Buckminster Fuller was an architect, engineer, writer, inventor and futurist, but he was also a rebel who was kicked out of Harvard twice and never finished there. After he was admitted for the second time, he was expelled for “irresponsibility and lack of interest.” He had no interest in the existing systems and practices he found. He was only interested in inventing the future — in bringing to life the vision he saw in his own mind.
Fuller saw different ways of designing and engineering buildings, among other things. He didn’t try to convince architects and engineers that their conventional designs were wrong. He didn’t care about fighting them. He simply went about the work of inventing what he saw in his mind’s eye. He was very conscious of this approach.
“You never change something by fighting the existing reality,” Fuller said. “To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.”
Fuller was miserably unsuccessful in the early years of his life. In addition to being kicked out of Harvard twice, he was financially unsuccessful. At one point in the 1920s, he was doing so poorly that he and his family were living in government-owned housing for poor people. Most people would have either given in and joined in doing things the way everybody else did them or spent years bitterly trying to fight a system that didn’t show any appreciation for the genius his ideas offered.
Instead, Fuller persisted in doing things his way — and great success eventually followed him. He’s now considered one of the greatest minds of the 20th century.
I started thinking about Fuller Monday — and especially his quote about not fighting to change existing reality, but rather building a new model entirely — when I was thinking more about the whole debate about whether to vote and about how the world can change (since I know it can’t happen through electoral politics). It helped me to crystalize something in my mind that I already knew, but just hadn’t put into words.
We can’t change political reality by fighting it. We can’t change the oppressive nature of coercive governments by voting for more favorable politicians. We can’t bring about individual freedom by convincing everyone to want it. We can’t bring about the kinds of societies we want by trying to tear down the parts of the old ones that we don’t like. We can only defeat the coercive state by building a new model that is so desirable and so successful that people around the world will clamor for it.
For those of us who are unhappy with the way the world is now — and particularly for those of us who ache to see how much of the world is mired in painful poverty and ignorance — the only solution is to build something new. Political scientist Vincent Ostrom (who built much of his work on the thinking of early 20th century Austrian economists) pointed out that self-government is the key to ending the painful gap between the wealthy and the poor.
“The most radical source of inequalities in human societies is the ‘ruler-ruled’ relationship,” Ostrom said. “The fashioning of a truly free world depends upon building the fundamental infrastructures that enable different peoples to become self-governing.”
If we’re going to have any hope of building a world where poverty is reduced and hundreds of millions of people can have an opportunity for a better life, we have to do more than just fight the existing system. We have to do more than just take money from successful people and hand it to the poor. And we have to do more than just help people in poverty through existing models of charity or ministry. We have to invent something brand new.
The coercive state as we know it isn’t going to suddenly go away. I believe it’s going to collapse in time, but if we haven’t invented a better model — and shown that it works — something even worse than the existing state might take its place.
Pioneering computer scientist Alan Kay famously said in 1971, “The best way to predict the future is to invent it.” Most people don’t have the vision for how to invent much of anything. Fewer still have the practical ability or the patience or the determination. But what we need now are people who are willing to have a vision for a different societal model — even though nobody around us will understand how it can work — and then struggle for ways to plant that model and prove its viability.
I don’t know exactly how we’re going to pull that off. I don’t know how long it will take. It might be our children or grandchildren who complete whatever we’re laying the foundation for. But I know we won’t make it happen by fighting the coercive state. We will only do it by inventing an alternative that makes people willingly give up the old model and insist that they live under a new paradigm.
The time we spend fighting the system is wasted time. Whether the answer is to be found in free cities or micro nations or seasteads or something we haven’t even thought of, the answer isn’t going to exist until we invent it and build it and show it to the world. I’m still looking for partners who are trying to figure this out and make it happen.
The path is very fuzzy, but we have to find a way to make our way down that path. I believe the future of the civilized world might depend on it.