CONNECTING WITH FRITJOF CAPRA
Part One of a three-part series
Page 1 of 2
During the past thirty years there have been two major advances in human thought, new perceptions necessitated by failures of the old order to deliver the intellectual and material goods needed to sustain us. One was the recognition that living systems are self-organizing networks. The other was the development of the concept of sustainability, the realization that humankind can survive only by adopting the means by which natural ecosystems perpetuate themselves. To these two paradigm shifts Fritjof Capra recently has added a third, the extension of biological systems theory into the social and cognitive realms and the syntheses of all of these concepts into what he calls a "Science of Sustainability."
Author, systems thinker, and "ecoliteracy" crusader Capra first made his mark on the international scene with his best selling classic the Tao of Physics in 1975. He followed that triumph with his 1981 book The Turning Point: Science, Society and the Rising Culture, an in-depth critique of analytic science and its fallout in culture that concludes with proposals for revamping our perspective and our society along holistic, sustainable lines.
In 1996 Capra published what turned out, for all practical purposes, to be the first of a two-volume series The Web of Life: A New Scientific Understanding of Living Systems. In The Web of Life, Capra provides an indispensable overview of the development and current state of systems thinking in biology, with continuing references to mankind's relationship to the millions of other organisms that share our planet.
His most recent work, The Hidden Connections —Integrating the Biological, Cognitive and Social Dimensions of Life into a Science of Sustainability, builds on the biological theories explained in The Web of Life and extends them into human culture. Taken together, the two works provide a critically needed underpinning for a theory of sustainability. Here, Capra discusses them and their ramifications for our collective future.
ECOTECTURE: You've recently published The Hidden Connections—Integrating the Biological, Cognitive and Social Dimensions of Life into a Science of Sustainability. How's the book doing?
CAPRA: It's doing very well. I have a lot of really good feedback. I've had some excellent reviews, the last one in Nature which just came out a week or two ago. Also, I have had a very good response both from the scientific community and from the activist community, from the community of NGOs, of ecologists, social change activists and so on. I have been invited, for example, to speak at the World Social Forum in Porta Alegra in Brazil in January. This is the meeting of the global coalition of NGOs (Non-Governmental Organizations). There will be about 50,000 people there in southern Brazil to talk about alternatives to economic globalization, ecological design and related issues. So I'm very happy with the book. It's getting around and the response is excellent.
ECOTECTURE: How long has it been out?
CAPRA: It came out in August, so just a few months.
ECOTECTURE: Quite recently. And it's published in both Britain and the United States?
CAPRA: That's right, yes. It's also published in Germany, Italy, Brazil, Holland and it's coming out in Spain. So there are several editions.
ECOTECTURE: And in those languages as well?
CAPRA: That's right.
ECOTECTURE: I see. Excellent. That's good, very good feedback. Was that anticipated, do you think . . .
CAPRA: Well, I think so because, you know, this is not my first book. I now have a readership. This book actually follows quite closely my previous book, The Web of Life, where I presented a systems approach to life and a systemic understanding of life that takes into account recent developments in complexity theory, chaos theory and recent knowledge of self-organizing systems and so on. I integrated that into a systemic view of life, mainly of biological life. In The Hidden Connections I expand that to the social domain, talking not only about living networks in cells, organisms and ecosystems, but also living networks in human societies. Then I explore the social and cultural dimensions. So the two books really hang together.
ECOTECTURE: That was definitely my impression. You'd want to read the first one in order to fully appreciate the second one.
CAPRA: Right. In The Hidden Connections I have lots of references to The Web of Life. I don't talk, for example, very much about the mathematics of complexity because that's all covered in The Web of Life. So there are a lot of references back.
ECOTECTURE: In the second part of The Hidden Connections, "the Challenges of the 21st century," you discuss a variety of issues including politics, sociology, ethics, education, philosophy and design, and you call for changes in our thinking in many of these areas. On the surface, fields such as politics and ethics are not scientific in the strict or traditional sense of the word. Are you saying that we should design society scientifically in the strict sense of that word?
CAPRA: No. You see, although I am a scientist by training and work with a scientific mind, none of my books are only scientific. I mean, science plays a big part in all of them, but they are also philosophical books and they are also books that are socially engaged. So here I call for a change of values, a change of politics, a change of attitudes, with the general goal of building a sustainable society and the future that is sustainable and believable for our children.
Now in order to do that, for example, in order to change the economy in such a way that it becomes sustainable, you do need to understand the world economy, the global economy, which today is a network of computers, a network of flows of money and information and power that extends globally. So we need to understand this network and we need to understand how we can introduce a different set of values into the global economy. In order to do that, we need to understand the relationship between living networks and values and human choices and politics. So it needs both. It needs a certain kind of philosophy and I would say even a spiritual stance or spiritual background, but it also needs the scientific understanding. I have both of these aspects in all of my books.
|. . . we need to understand how we can introduce a different set of values into the global economy.|
ECOTECTURE: When you say the relationship between philosophy, ethics and the scientific understanding—could you say a little bit more about that?
CAPRA: Well, at the very core of my framework is the analysis of networks, of living networks and the comparison of biological and social networks. And first, as I did already in The Web of Life, I identified a set of key characteristics of living networks. One of them is that these networks are self-generating, that is, every part in the network contributes to continually generate and regenerate the whole. For example, in a cell, you have a network of chemical processes and the food comes in from the outside, simple molecules, sugars, oxygen and so on, come in from the outside, and the cellular network builds all the structures—the proteins, the enzymes, the DNA—all that is built and continually rebuilt and regenerated and maintained by the cellular network.
Now in human society, we're not talking about chemical processes, we're talking about processes of communication. A human community is a network of communications. This network of communications also generates itself continually. What it generates, though, are not so much material structures but ideas, information, meaning. These are nonmaterial structures. When a conversation or a communication happens, it gives rise to ideas or information, which then trigger new communications. The entire network also sustains itself and continually regenerates conversations and communications.
Another similarity would be that both types of networks, the biological and the social, create their own boundaries. So a cell, again, creates its boundary, which is semipermeable. That is, it lets certain substances in and others it doesn't let in, and it gives the cell its identity in this way. The boundary is created by the cell itself. Similarly, of course, multicellular organisms have other kinds of boundaries—we have our skin, you know, the various boundaries of organisms. A social network of communications also creates its boundaries but again, they are not primarily material boundaries, although these also exist, but they are cultural boundaries.
When you have a community, you know who belongs to the community and who doesn't, and you would treat them differently, you would have different expectations as to their behavior, you would share information differently—some things you would tell people in the community and not tell people outside of the community and so on. This is a boundary of trust, a boundary of expectations, a boundary of values and meaning. It is also continually generated and renegotiated by the network, by the community.
Those are some of the similarities, but then there are also big differences. The main difference that I focus on is that in a human network of communications, you have the whole realm of human consciousness and culture, with its various characteristics such as thinking, conceptual thought, symbols, values. We also have design in human communities, we have strategies, plans, goals. None of those exist in biological networks. In order to understand human networks, it's not only necessary to understand the complexity and the dynamics for which you can use complexity theory very usefully, but it's also necessary to understand the meaning that goes on in these conversations. If you don't—if people talk and you don't know why they talk and you don't know what the meaning of the conversation is, you won't understand the network of conversations.
When you talk about why something happens, about the cause of something happening, you can say that, for instance, when it snows there's precipitation and there are certain weather conditions, there are certain temperatures and pressures. You can explain. It's actually quite a complex process whereby, say, a snowflake is formed, but we can explain and understand that in terms of a collection of processes and forces, of cause and effect that leads to the snow. You would say the snow falls because something has gone on before and you can follow it back to the causes of the snow.
|. . . there is a lot of confusion about sustainability, even within the environmental movement.|
When I tell you, for instance, that last night I went to Oakland, and if you ask me why did I go to Oakland, then I wouldn't say, well, I had dinner and that gave me some energy and I could use my muscles, and explain to you how my muscles carried me to the car and how the car functions and how I got to Oakland. No, I would say I went to Oakland because I wanted to see a movie. That's the explanation. But that's a very different type of explanation from the biological. It has meaning, purpose. First of all, I wanted to do something, I had a certain desire which implies a value that I had. I wanted to see a movie. Then I did something to follow that desire, I had a plan for getting there. So these are all the qualities that we have in human consciousness and culture.
When you ask then what kind of a movie did I see, that will depend on my personal predilections, my intellectual and emotional history. It would also depend on the culture. I would typically not see a Brazilian movie because there are not many Brazilian movies playing. So the whole culture comes in. These types of explanations are of a very different nature from the explanations given in biology, and therefore when we study human networks, which are also always networks of communications, we need philosophy, anthropology, social science, political science and so on.