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Hang On, Planet Earth, Help Is On The Way (Joe Rothstein's Commentary)

June 4, 2010

By Joe Rothstein

Did you know that the best way to reclaim arid land is to let animals graze on it?

Or that the hottest new things on wheels may be motorless cars and folding scooters that operate only with power generated by batteries in their wheel hubs?

Or that to clean up toxic wastewater you needn't go the expense of gigantic waste purification plants----you can do it with a mix of bacteria, plants and other environmentally sound eco-systems costing far less and much more ecologically friendly?

If you didn't know these things you haven't been following the tracks of the Buckinster Fuller Challenge grants. The past three winners of the Challenge are at work, today, doing all these things.

And even the losers in this year's competition are hard at it with jaw dropping projects. One honorable mention went to a Chicago group that's developed a system to capture, clean and return 100% of the city's wastewater and storm-water to its nearby lakes. Now all that water is dumped into the Mississippi and goes down to the Gulf of Mexico.

Another honorable mention went to a group called Barefoot College, aptly named because it teaches illiterate, rural women in India and Africa to be solar engineers and then helps them establish solar energy sources in those communities.

There's a lot of good stuff going on out there that most of us have never heard of. Go to and you will see more than 300 of them, all entrants in this year's Buckminster Fuller Challenge competition, sponsored by the Buckminster Fuller Institute.

This year's winner is the Savory Institute of Albuquerque, New Mexico, and its sister organization, the Africa Center for Holistic Management. With projects in Africa, Colorado, Montana and elsewhere, the Institute is reclaiming about 30 million acres of land through its grazing operations.

Grazing, of course, is popularly believed to be one of the main reasons land goes arid. But Allan Savory years ago saw a holistic connection between animal waste, grass and other plant growth, animal behavior and water. By carefully managing herds his group is returning once unusable land back to life. He calls it a "brown revolution."

The first runner-up award this year went to Berlin-based Watergy. Watergy has developed and implemented (in Almeria, Spain) a closed system greenhouse that provides extremely efficient farming capabilities in water-scarce communities. The approach is based on creating and capturing condensed water. The system could result in what Watergy sees as a dramatic shift in resource efficiency for the supply of water, food and renewable material in rural and urban areas.

Last year's winner (on display at came from an MIT group that's developed a concept for installing lithium-ion batteries in bicycles, motor scooters (rebranded as "Robowheels") and their only slightly larger cousin, the "CityCar." The electric scooters fold up. The cars take up so little space that 3 of them can fit in what we consider one parking space.

The CityCar has no central engine or traditional power train. It's powered by four in-wheel electric motors. Each wheel unit contains a drive motor (which also enables regenerative braking), steering, and suspension, and is independently digitally controlled. This enables maneuvers like spinning on its own axis (an O-turn instead of a U-turn), moving sideways into parallel parking spaces, and lane changes while facing straight ahead.

Buckminster Fuller would have loved all of this. Fuller's life mission was all about sustainability and human survival. He was the first to coin the term "Spaceship Earth." And during his time on this Earth he looked for ways to design systems that let the genius of both man and nature coexist.

It's interesting that far more people are familiar with Fuller's name than his works. If pressed, many will recall him as the inventor of the "geodesic dome," which became the symbol of the Montreal World's Fair. Creative design for better living is a hard concept to get our heads around. Not many designers become rock stars, except those who dress celebrities.

But Fuller was more than a designer. He was a revolutionary. He didn't for a minute believe that the world could sustain itself without revolutionary changes---changes that harmonize human interests with nature's laws and bounty.

A wise old friend of mine used to define an optimist as "a scientist who believes the future of humans of Earth is still in doubt."

By that definition, Buckminster Fuller was one of the world's most prolific optimists. He knew, and often said, that we are at a decision point in human history. The decision could either way.

With only a sliver of the resources otherwise devoted to war, pollution and planet degradation a lot of ingenious people around the world are working hard to develop evolutionary strategies and products are culturally, ecologically and economically viable.

Fuller liked to say that we are in the midst of humanity's final exam. The Challenge grant provided by the Institute that is his legacy is doing its best to help us pass.

(Joe Rothstein can be contacted at

Joe Rothstein is a political strategist and media producer who worked in more than 200 campaigns for political office and political causes. He also has served as editor of the Pulitzer Prize-winning Anchorage Daily News and adjunct professor at George Washington University's Graduate School of Political Management. He has a master's degree in journalism from UCLA. Mr. Rothstein is the author of award-winning political thrillers, "The Latina President and the Conspiracy to Destroy Her," and "The Salvation Project."