Belt and Road Initiative, the new Silk Road in China? It is in fact the largest infrastructure project ever undertaken in history, at least that we know of. It involves 69 countries, 60 percent of the world’s population, and nearly $1 trillion in projected investments. The key is that this is a huge investment in infrastructure.

When we in the United States talk about aid to other countries, the aid is almost always designed for regime change, and I’m not saying this isn’t the case; I want to be very careful here. But infrastructure investment makes sense. Countries can benefit, with a tangible result. Now, China gets a lot in return for that because they gain access, for example, to ports as a result of helping to build those ports and also railroads, which have strategic importance too. Everything is at least a double-edged if not a multi- edged sword, but this is what is happening. I’m pointing this out only to say that it’s happening. From the way the supply chains work, from an operational and functional point of view of the participating 69 countries, the whole notion of nation-state boundaries is gradually being dis- solved. Boundaries don’t matter as much as they used to because as China is building its interconnected railroads, highways, ports, and airports, those 69 countries are all using the same engineering standards. They’re creating a different type of network and a different type of interde- pendency; if you’re a critic, you will say a dependence is being created.

China is also developing a global energy interconnection by proposing to connect the world with one integrated—modular but integrated—electric grid. The reason, at least ostensibly, is to position itself to become the leader in renewable energy and electric vehicles. It is probably making the most successful move of any country to convert the transportation sector to electricity. By developing a network of recharge stations across the continent, China is providing incentives for all Eurasia to buy electric vehicles in an attempt to see if it’s possible to make renewable energy a baseload—a steady and reliable source, not just an intermittent one—by connecting different regions around the world because the wind is always flowing somewhere and the sun is always shining somewhere. High-voltage, direct-current transmission now allows for the long-range transmission of the electricity. China has a vision of creating a particular continent, a particular project.

I want to point out that during the Carter administration, Bucky approached Jimmy Carter and Premier Trudeau and Leonid Brezhnev with an idea that he thought should be pursued: “I have presented my plan for using our increasing technical ability to construct high-voltage, superconductive transmission lines and implementing an around-the-world electrical energy grid integrating the daytime and nighttime hemispheres, thus swiftly increasing the operating capacity of the world’s electrical energy system and, concomitantly, living standard in an unprecedented feat of international cooperation.” He saw this as spontaneous cooperation that would bring countries together. It’s interesting that there is a Western, visionary, way-out-there Buckminster Fuller and an authoritarian, repressive regime, China, but they’ve reached the same conclusion about viability and the importance of trying to take this trip.

I’m going to end by telling you the vision of the World Game Workshop. I might start by asking you a number of questions: “Could you envision a model of global co-operation to address climate change?” “Could you chart its critical path?” “Could you support a China-led world electric grid?” I want to use this way of getting at some thorny questions. I don’t know how else. The point I really want to make is that maybe the only way we can actually meet the resource demands for renewable energy without exhausting them is by cooperating to use them much more efficiently. We tried to do a community wind project in Massachusetts because doing it individually would cost too much. That doesn’t mean micro-grids and local grids can’t work; they can be modularly designed and made to be renewable, but I don’t see how we’re going to get around this conundrum of people wanting to go their own way.

The other reality we have to face is that renewable energy technologies—wind and solar—are part of an extractive industry. Because we will no longer be going after oil and gas and we’re going to close those mines, we may think that we’re not extracting, but if you’re going to rely on solar and wind, you are extracting. We have to be honest about that. My prediction is that you’re going to start hearing questions like “Can there be sustainable extraction?” I’m not being facetious here, but something has got to happen because we’re not being honest. I don’t care if you need a minute amount of cobalt, you still must go into the mines to get it, and there is talk about mining under the ocean as well; now there’s conflict in the countries within the Arctic Circle as they prepare to compete for valuable resources that become accessible as the ice melts.

Let me end by quoting Bucky: “You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.” This doesn’t mean you reach utopia. It probably means you’re going to confront more difficult problems.

One island, one ocean, one earth. Thank you.

 

Question Period

 

What, if anything, did Buckminster Fuller say about consumerism?

I don’t know if there’s anything explicitly about consumerism other than, I would say, his condemnation of or his questioning about the capitalist system in general. Obviously his idea was to optimize the use of resources. I guess this would be the indirect way of saying that he considered the purpose of wealth not to be the production of widgets and things we don’t need but rather the use of technology to support, nurture, and sustain life. I can say confidently that consumerism absolutely did not fit into that scenario.

 

Do you imagine the World Game primarily as a professional tool or a tool to inform and shift public opinion? How do you see the World Game being rolled out and implemented?

Probably the best way to say it is that we are re-imaging or updating the original concept. The original Game was played in a large context, usually geared toward schools and organizations. A huge dymaxion map was rolled out onto a gymnasium floor, and kids positioned themselves on it to get a sense of the geography. It was available to anyone who could afford it, and in many cases it was subsidized by grants. A limited audience was reached, though, because there were only a few facilitators and only a few maps to play. But there were no conditions attached to whom it was for. The audience that Bucky targeted was the next generation of leaders, who were middle-school to college-age students, but it wasn’t limited to them.

There was a lot to be gained from face-to-face interaction because you could see emotions; you could see people really getting into the idea of playing the game and feeling it. Our sense is that we’d like to continue to do as many of those venues as possible where there can be that face-to-face contact. We probably need to make it less cumbersome, probably with some sort of projection of the map on the floor instead of having to take a really unwieldy object and move it around.

The other idea we’re dealing with cautiously is how to make an online presence. We want to make sure that anyone who wants to play is able to play. The idea is to be a venue where the public at large can share both their ideas and also share the data we’re using. Everything that we collect in terms of data and information will be publicly available. That’s the way Bucky believed it should be, as opposed to putting the emphasis on the military, which has the tools to do this sort of analysis. Corporations do pretty much the same thing in their risk analysis; they have similar data, and they use tens of thousands of dollars to gain access to this data so they can determine whether or not they want to make investments in other countries to do their assessments. They take the same information, just as the military takes the same information, but they draw different conclusions than we would draw from the same information. In our case, if we saw that unions or labor organizing was strong, we would see that as a positive, but if you were an investor you probably would see it as a negative.

That’s part of where we’re headed. The first phase is that we’re looking for folks who want to—and I mean this sincerely—help us design the next iteration of the World Game. We even want to target some colleges and universities because we want young folks to play, but they have to help us figure out how to design it so that young people will play. We don’t pretend to be gamers or game developers. The old World Game, with its earlier visions, really works well, but we want to take it to the next step, and the way we can do that is by having a participatory kind of design phase. We’re just starting with that, and we’re asking those who are even mildly interested and want to be kept up-to-date to put their name on our website.

 

What are you seeing or doing that really takes into account the inequity of our system, and what are the solutions we could foster that aren’t further repeating these same inequities?

 I would repeat some of the examples that were brought up earlier today. There’s no question in my mind that community organizing is a strong tool in terms of empowering people to take advantage of their numbers. There’s a movement happening around the country; certainly we’re seeing it happen in Boston in terms of a solidarity economy where people are realizing that they need to develop strategies for it, and I come back to Bucky’s definition of wealth as the use of technology to generate life support. We’re seeing a flourishing of urban farming. Not just urban gardening, which is important, but urban agriculture. The proof may still be in the pudding as to whether or not we can find a way to make it economically viable. There’s some tension between keeping food affordable and accessible and yet being able to support an urban farmer with a small piece of land. Our traditional farmers are finding it difficult to make a go of it.

The other thing I was going to mention is a consumerism quote from Bucky: “You have to decide whether you want to make money or make sense, because the two are mutually exclusive.” I think that’s what these folks are faced with. I remember teaching at South Boston High School in Roxbury during court-ordered busing when we first started talking about urban gardening. Many of the black students wanted to have nothing to do with farm- ing because for them it was strongly linked to plantation slavery, and that was a step backward. When they began to see the empowering aspects of being able to take some level of control over meeting basic needs—food, energy, shelter—that became a powerful factor.

I don’t think it’s going to be possible to make up the wealth gap that exists right now. The average net worth of an African-American in Boston city proper is $8. The Boston Globe did a study, which pointed out that this is not a typo; it is $8, as compared to $247,000 for white residents. When you take into consideration the land as well, 98 percent of the agricultural land is owned by whites, and much of that has been confiscated from African-Americans. So I think we’ve got to look at a new way of doing things and place emphasis on using the kind of tools that New Alchemy and others were developing, keeping in mind that this can help empower and make that transition possible.

One last point. Many of those disenfranchised individuals and communities are taking their own initiative: they’re organizing; they’re holding their own meetings; they’re networking; they’re developing cooperatives. So they aren’t waiting for the savior to come and do it for them. They are basically saying, “We know how we’re going to do this.” When I was sent by the Schumacher Center to Cuba as part of a delegation to assess the sustainable farming system there, I was impressed by the fact that most of the black participants were as interested, if not more interested, in the revolution and in the cooperative system that was set up as opposed to the technical aspects of agro-ecology. They wanted to understand the organizing aspect and how to form the cooperatives and pursue agrarian reform, which was more important in their minds.

 

What can patterns in nature teach us about how we can better structure our human systems—social, ecologi- cal, economic, et cetera?

 MIT Press published a book by Peter S. Stevens entitled Patterns of Nature, which presents a model for design in meeting human needs. This is not just à la Bucky; it was the mantra and guide for places like New Alchemy, using nature and patterns in nature as the model for design, look- ing at those patterns as being the way of understanding, especially regarding nature. The patterns in nature help make the invisible visible. Those are the forces and structure. When Bucky said he discovered the coordinates of nature, he defined them geometrically. I think there’s a linking thread from the sacred geometries of the past to the more scientific approaches today. I don’t remember who said that God geometrizes, and that is the idea behind designing in ways that are sustainable and resilient. To reemphasize the point that Bucky made: every part of nature is functional, and beauty emerges as a result and consequence.

Bucky advised, “Don’t fight forces; use them!” Work with them. That’s a design principle. Some of these prin- ciples are very simple. Most of the forces and most of the patterns in nature are co-functions. They almost always incorporate opposites. Tension and compression coexist. He talked about that as one of the eternal principles. You take a rope and you tension it in one direction, but it compresses in another. What he pointed out was that nature will almost always emphasize tension as opposed to compression, and you can’t have one without the other. Most materials are stronger in tension. Nature, he says, seldom pushes but almost always pulls.

This is where language comes in because it’s a misnomer to say, “The wind is blowing.” The wind doesn’t blow; winds are pulled over long distances from high-pressure systems to low-pressure systems. When you blow (or “push”) air, it doesn’t travel very far; it ends in a short puff that curls back on itself. A tree pulls the water up through evapotranspiration. Over and over and over again you can see that those patterns, those strategies, those techniques are always incorporated in ways that optimize resources to bring about the best results and life support in planning.

 

How can the World Game inform place-specific solutions necessary to prepare for climate change?

By going back to thinking globally and acting locally, without doing it in a cliché way. I’m seeing it happen in communities in California, in Mississippi’s Cooperation Jackson, and also here in the Berkshires. We’re starting to see how some advances and even some new technologies that are being developed can perhaps play a role. At first glance, this might seem inconsistent with certain local goals, but I think that concepts like 3-D printing and maker cen- ters and community-supported industry are starting to take hold. We’re already familiar with community-supported agriculture. Community-supported industry and import substitution can be a little more difficult, as I was trying to indicate when I mentioned some of the problems with renewables, but component parts and pieces can now be made with 3-D printing and other advanced technologies. So rather than dismissing all technology—and I probably would include even artificial intelligence—the goal is going to be selective, to be discriminating, to be thoughtful. What are the appropriate technologies that are being developed globally, not just here? The transfer of the technology can then benefit local economies.

 

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Publication By

Greg Watson

Greg Watson is Director of Policy and Systems Design at the Schumacher Center for a New Economics. His work currently focuses on community food systems and the dynamics between local and geo-economic systems. Watson has spent nearly 40 years learning to understand systems thinking as inspired by Buckminster Fuller and to apply that understanding to … Continued

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