Book Review

The Hidden Connections

The Hidden Connections — Integrating the Biological, Cognitive and Social Dimensions of Life into a Science of Sustainability
By Frijtof Capra


Hardback—300 pages

August, 2002, DOUBLEDAY
Dimensions (in inches): 1 x 8.5 x 5.75


by Philip S. Wenz, Editor/Publisher

For decades, advocates of sustainable development have recognized that we need to redesign our systems to be compatible with natural ecosystems. But what is it about nature that we actually want to emulate? How can we apply the operating principles by which life has sustained itself for the past 3.6 billion years to the design of human systems?

While implementing and testing the answers to these questions will be an ongoing process lasting generations, it is critical that in our time we at least establish a firm theoretical basis, a firm understanding of what we are trying to do. No one has laid a better groundwork for sustainability than Fritjof Capra.

In a sense, Capra's entire body of work must be considered as a whole. His critique of reductionist science developed in the Tao of Physics (1975) and The Turning Point (1986) set the stage for his foray into holism, systems theory and, ultimately, sustainability. But his work, as a guide to creating a sustainable future, at least, reaches its fullest development in his two most recent books, the Web of Life (1996) and The Hidden Connections (2002).

Though published separately, and a few years apart, the two books constitute a continuum of thought—Volume One and Two of the same work, as it were. When I say that the Hidden Connections is essential reading for, no, actually, fundamental to the education of anyone concerned with sustainability in all of its manifold aspects, I am also saying that of its predecessor. If you read the current work, and you must, you will inevitably want and need to read the Web of Life.

While the Web of Life gives us an overview of the most recent developments in systems theory—chaos, complexity and self-organization—as applied, primarily, to biology, The Hidden Connections extends these ideas into the realm of human culture. The importance of understanding the recent breakthroughs in biological systems theory is that they explain how living systems are able to create and sustain themselves—how they manage energy so they can maintain their structures and activities and also evolve at the edge of entropic chaos. If we are to design human systems modeled on natural systems, we need to base those designs on that knowledge.

That is precisely Capra's breakthrough in The Hidden Connections. He integrates the new biology with an even newer "science of sustainability," rooted in that biology. He shows how our cognitive and social functions are embedded in our biological reality and how we can use many of the same tools or perspectives to understand both.

Just as living systems generate their own structures regulated by a variety of physical laws, social systems generate structures based on common intentions and regulated by meaning. Socially generated structures might be material, cities for example, or they might be cultural or intellectual structures such as bodies of law. But for any socially generated structure to be sustainable, it must be based on the same operative principles that make biological systems sustainable—networking, diversification, nutrient recycling, and homeostasis (exact wording mine).

The second half of The Hidden Connections is devoted to applying Capra's new perspectives to a variety of pressing contemporary issues from globalization to biotechnology. He also discusses the concepts of ecoliteracy and ecodesign and puts forth a number of concrete proposals for "changing the game." So The Hidden Connections indeed does connect—theoretical constructs with practical proposals.

My only criticism of Capra's present work is that some of his theories are not developed enough. Even a reader who is well versed in contemporary systems theory and it's ramifications for sustainable design and development may want fuller explanations of some of his concepts. Following some of his arguments, lucidly presented though they are, will be difficult for those who are new to the field.

In a sense then, The Hidden Connections is truly seminal. It is the germ rather than the fully developed organism. This underdeveloped effect has its merits however. The reader is given an valuable infusion of ideas that are systematically, if somewhat sketchily tied together and with which he or she has the freedom to run in any number of directions. And Capra himself has his next work, should he choose to pursue it, cut out for him.

In spite of the the minimalist nature of its discussion, however, Capra's book is such a marvelous synthesis, so far in advance of any work along similar lines, that it will set the standard for the the development of sustainable thought for some time to come.

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