Dr Fritjof Capra is a world famous systems theorist and activist who has written several international bestsellers that connect ‘conceptual changes in science with broader changes in our worldview’.
The Vienna-born physicist turned science writer, and founding director of the Berkeley-based Center for Ecoliteracy, is someone who has been a mentor to me. His work set me on a journey that has shaped how I see the world, and led me to what I do in climate activism – so it was with great delight that I welcomed him as my guest on Inside Ideas.
His books on what he termed the systems view of life have been seminal works in the development of how people understand the interconnected relationships between nature and the various structures of society.
“Systems thinking and the systems view of life is inherently multi-disciplinary and so we touch on all these dimensions of life, the biological, the cognitive, the social, the ecological and we integrate them into a synthesis,” he said.
Several critics have said that The Systems View of Life, which encapsulates many of these ideas, and was coauthored with Pier Luigi Luisi, Professor of Biology at the University of Rome, is already a classic.
I have always combined theory and conceptual insights with activism and a desire for social change.Dr Fritjof Capra
Dr Capra’s journey is one that very much began in the hippy era of the 1960s, a time which saw him study eastern philosophy and take psychedelics, experiences that ultimately paved the way for the publication of his renowned 1970s book: The Tao of Physics.
“The great formative years of my life were in the 1960s. In the 60s the members of what later became called a counterculture experienced two kinds of expansion of consciousness. One, into the spiritual realm, the religious, or what psychologists later called the trans personal dimension of consciousness. The other was an expansion of social consciousness, which brought a radical questioning of authority. So you had the civil rights movement in America, the protests against the Soviet regime in Prague, you had psychologists questioning the authority of therapists, students questioning the authority of university professors, women questioning the patriarchy.”
It was a time when the seeds of what would become his new reality were experientially sown into Capra’s soul.
He continued: “I went from being a working physicist to a science writer. And I recognised that the various issues I was becoming interested in, like health, the environment, social justice, the management of organisations, that these all had to do with life, with individual organisms, social systems, and ecosystems; and physics has nothing to say about living systems and so my interest shifted from physics to life sciences. In the mid 80s I gave up physics and wrote about this new understanding of life which I called the systems view of life and I spent 30 years developing a synthesis of this systems view of life.”
In his new book Patterns of Connection he distills these decades into a text Capra says ‘is not only an account of my intellectual journey but also an account of the various social movements that I encountered and became part of’. These are decades in which he was engaged in a systematic exploration of how life sciences and society were creating a shift in worldview, or paradigms, and were leading to a new vision of reality and a new understanding of the social implications of the ongoing cultural transformations. These changes he witnessed, from the counterculture of the 1960s through to the new age movement of the 1970s, the feminist movement of the 1970s, the movement of green politics in the 1980s, the new thinking of Mikael Gorbachev, and then the information technology revolution in the 1990s, are at the heart of his new book.
“Patterns of Connection is a collection of essays with a narrative that interweaves the essays, and gives the historical and philosophical context. And it is really the story about how my thinking evolved over five decades. So in this narrative I talk about all my books so when you read this one, you get all the references because it’s really an account of my journey,” he said. “One of the first essays in Patterns of Connections is about the 60s, my formative years, where I go into great detail.”
You often see that indigenous cultures have worldviews that are very close to the systems view of life.Dr Fritjof Capra
The main focus of Capra’s environmental education and activism has been to help build and nurture sustainable communities and he believes that for the world to work for everyone it must be built on ecological principles.
“A world that works for everyone would be a world designed according to ecological principles because it is the very nature of ecosystems that everybody participates, everybody is involved, everybody co-operates, everybody networks,” he said. “So this wisdom of nature is millions and billions of years old and the best we can do to create a truly sustainable world that works for everyone and works in the long run is to follow this wisdom of nature and to design our social structures, and technologies and physical structures according to the principles of ecology that nature has evolved.”
Capra added that he is often asked: do you have hope for the future? On hope, he quotes the words of the playwright, and former Czech Republic president, Václav Havel.
“Havel wrote: the kind of hope that I often think about I understand above all as a state of mind, not a state of the world. Either we have hope within us or we don’t. It is a dimension of the soul and it is not essentially dependant on some particular observation of the world or estimate of the situation. Hope is not the conviction that something will turn out well but the certainty that something makes sense regardless of how it will turn out.”