Critical Path

Buckminster Fuller was not only smarter than us, but way more hopeful also.


Some books bring us pleasure, some books stretch our minds, some books broaden our philosophy and expand our moral understanding.

Some books hit us at a special moment in our lives and will forever bring us a whiff and resonance of that now dissipated magic, like the song that goes with our first great virginal crush.

Some books outright change our lives. Critical Path, by R Buckminster Fuller is one of those for me. One of all of those, and very precious for it.

In my late teens I was more or less adopted by the relentless free improvising saxophonist Maury Coles, we played together for about a decade, he taught me more than I can say, and even more preciously, he believed in me and my creative efforts back when I was still mostly a refugee from cult madness, and kind of a friendless waif. (More about Maury in my upcoming books – stay tuned).

Not only did Maury get me up on stage repeatedly (free-improvising, which is just as scary as it sounds, but at least twice as growthful, too), he managed to hustle us a short but fun weekly concert series at the Spadina Hotel and a couple of live performances on radio (CIUT in the eighties especially, was an absolute Toronto culture promotion powerhouse).

Later we merged our weekly pair plus guest jams, with the Friday night sessions of my brilliant singer and percussionist friend Wendell, who lived just across the street, taught yoga, saw me doing some on the front porch one day, and spontaneously invited me to his extraordinary Caribanna bacchanal (in which the jamming started on Friday evening, and went right through without ever breaking completely until Sunday night – no kidding!)

Maury had an awesome phone book – I got to play with some true dignitaries of new music in my youth, which was a wondrous treat – but Wendell’s musical friends came from an even wider range of traditions – sometimes we had an entire drumming circle doing percussion – sometimes everyone who showed up would move over and try an instrument they didn’t know (wow some super cool innovations there, because of the lack of pattern thinking and training) and sometimes Wendell’s always interesting Bed and Breakfast guests would join our Friday jam to add their own oblique talents (an accomplished Irish tenor was a special highlight – so glad I still remembered all the words to “Wild Mountain Thyme”, so I could come in to back him up in the right spots).

But of all the incredible creators I met at the Friday jams, Bob Weil holds a very special place in my heart. A sculptor and sculpture teacher, but also a former boxer and marine deeply influenced by his time stationed in Japan, a mean piano player, a good drummer, a really fun bass player (shades of Mingus) and the co-creator of an outsider art festival in his home town of East Lansing Michigan called “The Snake Rodeo” which ran for decades and added much zany joy to local life.

When Bob invited Maury and I to travel to visit him, I was nervous. I’m not much of a traveller, but I do love trains, and I love Bob too, so Maury was able to persuade me past my shyness.

I slept on a slab of foam near the foot of the stairs for three days, and it might as well have been the Ritz! His whole family was amazing (not only super intelligent and super charismatic, but super sweet also), their house was an ongoing piece of sculpture (never seen a cozy domestic interior space with so few parallels) and their lifestyle too was unconventional and inspiring.

The party they held the second night was especially fantastic – not only the epic jam session, but also a whole series of those late night conversations that still ring for you decades later. You know what I mean, when you meet a total stranger, and your mutual interest in whatever, makes you share deep enthusiasms with them, that you can’t share with people you know far better, since they aren’t adequately interested. I had an especially great interchange with a fellow who was doing some engineering for a NASA subcontractor. As an accomplished party host will often do, Bob put us together and returned several times to join in – and when we hit on Buckminster Fuller he laughed with pleasure – we were off and running (and kept going a hundred miles an hour ’till about four AM). ;o)

The next day I went out to look around the bohemian side of town (there is always such a ‘hood, any place with a university). Found a gorgeous and smart little bookshop and lo and behold, there on the shelf was Bucky’s latest, hot off the press. To say that I was happy to bring it home with me is an understatement. Fuller can sometimes be very challenging reading, but this one is pure tasty!

I’ve read a lot by and about Fuller since I first encountered this masterwork volume. He has a lot of other good ideas which didn’t get into this very deliberate summation-piece, but the kind of grand arcs he draws here are dazzling, and can forever change the way we think about how the world is being thought about and managed. He was a big thinker among big thinkers.

His description of being hired (in the 1920s) to investigate and then estimate the sum total deposits of all industrially valuable minerals in the entire world, reminds us that the idea of global thinking hit the money crew (in that case, mining interests) long before it reached public awareness (arguably, that photo of the earth from Apollo 9 – pale blue dot, PROVEN at last).

He talks about the evolutions of human technology, trade and capitalism in ways which are imperfect, but incredibly helpful for breaking out of our too-narrow frames. Above all, he insists again and again that human beings must design our way into efficient plenty for all, before our expertise at what he called “Killingry” overwhelms our long established gifts for “Livingry”.
(“Utopia or Oblivion” is another one of his more readable and relevant titles, and a nice compact introduction to him for noobs).

Thing is – hard nosed realism isn’t rare. What is incredibly rare is being that realistic about the world and also STILL HOPEFUL! As Fuller remained throughout his extraordinary life.

The idea that design can solve things which politics cannot has few modern partisans – especially because practically everything is now framed as binary, zero sum and to the death.

But all of that extremity of emotion and rhetoric fights against progressive consensus very powerfully. And consensus (organizing) is the only way citizens in democracies have ever been able to push genuinely useful and far sighted policy forward in a serious way. If it’s just the eggheads leading change it will be arrogant and hubristic, profoundly corrupted or both – as we now see demonstrated pretty much everywhere. But if the eggheads are the respectful and always-listening allies of the workers, there is nothing we can’t improve. STILL – EVEN AT THIS LATE DATE.

You must find and read this book. It will help you think in new ways about things that are probably hurting your brain and heart a lot right now.

You should also bear in mind the one small idea Fuller (always a sailor and nautical thinker) thought so important he had it engraved on his tombstone.

A giant ocean going ship requires a truly massive rudder to turn it. The force needed to turn such a heavy rudder against the resistance of the water and thus guide a ship was a real problem, until the invention of the trim-tab – a smaller rudder out on the end of the rudder which goes the opposite way, and thus uses the friction-force of the water to swing that giant massive rudder naturally with much less mechanical effort, and thus moves the even more staggeringly massive ship.

Fuller’s Tombstone inscription? – “Call me Trim-Tab”


  1. Thanks for the reminder about one of my ‘heroes’. (But I still can’t remember whatever happened to my original hard-cover copy of, ‘Synergetics’.) And I haven’t yet read “Critical Path”. : o (
    Meanwhile, however, I just came across the following book review, the target of which seems awfully damning of Bucky.
    Have you seen it or the book (by Alec Nevala-Lee) that this review by Daniel Luis Martinez is about?


    I, of course, would love to ‘hear’ your thoughts on that

    Romantic poem inspired by my having read miscellaneous works by Bucky (“copyright 1976”):
    “The north and south in critical proximity
    The positive and negative in you and me
    Have made a current flow between the two of us
    To merge potential minus with potential plus.
    Though nature may abhor an equilibrium
    Event pulsations joined can be the same in sum.*
    While being in the synergetic state we are
    The universe in motion makes it our devoir.”
    *[Ed. note: I wouldn’t bet much on the accuracy of this statement, but it seemed arguably correct, at the time.]
    ; o )

    • Cheers Peter – so glad you caught this one!

      I know of a few controversies WRT Bucky (dug furthest into the tensegrity case), and I feel the same way about every last one of them (as I bet you will also, if you dig far enough into the details).

      Some people are very original and wide ranging and make a huge academically disruptive impact in a thousand places by synthesizing concepts from disparate fields which do not often communicate, let alone cross-pollinate. (McLuhan is another prime example of the same sort of world-changer, forever nattered by petty pedants – Gregory Bateson, too).

      In the case of Tensegrity, the fellow who claims to have created it sat through several days (you know Bucky) of lectures by Fuller, immediately beforehand, and was in any case, inarguably making artistic use of his concepts.

      Credit was not Bucky’s thing – his patent obsession was about making sure things got onto the historical record, so they’d be there as a tool kit for omni human advantaging over time (and the books on him by his patent lawyer and personal counsel are also wonderful and illuminating, on that front).

      But for a creator who never did anything else, and wasn’t much into cooperating with a big project of the kind Bucky scattered in his wake, at many institutions, I could see him feeling his contribution was underplayed.

      This may seem oblique, but I’ve joined a couple of interesting spiritual groups and there I’ve found some people who insist on a critique which is outright blasphemy, within the framework (in this case, Sufi thought and literature).

      The fact that their criticism is all about their interior state and not at all relevant to a discussion of a subject and tradition from which many still benefit, seems to be entirely invisible to them. Super obvious to many observers, though.

      I’d like to think Bucky didn’t sweat such gripes much, and trusted that those who knew enough to identify “obnoxico” product on sight (or sniff) would also discern the real dynamic and the appropriate ratios of importance all ’round.

      Love and hugs to you and the amazing Nita too (man I love her glow)

      Miss you, man – keep thinking, stalwart knight of kindness – and be well!

    • And I LOVE that poem (did you ever read Bucky’s poetry book? I’ll share an exerpt sometime – really wild stuff, and more like yours than you might modestly think).

  2. As a matter of fact, when that book came out, I bought about 8 hardcover copies and gave them out as New Year’s gifts that year! Obviously, I thought it was a great read, but I didn’t keep a copy for myself.

  3. Oh, and BTW, thank you and I’m glad that you like the poem! Maybe you can put it to some of your signature avant-garde music someday…
    ; o )
    For the record, I did, later, for whatever reason, see fit to add this tag:
    “It isn’t anything new, but it’s between me and you. And that, in itself makes it special!”

I am always curious about what you are thinking

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