The Comprehensive Thinking of R. Buckminster Fuller

07 October 2020 in Resource Center.

Collaborative comprehensivism is participating in groups to incrementally expand the breadth and depth of everyone’s understanding. An effective tool for its practice is exploring ideas from a book. Some participants may be unable to read the book. To provide them with background and to focus on the key passages to be explored at a particular event, it can be helpful to have a brief for the book. Ideally, the brief will highlight questions to guide and spur a group exploration.

To support book-based events with an example, this resource includes a synopsis of R. Buckminster Fuller’s 1969 book “Operating Manual for Spaceship Earth”. This brief is just one of many possible condensations of the book. It focuses on some of the key ideas that inspired the “Collaborating for Comprehensivism” initiative.

It is common to refer to the author of “Operating Manual” as “Bucky”. To read the book, you can find a copy from a bookseller, or read a 44 page PDF at, or read a web-based copy at Below there is section offering advice for readers of the book.

"Operating Manual for Spaceship Earth" by R. Buckminster Fuller

Comprehensive Thinking

In his 1969 book “Operating Manual for Spaceship Earth”, Bucky Fuller repeatedly surprises us with ways to reimagine our everyday world:

I’ve often heard people say, “I wonder what it would be like to be on board a spaceship,” and the answer is very simple. What does it feel like? That’s all we have ever experienced. We are all astronauts.

— Buckminster Fuller

The fact is we live aboard a planetary vehicle of 6 quadrillion megatons (5.97237×1024 kg = 1.31668×1025 lb = 5.97237×1015 megatons) with a 25,000 mile equatorial girth (40,075.017 km = 24,901.461 mi) whose diameter is 8,000 miles (12,756.2 km = 7,926.4 mi). This tiny bit of agglomerated stardust which we call home is orbiting one of about 1024 stars in the observable physical universe. Three-fourths of Earth’s surface is covered with shallow puddles of water (10,911.4 m = 35,799 ft = 6.78 miles = 0.09% of Earth’s diameter at the Mariana trench) and a thin veneer of atmosphere (100 km = 62 mi = 0.78% of Earth’s diameter to the Kármán line). Our spaceship home is transporting us around the Sun at nearly 70,000 mph (29.78 km/s = 107,200 km/h = 66,600 mph) while rotating on its axis at 1,000 mph (0.4651 km/s = 1674.4 km/h = 1,040.4 mph) while hurtling through space with respect to the cosmic microwave background radiation at nearly 1 million mph (390 km/s = 872,405 mph).

The astronautical is just one of Bucky’s metaphors in a book which entreats us to engage our comprehensivity, our facility for learning that is “macro-comprehensive and micro-incisive” as Bucky puts it. Some readers of “Operating Manual” may get lost in these stories which can be as disorienting as a fairy tale. What are we to make of a work of non-fiction with so many strange stories from such unusual perspectives?

In a previous essay on The Fundamental Role of Story in Our Lives, I emphasized, in following the ideas of Marina Warner, that fairy tales and mythologies are full of the truths of inquiry and wonder. On almost every page during each of my three re-readings of “Operating Manual” over the past year and a quarter, I too got lost in wondering about these stories. What ideas and values are playing out here? In what sense could Bucky be right? In what sense is he mistaken? What is he getting at? Could I make his point better by telling a different story? Bucky writes wonderful literature, but you need to exercise your creative interpretive skills to make sense of it.

In my reading of “Operating Manual” I learned that children have, as Bucky puts it, “spontaneous and comprehensive curiosity”, that Leonardo wasn’t just a polymath but a “comprehensively anticipatory design scientist”, and that over-specialization is the way to extinction and oblivion (Bucky writes, “[S]pecialization precludes comprehensive thinking”). If we dare to listen to the truths and wonders behind Bucky’s mythologizing, we might hear a stern warning about the foolishness of our shortsightedness. Bucky invites us to wonder about the value of a “long distanced … anticipatory strategy” that might be able to see 25 years into the future. He explains the logic governing automation by writing, “automation displaces the automatons“. Automation can free us of drudgery so we can become comprehensivists.

We also learn from Bucky:

Nothing seems to be more prominent about human life than its wanting to understand all and put everything together.

— Buckminster Fuller

This is the creed of the comprehensivist, someone who strives to understand both more extensively and more intensively. It is a basic principle in Bucky’s “Operating Manual”.

The hinge of the book comes in Chapter 4 where we read:

Now there is one outstandingly important fact regarding Spaceship Earth, and that is that no instruction book came with it. … So we were forced, because of a lack of an instruction book, to use our intellect, which is our supreme faculty, to devise scientific experimental procedures and to interpret effectively the significance of the experimental findings.

— Buckminster Fuller

The designations “Spaceship Earth” and “instruction book” suggest that our planet is an intricately designed piece of technology. The materialists and atheists among us may be put off by the thought that our planetary vehicle was designed or invented. Religious people may be put off because they may already have studied our “instruction book”. The ecologically or spiritually minded may think its too technocratic.

For reading and interpreting Bucky, we would do better to set aside these intrusive thoughts. Instead, we should attend to Marina Warner’s great insight that mythologies, like Bucky’s, permit us to explore what may be inaccessible to other kinds of writing. How might we interpret Bucky’s mythology of a Spaceship Earth flying a crew of 8 billion humans through space at nearly 1 million miles per hour without an instruction book?

If we had an instruction book, we wouldn’t need to guess at how Nature works. As it is, we have only our intellect and our experience to guide us in figuring out how the world works. Bucky latches on to “generalized principles” such as “the generalized principle of leverage” that we might discover after realizing that the magic log found while stepping on a crisscrossed fallen tree in the woods can be replaced by any pole that can lift any object if there is a convenient pivot point.

Bucky continues,

Only as he learned to generalize fundamental principles of physical universe did man learn to use his intellect effectively.

— Buckminster Fuller

A student of David Hume’s great book An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding might object: All we can infer from experience is a “constant conjunction” between an alleged cause and its effect. Our knowledge of “generalized principles” is no more than the custom of repeated attestation creating a confidence in our facts. Hume is correct, there is no principle of reasoning that guarantees the eternal truth of any alleged generalized principle. In fact, history strongly suggests that as our learning becomes ever more sophisticated we will find more and more exceptions and incongruities in our “generalized principles”. But again we should read past these intrusive thoughts to realize that Bucky is getting at a deep truth about our learning: finding abstract patterns that recur repeatedly is a basic part of the knowing of every tradition of inquiry and action including science.

Bucky invites us to expand our comprehensivity by considering the tradition of general systems theory and asking:

“How big can we think?” … we begin to think of the largest and most comprehensive systems, and try to do so scientifically. … Can we think of, and state adequately and incisively, what we mean by universe? For universe is, inferentially, the biggest system.

— Buckminster Fuller

Before Bucky defines “Universe”, he scopes its context as “the biggest system”. He is using the word in the sense of the universal set, the set that includes everything that might be considered. Cosmogonists who talk of multiple universes are using the term in the lowercase “u” sense as the speculation that there may be disconnected physical “universes”. I capitalize the “U” in “Universe” because, in the Bucky sense, there can only be one “biggest system”: it is unique; it is a proper noun.

I define universe, including both the physical and metaphysical, as follows: The universe is the aggregate of all of humanity’s consciously-apprehended and communicated experience with the nonsimultaneous, nonidentical, and only partially overlapping, always complementary, weighable and unweighable, ever omni-transforming, event sequences.

— Buckminster Fuller

Thoughts and ideas and even physical principles such as universal gravitation with its inverse square formula are weightless and Bucky abstracts these to comprise the metaphysical part of Universe. This is a different meaning from the philosopher’s metaphysics as first principles and different from the spiritualist’s metaphysics of a supersensual world. Metaphysics, in the Bucky sense, includes the non-physical, weightless, and ethereal, it includes ideas, theories, descriptions, and principles.

Notice that the center of Bucky’s definition of Universe is “communicated experience”. That is basically what I mean by traditions of inquiry and action which are all about communication from person to person and generation to generation. The crux of Bucky’s Universe is more or less the traditions of inquiry and action which I identified as encompassing the knowing of the comprehensivist. Likewise, Bucky’s Universe encompasses all that we can knowingly talk about.

Bucky’s framing as “Universe” appeals to my mathematical sense: it is all-inclusive but with an experiential focus. The framing as “traditions of inquiry and action” emphasizes the social and historical and so puts experience in its socio-cultural-historical context.

Despite these differences, I claim that these two formulationsBucky’s Universe and Humanity’s great traditions of inquiry and actionare synonymous. Bucky’s concept of Universe as “the aggregate of all of humanity’s consciously-apprehended and communicated experience” scopes the range of all that we can know. Universe is the ken of the comprehensivist. That is exactly the conclusion I reached about Humanity’s traditions. Both Bucky’s Universe and traditions of inquiry and action include all that can be communicated. So, my vision of comprehensivism is, in fact, Bucky’s vision: we just use different framings.

In Bucky’s Comprehensive Thinking, it is recommended that we start our inquiry with Universe so we do not leave anything out. We then subdivide to isolate the system we want to consider.

A system subdivides universe into all the universe outside the system (macrocosm) and all the rest of the universe which is inside the system (microcosm) with the exception of the minor fraction of universe which constitutes the system itself.

— Buckminster Fuller

It may take many subdivisions, as in the game of 20 questions, to identify the subsystem with which we are concerned. One benefit of this approach is that the full context is included in our inquiry itself. This is Bucky’s approach of Comprehensive Thinking.

Other traditions of inquiry and action may use other ways to pursue their inquiry. To be broadly comprehensive, we ought to consider and assess these other approaches too. But here our aim is to summarize Bucky’s approach as presented in “Operating Manual for Spaceship Earth”: systems thinking starts with Universe and divides into the subsystems of relevance for this inquiry.

From this introduction, what do you think of the Comprehensive Thinking of R. Buckminster Fuller? What are the strengths of this kind of thinking? What are its weaknesses or deficiencies?

Regenerative Evolution of Spaceship Earth

Another important feature of Bucky’s Comprehensive Thinking is his nuanced approach to synergy:

Synergy is the only word in our language that means behavior of whole systems unpredicted by the separately observed behaviors of any of the system’s separate parts or any subassembly of the system’s parts. There is nothing in the chemistry of a toenail that predicts the existence of a human being.

— Buckminster Fuller

Bucky suggests that synergy is inherent in all systems. This principle of omnipresent synergy justifies starting with the Universe and subdividing: otherwise we risk overlooking the synergetic effects that are part of the context, part of the larger wholes, but invisible within each subsystem. I think it is this feature of the principle of synergy that makes the following Bucky assertion so penetrating:

“We have not been seeing our Spaceship Earth as an integrally-designed machine which to be persistently successful must be comprehended and serviced in total.”

— Buckminster Fuller

Another reason for managing the Earth system comprehensively is the dynamical nature of Bucky’s definition of Universe. Recall that the subject of our communicated experiences are “nonsimultaneous, nonidentical, and only partially overlapping, always complementary, weighable and unweighable, ever omni-transforming, event sequences”. The Universe is, as Bucky puts it, “an evolutionary-process scenario”. As such Bucky’s phrase “inexorable evolution” is the design process of Universe unfolding to form the events of our experience in perpetuity. This further supports the idea that to successfully manage the omni-transforming scenarios of Spaceship Earth we must comprehend and service the total Earth system synergetically.

Bucky’s system of Comprehensive Thinking includes general systems theory with its topologies of interrelationships and its geodesics or minimal energy pathways. This is a powerful conceptual toolkit. Applying it to the understanding and servicing of our spaceship, we realize that since Earth’s resources are unevenly distributed, a global industrial system as “a world-around-energy-networked complex of tools” had to be invented to give Humanity the ability to take care of the vast and vital metabolic needs of Spaceship Earth and its crew.

In Bucky’s vision, as stewards of our Spaceship Earth, we have a primary function to organize our know-how and know-what to operate our spaceship as an on-going regenerative evolutionary process. This kind of Comprehensive Thinking is needed to comprehend and service our spaceship in total. We may even begin to see our planetary function as a “metabolic regeneration organism” as Bucky puts it. The “regenerative landscape” of future possibilities awaits our design attention to imagine and create our regenerative evolutionary future.

What do you think of Bucky’s way of connecting his Comprehensive Thinking to the regenerative metabolic futures of Spaceship Earth? What are the merits of this approach? What are its deficiencies?

Comprehensivism: Putting Bucky’s Comprehensive Thinking in Context

Among the many reasons I wrote the above brief for Bucky’s “Operating Manual for Spaceship Earth” was to complete a four part introduction to my vision for comprehensivism, the practice of the art of ever broadening and deepening our understanding of it all. The impetus for this introduction to comprehensivism has been the opportunity to organize topics for Comprehensivist Wednesdays.

In this essay, I connected Bucky’s Comprehensive Thinking with comprehensivism. I linked Bucky’s notion of Universe to Humanity’s great traditions of inquiry and action. Bucky’s Comprehensive Thinking and his notion of regenerative evolution, which I consider to be the interlinked dual theses of “Operating Manual”, comprise what I called The Necessities of Comprehensivism. Although Bucky may have appreciated what that essay calls the impossibilities of comprehensivism, to my knowledge he never distinguished those concerns. My characterization of the fundamental role of story in our lives was my attempt to capture the role of story as the central “communicated experience” in Bucky’s definition of Universe and in the traditions of inquiry and action. That essay also helped me explain the value of the mythologizing in Bucky’s “Operating Manual for Spaceship Earth”.

The integrated significance of these four essays is to show how my vision of comprehensivism is the identification and abstracting of a significant piece of Bucky’s system of comprehensive thinking as documented in “Operating Manual for Spaceship Earth”. Specifically, I pulled out Bucky’s word “comprehensivity” and turned it into collaborative comprehensivism, a group learning initiative.

There are a few differences between my vision and Bucky’s. I think we should consider all of Humanity’s traditions of inquiry and action and not insist, pedantically, as Bucky sometimes did, that we must always start with Universe and subdivide. I think exploring other traditions and other approaches to inquiry ought to be part of collaborative comprehensivism.

Universalist traditions, like Bucky’s full system of comprehensive thinking (which he termed “Synergetics” in his magnum opus), tend to adopt language claiming that their approach is the only one that explains everything. I am very sensitive to the arrogant, imperial, and colonial violence of such claims. With all assertions as with fairy tales, we should wonder and explore how true such claims may be without kowtowing to their strident certainties.

I think comprehensivism should engage all traditions and not be coopted by any one of them, not even Bucky’s, not even science, not even the one true religion. Collaborative Comprehensivism ought to provide a safe space where everyone can thoroughly explore each other’s traditions, even those with arrogant universalist claims. Certainty destroys exploration and dialogue. We can wonder about universalist certainties, but we must suspend certainty to boldly examine each idea in a productive dialogue where all voices are heard.

In addition, I wrote this essay to exemplify writing a synopsis for a book resource to help others organize events or groups to develop the practice of collaborative comprehensivism, the attempt to understand it all through extensive and intensive explorations of various topics in group dialogue. If you would like to organize such groups or events, consider reading the How To Get Started section of the “Collaborating for Comprehensivism” site. Please Contact Us if you have further questions or comments about organizing your own event or group.

Most proximally, I wrote this essay to provide ideas in support of the 14 October 2020 session of “Comprehensivist Wednesdays” at 52 Living Ideas (crossposted at The Greater Philadelphia Thinking Society).

Addendum: 1h 40m video from the 14 October 2020 event:

Suggestions for Reading “Operating Manual for Spaceship Earth”

Because Bucky deeply challenges our conventional wisdom, many of his stories and assertions can seem odd-ball or even wrong at first. Challenging writers require us to exercise our imaginative faculty to creatively find a reasonable interpretation. Most of the time you can find an interpretation that has an integrity and a truth to it, partial though it may be. Though Bucky makes some factual errors such as “Reiman” should be “Riemann” and he was German not Hindu.

Another challenging aspect of Bucky’s writing is its poetic quality: the full meaning cannot be grasped by looking at what is said literally and atomically. If you work at it by thinking through alternative possible interpretations and by integrating his disparate ideas together, the writing can call forth a deeper integrated meaning. Bucky’s writing is a visionary account poetically evoking a new way of perceiving and conceiving of our relationship with Universe.

I invite you to exercise your imaginative faculties to find a way to see each of Bucky’s ideas from a perspective in which you can recognize at least a hint of truth. Strive to identify the perspectives the author is inviting us to consider.

For a first reading I recommend trying to glimpse Bucky’s overall world view and his sense of comprehensivity. Try to see if and how his Big Picture approach has some intriguing insights temporarily setting aside those places where he seems off base. If you are interested in a deeper dive, read it multiple times mulling over each phrase using the methods of a hermeneutic circle. “Operating Manual for Spaceship Earth” is good literature: its complexities reward multiple re-readings.

If you are as fascinated by “Operating Manual” as I am, you might also want to read my essay A Synopsis of “Operating Manual for Spaceship Earth” by Buckminster Fuller which provides a partially overlapping but substantially different summary of the book.

Read Other Resource Center Essays

Posted by CJ Fearnley

Explorer in Universe.


Kelly Ritchie

C.J. As part of the evolving to this point in our Being-ness on Spaceship earth. What role has specialization played in gathering the existing knowledge base? It would seem to me that a critical mass of something comes from a relative proportionality of that something. Would we get greater exposure to question by Macro-comprhensivism and Micro-Specialism in effect a duality of thinking?
CJ, I do read your work on the 52 ideas site. It is great to get Fuller thinking “Out” “IN” any way possible. The work will refine the Between-ness and creates comprhensivism Around-ness K

I’m only halfway through, but this is blowing my mind. Thank you, CJ!

CJ Fearnley

There has been a substantial discussion on this essay on my Facebook page:

CJ Fearnley

This event inspired an additional series of four events on “Operating Manual for Spaceship Earth”. You can watch the videos for the whole series at

There is a companion essay for the last video at

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