June 16, 1995
Buckminster Fuller, the great American inventor/designer whose centennial will be observed this summer, took as much care with his language as he did with his engineering. In 1927, following the death of his young daughter and a series of business failures, Fuller spent nearly two years in silence, considering both the trajectory of his life and the accuracy of his language. “Words seem to be to be one of the most extraordinary tool applications of men,” he wrote in Ideas and Integrities. ” They are obviously tools, and I am enough of a mechanic to know that you can use tools in the wrong way.”
He emerged dedicating his life to “a world that works”–a promise that gave us the geodesic dome, Dymaxion maps, cars and houses, and the World Game–and to communicating “what I really meant to communicate.”
Bucky observed that our common language lulls us into distortions of reality. The serenity and awe of a beautiful sunrise, for example, is a universal human experience. Yet we have know for hundreds of years that the sun does not revolve around the earth, and thus does not “rise” or “set.” What we experience as sunrise and sunset is actually a sun hidden and revealed by the earth’s rotation.
Even something as simple as “up” and “down” snares us. Though “up” seems like a universal concept here on the surface of Earth, the actual direction of an “up” pointed in Europe is 90š different from an up pointed in the US. “Up” for St Louis and Capetown are exactly opposite directions. And in space, without the reference of gravity, up has no meaning at all. What we really mean by up, Bucky would explain, is “out” — a radial direction away from the center of the earth. “Down” becomes “in”–toward the center of the earth.
A small matter? Perhaps. But why use the language of a flat, infinite plane, motionless at the center of the universe, when we actually live on a small chip of rock hurtling and spinning through endless space. Since words are tools, Bucky would observe, speaking accurately might support thinking accurately–which might support better design.
Few of us are willing to silence our mouths for months to sort out our minds. And it may well be awkward to speak “accurately” but differently from everyone we’re speaking to. But the exercise provides a valuable insight into the ways common language can distort our views in business and industry, and environmental management.
A “weed” — which people commonly assume has a botanical meaning– is a purely situational definition: “a plant out of place”. Similarly, what we call “waste” is simply materials or chemistry out of place. How differently would we handle our waste if we thought of it as more in the class of raw materials than the class of excrement?
What we take for granted as “production,” notes Swedish physicist John Holmberg, is in fact “transformation”–as something is physically or chemically changed into another form. We know from the first law of thermodynamics that matter is not created or destroyed. Yet speaking of “production,” Holmberg suggests, supports the sloppy thinking that matter can come into being from an infinite resource, and the equally dangerous notion that it can go “somewhere” when we’re done with it–a line of thinking that might make sense on an infinite plane (or a magic act) but not on a finite 8,000 mile diameter ball coated with a thin film of life.
The most familiar, and yet striking example of this process is the chicken egg, which starts out as a slimy bundle of materials and a set of instructions in a hard case, and winds up twenty-one days later as a fluffy chick. No materials are added during the chick’s gestation, and none remains after it hatches except a bit of shell. The chick is not produced–the egg is transformed.
“Can you see a factory trying to do this?” asks Karl-Heinrik Robert, founder of Sweden’s Natural Step. Well, what if we could conceive industrial processes that are as precisely engineered as that transformation from egg to chicken? What possibilities open if we see our role as transformers of material from one form to another, making do with a finite supply of raw materials, and no place to send our garbage?
Maybe every executive and plant manager should have a sealed, balanced aquarium or terrarium on their desk–closed to exchanges of material, open only to light–a constant reminder of how physical reality works here on earth, and a constant challenge to design industrial systems that work that well.
(c) 1995 Gil Friend. All rights reserved.
New Bottom Line is published periodically by Natural Logic, offering decision support software and strategic consulting that help companies and communities prosper by embedding the laws of nature at the heart of enterprise.
Gil Friend, systems ecologist and business strategist, is President and CEO of Natural Logic, Inc.
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