Buckminster Fuller Creates an Animated Visualization of Human Population Growth from 1000 B.C.E. to 1965

Sit back, relax, put on some music (I’ve found Chopin’s Noc­turne in B major well-suit­ed), and watch the video above, a silent data visu­al­iza­tion by vision­ary archi­tect and sys­tems the­o­rist Buck­min­ster Fuller, “the James Brown of indus­tri­al design.” The short film from 1965 com­bines two of Fuller’s lead­ing con­cerns: the expo­nen­tial spread of the human pop­u­la­tion over finite mass­es of land and the need to revise our glob­al per­spec­tive via the “Dymax­ion map,” in order “to visu­al­ize the whole plan­et with greater accu­ra­cy,” as the Buck­min­ster Fuller Insti­tute writes, so that “we humans will be bet­ter equipped to address chal­lenges as we face our com­mon future aboard Space­ship Earth.”

Though you may know it best as the name of a geo­des­ic sphere at Disney’s Epcot Cen­ter, the term Space­ship Earth orig­i­nal­ly came from Fuller, who used it to remind us of our inter­con­nect­ed­ness and inter­de­pen­dence as we share resources on the only vehi­cle we know of that can sus­tain us in the cos­mos.

“We are all astro­nauts,” he wrote in his 1969 Oper­at­ing Man­u­al for Space­ship Earth, and yet we refuse to see the long-term con­se­quences of our actions on our spe­cial­ized craft: “One of the rea­sons why we are strug­gling inad­e­quate­ly today,” Fuller argued in his intro­duc­tion, “is that we reck­on our costs on too short­sight­ed a basis and are lat­er over­whelmed with the unex­pect­ed costs brought about by our short­sight­ed­ness.”

Like all vision­ar­ies, Fuller thought in long spans of time, and he used his design skills to help oth­ers do so as well. His pop­u­la­tion visu­al­iza­tion doc­u­ments human growth from 1000 B.C.E. to Fuller’s present, at the time, of 1965. In the image above (see a larg­er ver­sion here), we have a graph­ic from that same year—made col­lab­o­ra­tive­ly with artist and soci­ol­o­gist John McHale—showing the “shrink­ing of our plan­et by man’s increased trav­el and com­mu­ni­ca­tion speeds around the globe.” (It must be near micro­scop­ic by now.) Fuller takes an even longer view, look­ing at “the con­flu­ence of com­mu­ni­ca­tion and trans­porta­tion tech­nolo­gies,” writes Rikke Schmidt Kjær­gaard, “from 500,000 B.C.E. to 1965.”

Here Fuller com­bines his pop­u­la­tion data with the tech­no­log­i­cal break­throughs of moder­ni­ty. Though he’s thought of in some quar­ters as a genius and in some as a kook, Fuller demon­strat­ed his tremen­dous fore­sight in seem­ing­ly innu­mer­able ways. But it was in the realm of design that he excelled in com­mu­ni­cat­ing what he saw. “Pio­neers of data visu­al­iza­tion,” Fuller and McHale were two of “the first to chart long-term trends of indus­tri­al­iza­tion and glob­al­iza­tion.” Instead of becom­ing alarmed and fear­ful of what the trends showed, Fuller got to work design­ing for the future, ful­ly aware, writes the Fuller Insti­tute that “the plan­et is a sys­tem, and a resilient one.”

Fuller thought like a rad­i­cal­ly inven­tive engi­neer, but he spoke and wrote like a peacenik prophet, writ­ing that a sys­tem of nar­row spe­cial­iza­tions ensures that skill sets “are not com­pre­hend­ed com­pre­hen­sive­ly… or they are real­ized only in neg­a­tive ways, in new weapon­ry or the indus­tri­al sup­port only of war far­ing.” We’ve seen this vision of soci­ety played out to a fright­en­ing extent. Fuller saw a way out, one in which every­one on the plan­et can live in com­fort and secu­ri­ty with­out con­sum­ing (then not renew­ing) the Earth’s resources. How can this be done? You’ll have to read Fuller’s work to find out. Mean­while, as his visu­al­iza­tions sug­gest, it’s best for us to take the long view—and give up on short-term rewards and profits—in our assess­ments of the state of Space­ship Earth.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Buck­min­ster Fuller’s Map of the World: The Inno­va­tion that Rev­o­lu­tion­ized Map Design (1943)

200,000 Years of Stag­ger­ing Human Pop­u­la­tion Growth Shown in an Ani­mat­ed Map

The Life & Times of Buck­min­ster Fuller’s Geo­des­ic Dome: A Doc­u­men­tary

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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