Spin a WWW for utopia

19 June 2000

GENI, The Global Energy Network Institute, which is headquartered in San Diego, California, is a pressure group propelled by one of the many bright ideas of the celebrated American all-rounder, R. Buckminster Fuller. He was the man who, at the University of Illinois in 1971, observed proudly that he did not operate a department: he styled himself a professor who did not profess anything, though his chair did bear the title, Comprehensive, Anticipatory Design-Science Exploration. Not too modestly, he described his mission as a search for “metaphysical laws governing both nature’s a priori physical designing and the elective design initiatives of humanity”.

In its literature, GENI states that over two decades have passed since “the United Nations and inventor, scientist and mathematician, R. Buckminster Fuller proposed interconnecting regional power systems into a single world electric energy grid . . . ‘to make the world work for 100 per cent of humanity in the shortest possible time through spontaneous cooperation without ecological damage or the disadvantage of anyone’”.

Again in 1971, Buckminster Fuller wrote: ‘we have available the inexhaustible, gravitationally generated, tidal power of the world ocean to feed into our soon-to-be-accomplished world-around electromagnetic power network to be fed also by wind and direct Sun’. Soon, as usual, has been all too late a-coming. But better late than never, as GENI proselytizers may be thinking, still inspired by the prophecy, and insistently arguing as they are that construction of the global grid now would reduce humanity’s reliance on fossil and fissile fuels for power generation.

I can see that such a grid could, in the institute’s words, ‘encourage energy efficiency and sustainable development’, but I confess myself baffled by the further claim for an accompanying reduction of hunger, poverty and ‘the population explosion’ without ecological or individual impact.

Most environmentalists nowadays think hydro or tidal schemes disastrous and transmission networks a blight. Wind farms and photovoltaically overlaid deserts find as little favour. Also reprehensible, one suspects, would be judged any role for these constructions in birth control. Yet GENI has mustered the support of such notables as Archbishop Desmond Tutu, the South African Nobel Peace Prizewinner, and Dr Ruud Lubbers, the sometime prime minister of the Netherlands, both of whom one would expect to find at home in the environmentalist camp.

I suppose that what GENI describes as ‘a World Wide Web of Electricity tapping clean energy sources’ could make possible the confinement of the human race before electronic screens, affording it a virtual world free of visible, audible and perhaps other sensible ills. That would be a utopia of sorts. But ‘Bucky’, as he liked his friends to call him, might have found that a rather meagre outcome of his anticipatory design-science exploration. The old visionary must have had something greater in mind. Could it have been something metaphysical?

Antis may sniff at this

There is a now-standard sneer that is levelled by antis at claims for beneficial spin-off from scientific and engineering research. The whole lot is dismissed with a reference to non-stick materials for cookware as the only (and just-) memorable byproducts of space flight technology. Yet that is, in its way, if not a salute, at least a kind of recognition. Nuclear power development has not won even such stereotypical disdain.

Incredibly charitable as I am toward my fellow hacks, even when they earn their livings on sensation-mongering newspapers, I throw another morsel to them. For I am sure that they can do something with this story from the University of Rhode Island, USA. Research has been done there on complex airflows through passages in the human head. Results include better understanding of the way flows in laryngeal airways affect the deposition of particles. A principal aim has been to help designers devise more effective systems for respiratory drug delivery.

One Rhode Island research tool has been a package of computational fluid dynamics software. It is a package that was a hit in process industry and other places before it scored in medicine. Originally, however, it was developed to solve fluid flow problems in the nuclear industry. Surely a witty tabloid wordsmith will be able to find inspiration in that for a smile at the jejune beneficial legacy of nuclear power.

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