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Meeting a Guru: Systems Thinker Fritjof Capra

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This interview was originally published on Emerging Future.

The Emerging Future Institute will be hosting a dialogue between Fritjof Capra, Simon Robinson, and Benjamin J. Butler on December 9. Learn more here.


I had an opportunity to speak with Fritjof Capra in Berkeley in August. Fritjof really needs no introduction. I believe he is one of the most important authors alive today. He started out as a theoretical physicist and then wrote classics such as the Tao of Physics. His most recent book is the “Systems View of Life.”


Benjamin J Butler: In your own field of expertise (please define this) does it feel like we are in the midst or at the edge of massive change that is perhaps revolutionary? And why?

Fritjof Capra: My original field of expertise was theoretical physics, but since the mid-1980s I have been working in systems and complexity science, synthesizing a new conception of life, which I call “the systems view of life.” My synthesis offers a coherent conceptual framework that integrates four dimensions of life: the biological, the cognitive, the social, and the ecological dimension.

The systems view of life is a revolutionary advance. At its core lies a profound change of metaphors, from seeing the world as a machine to understanding it as a network. At present, the mechanistic worldview still dominates many fields (e.g. medicine, management, economics, and most of politics), but we are well into the change of paradigms (farther than “at the edge” but not yet “in the midst”), especially in the minds of young people and of high-tech professionals who are used to dealing with networks in their everyday professional and personal lives.

How will the Fourth Industrial Revolution affect you? …affect the planet?

In recent years, there have been several books advocating or announcing a new Industrial Revolution and giving it a number. So, let me start by keeping track of these new Industrial Revolutions. One of the first to use this language was Jeremy Rifkin about 10 years ago.

Rifkin argues that throughout human history great economic revolutions occurred when new communication technologies converged with new energy systems. In the nineteenth century, the convergence of steam power and print technology created the “First Industrial Revolution.” In the twentieth century, petroleum as the main energy source converged with electronic communications to create the “Second Industrial Revolution.” Rifkin’s vision for the “Third Industrial Revolution” is the convergence of renewable energies with Internet communication to usher in a democratization of energy and a fundamental reordering of human relationships in a transition from hierarchies to networks, from centralized to distributed and collaborative power.

Charles Schwab counts the Industrial Revolutions slightly differently, separating the spread of electricity (Revolution #2) and electronics (Revolution #3), and he calls the digital revolution the “Fourth Industrial Revolution.” In contrast to Rifkin, Schwab does not seem to be concerned with energy and sustainability but merely with digital technologies. In my view, such a revolution would lead to disaster, as it would aggravate the unsustainable practices we see today. If combined with sustainable energy production, agriculture, architecture, and business practices, on the other hand (as Rifkin, Amory Lovins, Lester Brown, and others suggest), the digital revolution can be an important part of building a sustainable future.

What is your outlook for the global economy? Are we facing crisis? [Even if you are not an economist]

We are in the midst of a global economic crisis, and in order to understand it, it actually helps not being an economist. The reason is that the major problems of our time — energy, environment, economy, climate change, social inequality, violence and war — are systemic problems, which means that they are all interconnected and interdependent. They need corresponding systemic solutions — solutions that do not solve any problem in isolation but deal with it within the context of other related problems. This means that the economic crisis cannot be solved by economists alone, but only by means of a systemic, multidisciplinary approach. Today, hundreds of such systemic solutions have been proposed and tested by the scholars and activists in the global civil society. What we need to implement them is political will and leadership.

What are your feelings about the environmental crisis? Do you perceive polarisation in society? Is it going to result in political revolution?

The fundamental dilemma underlying all our global problems seems to be the illusion that unlimited growth is possible on a finite planet. The irrational belief in perpetual economic growth amounts to a clash between linear thinking and the nonlinear patterns in our biosphere — the ecological networks and cycles that constitute the web of life. This highly nonlinear global network contains countless feedback loops through which the planet balances and regulates itself. Our current economic system, by contrast, is fueled by materialism and greed that do not seem to recognize any limits.

Economic and corporate growth are the driving forces of global capitalism, the dominant economic system today. At the center of the global economy is a network of financial flows, which has been designed without any ethical framework. In fact, social inequality and social exclusion are inherent features of economic globalization, widening the gap between the rich and the poor and increasing world poverty.

In this economic system, perpetual growth is pursued relentlessly by promoting excessive consumption and a throw-away economy that is energy and resource intensive, generating waste and pollution, and depleting the Earth’s natural resources. Moreover, these environmental problems are exacerbated by global climate change, caused by our energy-intensive and fossil-fuel-based technologies.

It seems, then, that our key challenge is how to shift from an economic system based on the notion of unlimited growth to one that is both ecologically sustainable and socially just. “No growth” is not the answer. Growth is a central characteristic of all life; a society, or economy, that does not grow will die sooner or later. Growth in nature, however, is not linear and unlimited. While certain parts of organisms, or ecosystems, grow, others decline, releasing and recycling their components which become resources for new growth. This kind of balanced, multi-faceted growth is well known to biologists and ecologists. I call it “qualitative growth” to contrast it with the concept of quantitative growth used by today’s economists.

Is there a revolution of thinking happening today, a revolution in consciousness?

Indeed, a new kind of systemic and ecological thinking is happening today, and this is what I have been teaching and writing about for the past thirty years. At the forefront of contemporary science, the universe is not 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. 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, and patterns of organization, a new science of qualities is slowly emerging

What viewpoints about the future do you hold that are most contrarian to mainstream thinking? [vis a vis the economy, science, etc]

The shifts from the metaphor of the machine to the metaphor of the network, from quantitative to qualitative growth, from the exploitation of nature to sustainability, which are part of the systems view of life, are all contrary to mainstream thinking. Fortunately, they are gaining more and more ground.

What do you fear for the planet? What policy recommendations do you have?

Today we have the ideas and the technologies to move toward a sustainable future, and we know how to turn them into policies. For details, just look at the electoral platform of Bernie Sanders. What is impeding us is the power of large corporations who have invested billions of dollars in the status quo and bribing politicians, and are not willing to change. For example, we know now that fossil fuel companies need to keep 80% of their proven reserves in the ground to avoid global climate collapse. But they have listed these reserves as their assets and plan to burn them. They fight with all their might against any restrictions on carbon emissions, even to the extent of systematically denying the science of climate change, because they don’t want to turn those 80% of their reserves’ “stranded assets.” This is what we are up against: the struggle between greed and hunger for power, on the one hand, and the survival of human civilization on the other.

Which books would you recommend to help a young person prepare for this revolutionary future?

I have synthesized the systems view of life, which is a revolutionary advance in science, in my book of the same title, coauthored with Pier Luigi Luisi and published in paperback a few weeks ago by Cambridge University Press. In the last chapter of the book I discuss many of the systemic solutions needed to overcome our global crisis. To study these solutions in detail I recommend three books (which I review in that chapter): Plan B by Lester Brown, Reinventing Fire by Amory Lovins, and The Third Industrial Revolution by Jeremy Rifkin.


If you would like to learn more about Fritjof Capra, then please go to his site and also consider signing up for his online course, the Capra Course.

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