Design, Social Impact

Accelerating Acceleration: Towards Tomorrow

Since the invention of the printing press, the scientific and thought advances of man have spread throughout the world at ever increasing rates, extending to millions an education that was historically exclusive to just a lucky few. Knowledge has catalyzed knowledge in what R. Buckminster Fuller described as the ever-increasing wealth of the world. He expressed that the collective learning of humanity is additive, and that even when experiments fail, knowledge increases and the edifice of human innovation and ingenuity reaches new heights. Every time we reach an apparent zenith, somebody somewhere has an epiphany, and Eureka! humanity rises beyond its limits again. The brilliance of the human mind has known no limits.

Bucky observed over half a century ago, that the mankind’s millennia of accumulated experience has enabled an accelerating acceleration of the human-made world. Today this phenomenon has been popularized as Moore’s Law in the case of the doubling of computer processing power and the halving of its cost, but in fact, it is present in every sphere of human involvement. Buildings rise taller in less time, vehicles travel further for every unit of fuel and product manufacturing seems only limited by our ability to imagine. Yet despite a historically remarkable capacity to transcend constraints, humanity’s collective imagination continues to be bound by a legacy of parameters that have long been overcome.

Buckminster Fuller understood that as humanity progressed, it failed to shed critically limiting assumptions that are no longer valid. In particular, he observed that in order for humanity to succeed, it needed to move past the view that growing populations and scarce resources create an intractable problem. The consequence of failing to do so leads to a single inevitable conclusion: there always will be winners and losers in the world. The de facto consequence of this is an undisputed acceptance that some will unavoidably benefit at the expense of others. But in order to understand the prevalence of this perception, Bucky traced it back to its origin, finding that it is premised on the views exposed in 1778 by a highly influential scholar whose name was Thomas Malthus.

Recognizing the pressure put on food production by people, Malthus’ famous treatise titled “An Essay on the Principle of Population” describes the certain collision of arithmetic growth of land productivity and exponential population growth. This observation was based on the then valid understanding that human population increased geometrically, like a number sequence that grows from 2 to 4 to 8, and so continuously. A fast growing number of mouths to feed directly conflicts with the limited capacity of a plot of land because crop yields increase linearly from 1 to 2 to 3. Malthus’ central argument is that population growth outpaces food production growth and that land yields reach fast. This thinking has been extrapolated to all fields of production, leading to an accepted wisdom that holds that not enough goods can come into existence for everyone in the world to enjoy. Simple math and common sense dictates the validity of this logic, but as the world population speeds past 7 billion people, we must ask ourselves how can Malthus still be right?

Bucky quickly pointed to human ingenuity to answer this question. Technological advances have disintegrated the once ominous Malthusian constraints, and over the last centuries the proportion of people that are clothed, fed, and housed is higher than ever before. In fact, the high-yield seed varieties and agronomical development of the Green Revolution in the 1960s resulted in enough food production to feed everybody in the world. Additionally, energy technology is at a point were all could have access to modern energy services. Yet the doctrine of winners and losers persists, allowing an illusion of perpetual scarcity to rule the dynamics of modern markets for goods and commodities. The result is a state of arrested productivity and a cognitive bias supporting exclusivity rather than inclusivity. The real world implications of this paradigm has allowed over a 1.5 billion people in the world to continuously suffer from chronic hunger and disease, and just as many depending on wood fuels as their main source of energy.

This paradoxical situation is exactly what Buckminster Fuller worked throughout his life. He challenged the accepted view and reminded us that we possess the technology to provide a historically unprecedented quality of life to all occupants of Spaceship Earth. Since then our technology has only improved, costs have decreased and access to information has only widened. In essence, humanity’s real wealth, the body of ever accumulating knowledge, has ballooned to levels unimaginable. At this point, what is astounding is that regardless of our technological advances we have failed to extend basic quality of life to all of humanity.

Our modern civilization is often cynical, rejecting ambitious and positive views by deeming them unattainable, idealistic and utopian. For example, Bucky’s fundamental assumption establishes that humanity is a resounding success, but this simple idea has failed to permeate the collective consciousness because it is so diametrically opposed to the doctrine of winners and losers. Instead the common assumption is utilitarian and skeptical, centering solely on competition and scarcity. It is not uncommon for exceptional intentions to permeate societies slowly, for example the Declaration of Independence led to the foundation of America based on the values of freedom and equality, but it took almost two more centuries until these ideals rang true for all its citizens. Even if delayed, powerful viewpoints, whose virtues are self-apparent, eventually surface in unexpected ways. Providing for all has not yet become a global priority, but the message is resonating with an ever-increasing number of people and is on its way to critical mass. Unfortunately we are still not there, and despite humanity’s experience transcending limitations, the current paradigm continues to support an outdated Malthusian view.

The perpetuation of this obsolete perspective is prolonged because not enough people understand the sheer magnitude and growth of humanity’s real wealth. In other words, people do not yet understand what Buckminster Fuller clearly demystified with his life’s work, epitomized by the conclusion that through the unselfish deployment of our existing technology, we can resolve all of humanity’s basic needs. The time for us to shed the chains of a legacy mindset has come. Our ability to precipitate this paradigm shift is the key for a new tomorrow.