'The way to sustain life is to build and nurture community'

| 30th April 2018
Fritjof Capra

Fritjof Capra argues that 'ecoliteracy' and understanding of systems thinking in relation to nature is vital to sustainable living. 

'Ecoliteracy' is urgent and necessary if we are going to build resilient and sustainable human communities that work with the patterns, structures and limitations of the natural environment. FRITJOF CAPRA, a physicist, argues that systems thinking is a crucial component of this new understanding

Sustainability, then, is not an individual property but a property of an entire web of relationships. It always involves a whole community. This is the profound lesson we need to learn from nature. The way to sustain life is to build and nurture community.

Today, it is becoming more and more evident that concern with the environment is no longer one of many "single issues." It is the context of everything else — of our lives, our businesses, our politics.

The great challenge of our time is to build and nurture sustainable communities, designed in such a manner that their ways of life — businesses, economies, physical structures, and technologies — do not interfere with nature's inherent ability to sustain life.

The first step in this endeavour, naturally, must be to understand how nature sustains life. It turns out that this involves a new ecological understanding of life. Indeed, such a new understanding of life has emerged in science over the last 30 years. 

Conceptual framework

At the forefront of contemporary science, the universe is no longer seen as a machine composed of elementary building blocks. We have discovered that the material world, ultimately, is a network of inseparable patterns of relationships; that the planet as a whole is a living, self-regulating system.

The view of the human body as a machine and of the mind as a separate entity is being replaced by one that sees not only the brain, but also the immune system, the bodily tissues, and even each cell as a living, cognitive system.

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Evolution is no longer seen as a competitive struggle for existence, but rather as a cooperative dance in which creativity and the constant emergence of novelty are the driving forces. And with the new emphasis on complexity, networks, nonlinearity, and patterns of organisation, a new science of qualities is slowly emerging.

During the last thirty years, I developed a synthesis of this new understanding of life; a conceptual framework that integrates four dimensions of life: the biological, the cognitive, the social, and the ecological dimension.

I presented summaries of this framework, as it evolved, in two books: The Web of Life (1996) and The Hidden Connections (2002). My final synthesis is published in a textbook titled The Systems View of Life (Cambridge University Press, 2014) and coauthored by Pier Luigi Luisi, professor of biochemistry in Rome. 

Ecodesign and biomimicry

I call my synthesis “the systems view of life” because it requires a new kind of thinking — thinking in terms of relationships, patterns, and context. In science this is known as systemic thinking, or “systems thinking.”

Thinking in terms of relationships is crucial for ecology, because ecology — derived from the Greek oikos ("household") — is the science of the relationships among various members of the Earth Household.

I should also mention that systems thinking is not limited to science. Many indigenous cultures embody profound ecological awareness and think of nature in terms of relationships and patterns. 

During the last ten years, I have been fascinated by the science of Leonardo da Vinci, which was a science of living forms, of interconnected patterns and processes. 

In my book The Science of Leonardo (2009) I argue that Leonardo da Vinci was a systemic thinker, an ecologist, and a pioneer of ecodesign and biomimicry.

Mathematical language

In modern science, systems thinking emerged in the 1920s from a series of interdisciplinary dialogues among biologists, psychologists, and ecologists.

In all these fields, scientists realised that a living system — an organism, ecosystem, or social system — is an integrated whole whose properties cannot be reduced to those of smaller parts.

The "systemic" properties are properties of the whole, which none of its parts have. So, systems thinking involves a shift of perspective from the parts to the whole. The early systems thinkers expressed this insight in the now well-known phrase, 'the whole is more than the sum of its parts'.

Systems science also tells us that all living systems share a set of common properties and principles of organisation. This means that systems thinking can be applied to integrate academic disciplines and to discover similarities between different phenomena within the broad range of living systems. This is why we call the systems view of life "a unifying vision."

During the 1970s and 1980s, systems thinking was raised to a new level with the development of complexity theory, technically known as 'nonlinear dynamics'. It is a new mathematical language that allows scientists for the first time to handle the enormous complexity of living systems mathematically.

Fundamental change

Chaos theory and fractal geometry are important branches of complexity theory. The new nonlinear mathematics is a mathematics of patterns, of relationships. Strange attractors and fractals are examples of such patterns. They are visual representations of the system's complex dynamics.

During the last thirty years, the strong interest in nonlinear phenomena generated a whole series of new and powerful theories that have dramatically increased our understanding of many key characteristics of life.

My synthesis of these theories is what I refer to as the systems view of life. To present to its full extent would take a longer article. I am, therefore, teaching such a course online. It’s called Capra Course for easy identification. Here I can give you only a few highlights.

One of the most important insights of the systemic understanding of life is the recognition that networks are the basic pattern of organisation of all living systems. Ecosystems are understood in terms of food webs - i.e., networks of organisms; organism are networks of cells, organs, and organ systems; and cells are networks of molecules.

The network is a pattern that is common to all life. Wherever we see life, we see networks. Indeed, at the very heart of the change of paradigms from the mechanistic to the systemic view of life we find a fundamental change of metaphors: from seeing the world as a machine to understanding it as a network. 

Dealing with communications

The defining characteristic of these living networks has been identified by two Chilean scientists, Humberto Maturana and Francisco Varela, in their theory of autopoiesis - which means 'self-making'. Living systems are self-generating

In a cell, for example, all the biological structures — the proteins, enzymes, the DNA, the cell membrane, etc. — are continually  produced, repaired, and regenerated by the cellular network.

Similarly, at the level of a multicellular organism, the bodily cells are continually regenerated and recycled by the organism’s metabolic network.

Living networks continually create, or recreate themselves by transforming or replacing their components. In this way they undergo continual structural changes while preserving their web-like patterns of organisation. This coexistence of stability and change is indeed one of the key characteristics of life. 

Life in the social realm can also be understood in terms of networks, but here we are not dealing with chemical reactions; we are dealing with communications. 

Violence and war

Social networks, as you well know, are networks of communications. Like biological networks, they are self-generating, but what they generate is mostly nonmaterial. Each communication creates information, ideas, and meaning, which give rise to further communications, and thus the entire network generates itself. 

The dimension of meaning is crucial to understand social networks. Even when they generate material structures — such as material goods, artifacts, or works of art — these material structures are very different from the ones produced by biological networks. They are usually produced for a purpose, according to some design, and they embody some meaning.

As communications continue in a social network, they form multiple feedback loops which, eventually, produce a shared system of beliefs, explanations, and values — a common context of meaning, also known as culture, which is continually sustained by further communications.

I want to emphasise that my synthesis of the systems view of life is not only theory but has very concrete applications. In the last part of our textbook, titled Sustaining the Web of Life, we discuss the critical importance of the systems view of life for dealing with the problems of our multi-faceted global crisis. 

Today, it is becoming more and more evident that the major problems of our time — energy, environment, climate change, economic inequality, violence and war, and so on — cannot be understood in isolation.

To sustain life

They are systemic problems, which means that they are all interconnected and interdependent. They require corresponding systemic solutions — solutions that do not solve any problem in isolation but deal with it within the context of other related problems. 

Unfortunately, this realisation has not yet dawned on most of our political and corporate leaders who are unable to 'connect the dots', to use a popular phrase. Instead of taking into account the interconnectedness of our major problems, their so-called 'solutions' tend to focus on a single issue, thereby simply shifting the problem to another part of the system — for example, by producing more energy at the expense of biodiversity, public health, or climate stability.

Moreover, our leaders refuse to recognise how their piecemeal solutions affect future generations. What we need is solutions that are systemic and sustainable. Over the last few decades, the research institutes and centers of learning of the global civil society have developed and tested hundreds of such systemic solutions all over the world. 

In our textbook, we dedicate about 60 pages to detailed discussions of the most effective of these solutions. They include proposals to reshape economic globalisation and restructure corporations; new forms of ownership that are not extractive but generative; a wide variety of systemic solutions to the interlinked problems of energy, food, poverty, and climate change; and finally the large number of systemic design solutions known collectively as ecodesign.

To conclude, I want to return to the concept of ecological sustainability. As I have mentioned, a sustainable human community is designed in such a manner that its ways of life, businesses, economy, physical structures, and technologies do not interfere with the inherent ability of nature to sustain life. The first step toward a sustainable future must be to understand how nature sustains life.

Diversity and resilience

To do so, we need to move from biology to ecology, because sustained life is a property of an ecosystem rather than a single organism or species. Over billions of years of evolution, the Earth's ecosystems have evolved certain principles of organisation to sustain the web of life.

Knowledge of these principles of organisation, or principles of ecology — also known as 'ecological literacy', or 'ecoliteracy' — is crucial for designing sustainable human communities.

In the coming decades the survival of humanity will depend on our ecological literacy — our ability to understand the basic principles of ecology and to live accordingly.

This means that ecoliteracy must become a critical skill for politicians, business leaders, and professionals in all spheres, and should be the most important part of education at all levels — from primary and secondary schools to colleges, universities, and the continuing education and training of professionals.

We need to teach our children, our students, and our political and corporate leaders the fundamental facts of life — for example, that one species' waste is another species' food; that matter cycles continually through the web of life; that the energy driving the ecological cycles flows from the sun; that diversity assures resilience; that life, from its beginning more than three billion years ago, did not take over the planet by combat but by partnerships and networking.

Sustainable systems

All these principles of ecology are closely interrelated. They are just different aspects of a single fundamental pattern of organisation that has enabled nature to sustain life for billions of years.

In a nutshell: nature sustains life by creating and nurturing communities. No individual organism can exist in isolation. Animals depend on the photosynthesis of plants for their energy needs; plants depend on the carbon dioxide produced by animals, as well as on the nitrogen fixed by bacteria at their roots; and together plants, animals, and microorganisms regulate the entire biosphere and maintain the conditions conducive to life.

Sustainability, then, is not an individual property but a property of an entire web of relationships. It always involves a whole community. This is the profound lesson we need to learn from nature. The way to sustain life is to build and nurture community.

A sustainable human community interacts with other communities — human and nonhuman — in  ways that enable them to live and develop according to their nature. Sustainability does not mean that things do not change. It is a dynamic process of coevolution rather than a static state.

Ecoliteracy is the first step on the road to sustainability. The second step is ecological design. We need to apply our ecological knowledge to the fundamental redesign of our technologies and social institutions, so as to bridge the current gap between human design and the ecologically sustainable systems of nature.  

Raw materials

Design, in the broadest sense, consists in shaping flows of energy and matter for human purposes. Ecological design - in the words of environmental educator David Orr - is "a process in which our human purposes are carefully meshed with the larger patterns and flows of the natural world". 

Ecological design principles reflect the principles of organisation that nature has evolved to sustain the web of life. To practice design in such a context requires a fundamental shift in our attitude toward nature, a shift from finding out what we can extract from nature, to what we can learn from her. 

In recent years, there has been a dramatic rise in ecologically oriented design practices and projects, all of which are now well documented.

They include a worldwide renaissance in organic farming; the organisation of different industries into ecological clusters, in which the waste of any one organisation is a resource for another.

Similarly, the shift from a product-oriented economy to a "service-and-flow" economy, in which industrial raw materials and technical components cycle continually between manufacturers and users is necessary.

Sustainable future

We also need to see green architecture with buildings that are designed to produce more energy than they use, emit no waste, and monitor their own performance; hybrid-electric cars achieving fuel efficiencies two to three times that of standard cars; and the development of efficient hydrogen fuel cells that promise to inaugurate a new era in energy production.

These ecodesign technologies and projects all incorporate the basic principles of ecology and therefore have some key characteristics in common. They tend to be small-scale projects with plenty of diversity, energy efficient, non-polluting, community oriented, and labor intensive, creating plenty of jobs.

The technologies available now provide compelling evidence that the transition to a sustainable future is no longer a technical nor a conceptual problem. It is a problem of political will and leadership. 

This Author

Dr Fritjof Capra, a physicist and systems theorist, is the author of several international bestsellers, including The Tao of Physics (1975), The Web of Life (1996), and The Science of Leonardo (2007). He is coauthor, with Pier Luigi Luisi, of the multidisciplinary textbook, The Systems View of Life (Cambridge University Press, 2014). Fritjof’s new online course is based on his textbook. This article is based on the course Mind, Matter, and Life which he recently co-taught at Schumacher College with Stephan Harding.

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