Part One of a three-part series.
Page 2 of 2
continued. . .


ECOTECTURE: And your thesis or intention in The Hidden Connections, is that there are strong enough similarities between the biological and social networks that we can study them in essentially the same way, given these philosophical and anthropological components.

. . . life did not take over the planet by combat, but by networking and partnerships.

CAPRA: Yes. And we also need to because if we want to build a sustainable society, we need to understand this whole concept of ecological sustainability. I don't know whether you have noticed this but it is quite surprising that there's a lot of confusion about sustainability, even within the environmental movement. In the book I go into some detail to really lay out what ecological sustainability means.

The standard definition that is most often used was given by Lester Brown, the founder of the World Watch Institute, in the early 1980s. He wrote that a sustainable society is one that can fulfill its needs without diminishing the chances of future generations. That was taken up by the UN report, the so-called Brundtland Report, with the concept of sustainable development, which is again that a society or community will develop in such a way as to not diminish the chances of future generations.

This is a very necessary and useful moral exhortation. It tells us that we should leave to our children and their children a world at least as rich as the one we inherited. But it doesn't tell you anything about how to do that. I think this is why there's a lot of confusion about sustainability. What I propose is, if you want an operational definition of ecological sustainability, which starts from the recognition that we do not need to start from scratch to build a sustainable community, we can learn valuable lessons from nature because the ecosystems in nature are sustainable communities. They are communities of plants, animals and microorganisms that have evolved over billions of years so as to maintain themselves in a balanced state and sustain themselves.

What we need then is to design human societies in such a way that they do not interfere with nature's inherent ability to sustain life. That to me is the crux. And that is an operational definition because if we are serious about that, then the first step will be to understand how does nature do it? How does nature sustain life? That leads you directly to the question, what is life, what are the basic characteristics of living systems? So we need to study living networks in nature in order to understand sustainability, and we can then deduce from that a set of principles, if you wish, principles of sustainability or principles of ecology.

. . . we can learn valuable lessons from nature because the ecosystems in nature are sustainable communities.

We can say, well, if you look at an ecosystem we see matter continually cycles, it never gets lost. There is no waste, everything is continually recycled. We can also say these ecological cycles are driven by solar energy, they are fueled by solar energy, so energy comes from the sun. We see that these cycles, then, interlink to form networks. There's pervasive cooperation between species, there are partnerships. Life did not take over the planet by combat, but by networking and partnerships. All these are very valuable lessons that need to be learned for building sustainable communities. Then we need to understand human consciousness and culture, human values, to see how these (ecological) principles can be translated into strategies to actually build sustainable societies. And there we go into politics and social and political issues.

ECOTECTURE: Would those strategies— since they're all built on the same underlying substrate, as it were, of the biological world and how it functions—do you think those strategies would be culturally specific?

CAPRA: Yes, I think they will be culturally specific because the strategies are not derived from the biological world. The principles of sustainability are derived. And they are universal.

It's like when you build a house, you are subject to the laws of physics and chemistry. The walls have to have a certain strength to carry the roof, and no matter what the style is, there are certain physical constraints that you need to satisfy. This is why architects in college study engineering, because they need to know—they don't need to become engineers but they need to know the rudimentary facts about engineering before they become architects and design houses or other buildings or structures.

However, although these laws of physics, statics, and also laws of chemistry when you study the materials used, although these are universal laws, houses look different in different parts of the world because of the different culture. So the way these laws are translated into the actual buildings will be very different in different cultures.

. . . NGOs work quite differently from business because there's no proprietary knowlede. The knowledge is freely shared.

Similarly, when we build sustainable communities, they will look quite different in Africa or Europe or California.

Actually, there's another reason why they will look differently and that is because the ecosystems, although they are all based again on the same principles of recycling solar energy, networking and so on, the ecosystems too look different in different parts of the world. You have a desert ecology, an ecology of temperate forests, an arctic landscape and savannas. And so the means of cooperating with nature to live sustainably will change according to where on the planet you live.

ECOTECTURE: Do you think that this cultural diversity and cultural relativism and also ethical diversity, if you will, would be an essential part of bringing the ingredients into this mix of meaning and form?

CAPRA: I think so. Also, cultural diversity gives us a richness, a richness of human creativity, ingenuity and innovations. One of the reasons, and in the last chapter of the book I go into this in quite some detail, one of the reasons the so-called global justice movement—which before was called the anti-globalization movement but is now more appropriately called the global justice movement—has been so successful in recent years is that it really is a global coalition of NGOs and it comes up with solutions to current world problems that show great diversity. When there are, say, economic problems and problems of how the global economy could take into account human rights or environmental protection or health considerations, the solutions people come up with in India, say, would be quite different from the solutions the NGOs in North America come up with. Since they network together and meet together constantly and communicate, we can choose the best of those solutions or the best for a particular area and apply them. So there's great richness now in the cooperation of global NGOs.

The NGOs work quite differently from business because there's no proprietary knowledge. The knowledge is freely shared. There's no competition and there's no market share. You know, all these concepts don't exist in the global NGOs.

ECOTECTURE: They're trying to work towards a common solution as opposed to working against each other, each grabbing a little piece of the action.

CAPRA: Right, exactly. Now it's not 100% like that because human nature is similar wherever you look. So the director of say Greenpeace or the Rainforest Action Network, in a sense, is of course the director of a large organization and therefore will have certain characteristics that corporate CEOs will also have. When before I said there is no market share, I was thinking afterwards, well, they do compete for funding from foundations and private donors and so on. So it's a little bit of that going on. But there's overwhelming overall cooperation towards a common goal.

ECOTECTURE: Which is a sustainable planet, I would assume, however that is being defined by different people.

CAPRA: Right.