David Houle

David Houle is one of the Co-Founders and Managing Director of the Institute. David Houle is a futurist, thinker and speaker. Houle spent more than 20 years in media and entertainment. He has worked at NBC, CBS and was part of the senior executive team that created and launched MTV, Nickelodeon, VH1 and CNN Headline News.


Utopia or Oblivion?



“Whether it is to be Utopia or Oblivion will be a touch-and-go relay race right up to the final moment… Humanity is in a final exam as to whether or not it qualifies for continuance in the Universe.” – R. Buckminster Fuller, Utopia or Oblivion    


Fuller wrote this back in 1969, an incredibly productive year for him as both “Operating Manual for Spaceship Earth” and “Utopia or Oblivion: The Prospects for Humanity” were published.


These two books shape the essential thinking for humanity in the Age of Climate Change and the disruption of the 2020s. These two books, along with Alvin Toffler’s and Marshall McLuhan’s, supplied the foundation of my thinking as a futurist. I have frequently shared from stages around the world that “I stand with honor on the shoulders of the three greatest futurists of the last 75 years: Toffler, Fuller and McLuhan, to better see into this new century.”


The books written by these three deep thinkers are perhaps more relevant today than almost anything that is currently being published… at least from the macro point of view. Fuller looks at the big picture of the future of humanity. McLuhan provides us with the reality of living in an electronic village. Toffler predicts how culture, business and society will change.


All three are still the most accurate, big picture visionaries in print. Most of the rest of us live in the worlds they envisioned.


We at The Sarasota Institute – A 21st Century Think Tank have selected the ten topics at the top of our web site as what we think are the big issues of this century.  We aim to lead in the questioning discussions around all of them and to help in coming up with the big answers necessary if humanity is to successfully navigate the decades ahead.  Fuller of course in “Operating Manual for Spaceship Earth” was looking at the essential need to develop a wholistic, systems thinking approach on how to operate Spaceship Earth in a time of rapid population growth and impending climate change.  The second book stayed on that theme but raised the need to use systems thinking to keep humanity from unintentionally going down what he called the road to oblivion.  This necessitates the rethinking of Capitalism, Democracy, Global Policy, Natural Resources and Technology, all topics of the Institute.


This column will focus solely on the challenges that Fuller laid out for us 50 years ago.


Major concepts:


  1. We need to think of planet earth as a spaceship. It is the only place that humans live. It is a spaceship that will not be resupplied, so we must work within the resources of the spaceship.
  2. We need to develop an operating manual for Spaceship Earth, and that manual must be developed using systems thinking. Spaceship Earth is a large, interconnected, complex system. Only systemic thinking, elevating all human endeavor into a single overarching cohesive manual, will secure the planet for all living things on it.
  3. The future as seen from 1969 is one where, if humanity does not design a systemic planetary operating system, it will come to a fork in the road, and will need to choose between utopia or oblivion. Oblivion is rushing toward climate catastrophe with a loss of civilization as we know it by the end of the century.  Utopia is the bringing into balance humanity with Spaceship Earth, and the collective facing of all the big challenges this decade. Setting up globally coordinated systems thinking at all levels necessary to bring equilibrium and restoration.

Concepts 1 and 2: These are simply the single best ways to explain why we have a climate catastrophe today. Humanity did not heed the clarity and deep insight of Fuller in “Operating Manual”. If we had examined everything we do, and how we do it, we would have seen the pollution, the degradation of habitats, the warming of the atmosphere and the oceans, the severe imbalances of population / food / water and the slow degradation of our quality of life.


As a result, we now find ourselves with pollution everywhere, a lack of water and food in many places, and at the same time ever increasing consumption of the Spaceship’s resources, a doubling of human population to eight billion, and  100,000+ species passing into extinction over the last 50 years. The sixth mass extinction event. The prior five mass extinctions saw 75% to 97% of all species disappear. We are on track for the very first extinction event created by one species – humanity.


We didn’t plan. We didn’t develop a spaceship consciousness. We did not embrace the mentality of crew members. We remained, at least the vast majority of us, as clueless passengers. We did not create a global systemic operating manual for our collective future. So here we are.


Concept 3: This is the other major metaphor for humanity in the 2020s, the fork in the road. One path leads to abundance, the other to destruction. 15 years ago, I was aware that we were approaching this fork. I now think that the 2020s is our last chance decade. Primarily due to our climate crisis, we are barreling down the road to destruction.


We have kicked the can down the road for 50 years. We waited so long that certain tipping points have come and gone. Climate change is accelerating, and that is a direct result of the increasing amounts of GHGs that we continue to pump into our atmosphere. Of the total amount of GHG emitted since the 1700s, over half has happened in the 21st century… the last 20 years.


Think of the fork in the road as the metaphor for all that we see. Many of us are pessimistic… feel that it’s too late. COVID-19 has only amplified this negativity and hopelessness. The evidence that mass media give us is cataclysmic and the scientists substantiate. Many others, and I am in this camp, feel that there is still hope, but we must mobilize collectively and forge a new path forward. There is extreme urgency to build a detour back to a path toward utopia.


The fork in the road can be seen in the weakening of democracies and the proliferation of autocracies.


The fork in the road can be seen in the widening of the gap between rich and poor, in the bastardization of our capitalist economic system, in the rise of social unrest and populism. A societal collapse is inevitable if we don’t make a drastic course correction.


The core choice we must make is to reject divisiveness. To eliminate “us vs. them”. To join together. In order to get back on the right path, we must develop a growing sense of WE.


WE need to develop spaceship crew consciousness.


WE need to believe that, together, we can right the wrongs, and restore what we have destroyed.


WE need to re-embrace science.


WE need to integrate humanity beyond nation states into one global union.


The 2020s is the decade when, “Humanity is in a final exam as to whether or not it qualifies for continuance in the Universe.”


The 2020s is our final exam. Time will be up, quite possibly, by 2030.


Let’s get to it!


[Note: This column was initially published on Medium]