Fritjof Capra, Ph.D., is a scientist, educator, activist, and author of many international bestsellers that connect conceptual changes in science with broader changes in worldview and values in society.
A Vienna-born physicist and systems theorist, Capra first became popularly known for his book, The Tao of Physics, which explored the ways in which modern physics was changing our worldview from a mechanistic to a holistic and ecological one. Published in 1975, it is still in print in more than 40 editions worldwide and is referenced with the statue of Shiva in the courtyard of one of the world’s largest and most respected centers for scientific research: CERN, the Center for Research in Particle Physics in Geneva.
Over the past 30 years, Capra has been engaged in a systematic exploration of how other sciences and society are ushering in a similar shift in worldview, or paradigms, leading to a new vision of reality and a new understanding of the social implications of this cultural transformation.
His most recent book, The Systems View of Life (Cambridge University Press, 2014), presents a grand new synthesis of this work—integrating the biological, cognitive, social, and ecological dimensions of life into one unified vision. Several critics have suggested that The Systems View of Life, which Capra coauthored with Pier Luigi Luisi, Professor of Biology at the University of Rome, is destined to become another classic.
Capra is a founding director of the Berkeley-based Center for Ecoliteracy, which is dedicated to advancing ecology and systems thinking in primary and secondary education, and serves on the faculty of the Amana-Key executive education program in São Paulo, Brazil. He is a Fellow of Schumacher College, an international center for ecological studies in the UK, and serves on the Council of the Earth Charter Initiative.
He is the author of The Turning Point (1982), The Web of Life (1996), The Hidden Connections (2002), The Science of Leonardo (2007), and Learning from Leonardo (2013). He coauthored Green Politics (1984), Belonging to the Universe (1991), and EcoManagement (1993), and coedited Steering Business Toward Sustainability (1995). He also cowrote the screenplay for Mindwalk (1990), a film starring Liv Ullmann, Sam Waterston, and John Heard, created and directed by Bernt Capra.
The main focus of Capra’s environmental education and activism has been to help build and nurture sustainable communities. He believes that to do so, we can learn valuable lessons from the study of ecosystems, which are sustainable communities of plants, animals, and microorganisms.
Center for Ecoliteracy
The Center for Ecoliteracy is dedicated to cultivating education for sustainable living. We recognize that students need to experience and understand how nature sustains life and how to live accordingly. We encourage schools to teach and model sustainable practices. The Center leads systems change initiatives, publishes original books and resources, facilitates conferences and professional development, and provides strategic consulting. We work at multiple levels of scale, with local, regional, state, and national programs. One initiative, California Food for California Kids® supports systems change by improving children’s health, education, and the state’s economy while teaching students where food comes from and how it reaches the table.
Analysis of the situation
The cities of today are transforming constantly and quickly, because to continue as we are makes unviable their development in a sustainable way. Many and important are some of the challenges we currently have: social, technological, economic. environmental, security, immigration, employment, training and transit of thought, among others.
On the one hand, the presence of some of these challenges, whether related to climate change, natural disasters, depletion of natural resources, security, among others, is causing us constant concern. On the other hand, some others, such as the challenges related to security, immigration, pollution, cybersecurity, automation, robotics, artificial intelligence… to say some of them, are already surpassing us all, as these challenges can not be addressed if it is not from a strategic approach of a global nature, and if I hurry to say it, in some cases, they are acquiring an existential character.
On the contrary, the structures of the current economic, social and political model go far below technological development. The increasingly social dimension of poverty, the need to incorporate into the traditional model of research broader systems of innovation that encompass other actors, the fragmentation of knowledge systems, the need for modernization of many institutions around type, which brings all this to the need for a paradigm shift and societal model.
1. Do you agree that many of the current challenges can only be addressed from a strategic approach of a global carácter?
– When we look at the state of the world today, what is most evident is that none of our global problems — energy, environment, climate change, economic inequality, violence and war — none of these problems can be understood in isolation. 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.
2. Why do you think that there are no global regulatory bodies?
– To institute effective global regulatory bodies, our political and corporate leaders would need to think systemically — in terms of relationships, patterns, and context. Unfortunately, most of them are still unable to do so. They unable to “connect the dots,” to use a popular phrase. They fail to see how the major problems of our time are all interrelated. Moreover, they refuse to recognize how their piecemeal solutions affect future generations. What we need is systemic, sustainable solutions. The required systemic thinking is most widely practiced in civil society today, less so in business, and least in politics. Until that changes, the ideal of global regulatory bodies will remain illusory.
If there are two recent events of our economic and social development, which are causing an authentic revolution in our society, they are on the one hand the “Digital Economy, thanks to the advances of the Internet and other technologies. The other is, without a doubt, the “Circular Economy”, as a new development model, which identifies a series of processes in our economy.
The Circular Economy as one of the greatest exponents of the resilience of cities, since it represents a new model of economic and social development, which identifies a series of processes of our economy in relation to the production, consumption and recycling of products that we use, in order to respect and repair natural resources, the renewal and reuse of products and their components.
But above all, the circular economy is also a concept that has to do with the economy, which interrelates with sustainability, and whose mission is that the value of products, materials and resources (water, energy …) stay in the economy for as long as possible and minimize the generation of waste.
3. What do you think about the Circular Economy, as a new paradigm for the functioning of our economy and society?
– The so-called Circular Economy is part of a broader conceptual framework, known as ecological economics, which is essential for overcoming our multifaceted global crisis. It is a transdisciplinary field that integrates economy, nature, and society. Ecological economics is consistent with and honors the basic principles of ecology, among them the circular nature of ecological processes. It sees the economy as operating within, rather than dominating, the spheres of nature, society, and culture. It is regenerative rather than extractive.
Climate change is one of the greatest challenges of our time and represents one more threat that cities, societies and the environment have to endure. From extreme weather events, which threaten food production, to sea level rise, which increases the risk of catastrophic floods, the effects of climate change are global in scale and unprecedented in scale. If drastic measures are not taken without further delay, it will be much more difficult and costly for cities to adapt in the near future.
In the face of all this, urgent and forceful action with climate change is urgently needed, but Institutional Governance is in many cases looking the other way, its inaction is eternalized over time.
4. Do you think that Institutional Governance is going to dare to face this challenge?, ¿or on the contrary, do you think that it will be necessary to wait for some regrettable misfortune to occur at a global level so that action can be taken then?
– In my view, the regrettable global misfortune is already happening. Indeed, we are in the midst of it. The excessive emissions of greenhouse gases have resulted in the global warming of the Earth’s atmosphere beyond safe levels; and today, we are experiencing the great variety of harmful consequences — floods, tornados, and hurricanes; but also droughts, heat waves, and wildfires. During recent years we have seen an intensification of all these climate catastrophes. Droughts, hurricanes, and floods result not only in billions of dollars of damage, but also in millions of climate refugees, which often trigger political unrests, violence, and war. For example, the catastrophic civil war in Syria originated in a historic drought in 2006, which resulted in 1.5 million farmers migrating to the cities where they exacerbated already existing political tensions. We see that both the causes and the effects of climate change are all systemically interconnected.
– The Paris agreement on climate change certainly can give us hope. Just think that the Kyoto Protocol took 8 years to be ratified; the Paris agreement took just 11 months. The goal is to hold global warming to no more than 2oC above pre-industrial levels. This is what climate scientists tell us we have to do. But the actual actions around the world are still woefully slow. The urgency to act is extreme.
5. What do you think about the latest movements represented by adolescents, such as the “Friday on the Future” movement and similar movements about the inaction on the part of many governments around the world to act immediately on the effects and consequences of climate change?
– Indeed, today there are several grassroots movements of young people who are passionate about systemic social change: Fridays for Future, the Sunrise Movement, Extinction Rebellion, to name just a few. They share this passion with a new generation of politicians who have a systemic and ecological outlook. They include Jacinta Ardern in New Zealand, Sanna Marin in Finland, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in the United States, among many others. In my view, the alliance of this new generation of political leaders with the grassroots youth movements is our great hope.
It is necessary to define, analyze and understand the importance of the challenges in cities from a holistic and strategic point of view of the process of economic, social, environmental and political development.
6. What do you think we should do to better establish the objectives, taking into account that technology is on the way, and economic, social and political structures go for another?
– The objectives need to be systemic policies that do not address problems in isolation but always within the context of other related problems. Typically, such policies will solve several problems simultaneously. Let me take the Green New Deal, proposed by a group of progressive political leaders in the United States Congress, as an example.
– It is a policy package that involves a dramatic shift to renewable energy sources, combined with massive job creation. The Green New Deal is a systemic solution par excellence, solving several major problems in the United States and at the global level. The shift to renewable energy will require rebuilding massive sectors of the US economy, and consequently the employment of millions of skilled tradespeople and workers. In addition, it will make the world safer from climate catastrophes, as well as from terrorism and ill-conceived wars for oil in the Middle East. The Green New Deal can be financed by several interdependent sources which, together, will not only pay for the implementation of the policies but also produce net income and wealth over coming decades.
Education is perhaps one of the biggest challenges we have, since the achievement of the other objectives that our society currently has depends to a great extent on it. How to deal rigorously with an adequate education is therefore key to this.
You describe yourself as an educator and ecologist who promotes reflection on ecology and systems in primary and secondary education. For more than 30 years, he has worked as a scientist and popularizer, as well as an environmental educator and activist. Over the past 10 years, he has developed a special pedagogy, “education for sustainable living.” You assert that “Creating sustainable human communities means, firstly, understanding the inherent ability of nature to support life, and then redesigning our physical and technological structures and social institutions in accordance with that understanding.”
7. Why do you think it is so difficult to incorporate some detected competencies into the education systems, such as creativity, systemic thinking, transdisciplinary communication, as well as the capacities related to change management?
– Systems thinking is inherently multidisciplinary; it focuses on patterns of relationships that are common to all living systems — individual organisms, social systems, and ecosystems. In our educational system, unfortunately, there is tremendous resistance to multidisciplinarity. That’s the main problem. In our universities we have specialized departments, textbooks, academic journals, and so on. The entire organization of knowledge is fragmented, and many academic individuals and institutions have invested heavily in this fragmentation of knowledge — intellectually, emotionally, and financially.
– I have tried to counteract this fragmentation during my entire professional life, developing an ecologically oriented pedagogy for schools with the Center for Ecoliteracy (of which I am a founding director), with my multidisciplinary textbook “The Systems View of Life” (coauthored with Pier Luigi Luisi and published by Cambridge University Press), and most recently with my online Capra Course, based on the textbook (www.capracourse.net). I have taught this course now for five years to over 2000 participants in 75 countries around the world. In this way, I am building a worldwide network of systemic thinkers and activists.
Innovation systems have to be based on concepts, but also on processes and tools, since they depend on many actors: researchers, scientists, technicians, business people, financiers, development agencies, politicians, users, citizens. All these actors act in different contexts and levels and in general do not have the same interests and ambitions.
Innovation systems must be able to link citizens, with an environment that is being built (Smart Cities), of existing public organizations, as well as the collaboration of all of them with private initiative, which are the companies.
In order for this to be successfully developed, this innovation system must be part of a medium- and long-term development strategy that links to the problems, challenges and objectives of this development process.
You in the book the “Tao of Physics” point out that “the vision of the world derived from modern physics is incoherent with our current society, which does not reflect the harmonious interrelation that we observe in Nature”.
8. How do you think these innovation systems could be improved in the development process?
– The systemic understanding of life includes a new understanding of creativity as an essential characteristic of all living systems. Compklexity theory has enabled us to identify the process of the emergence of novelty at critical points of instability as the central dynamics of life’s creativity. This applies to all levels of life, and in particular also to human organizations. Detailed knowledge of the process of emergence in organizations leads to a new practice of leadership: leadership as the facilitation of emergence, of creativity.
– In another book “The Science of Leonardo” related to the science developed by Leonardo da Vinci you have stated that “what we need today is exactly a type of science that da Vinci anticipated several centuries ago.”
9. What do you mean concretely by this statement?
– As we recognize that our sciences and technologies have become increasingly narrow in their focus, unable to understand our multi-faceted problems from a multidisciplinary perspective, we urgently need a science and technology that honor and respect the unity of all life, recognize the fundamental interdependence of all natural phenomena, and reconnect us with the living Earth. This is exactly the kind of science Leonardo da Vinci outlined and practiced 500 years ago.
When it comes to finding solutions to problems related to current challenges, the sum of knowledge coming from the triangle of knowledge and Institutional Governance is missing. Many of the challenges it is essential to unite the whole community of global character through the realization of a systemic approach, where the parts and the whole, innovation and collaboration are fundamental.
10.Do you trust that collective intelligence will be effective and help effectively in the development process?
– Yes, I do. In today’s society we have three centers of power: government, business, and civil society. They have different skills and capabilities. Government can bring about social change through legislation and through the power of persuasion by charismatic leaders. Business is great at developing technological solutions to various problems; and civil society promotes the values of human dignity and ecological sustainability. I believe that the collaboration of these three centers of power can enable us to build a world that is sustainable, just, and peaceful.
The great challenges that we face on many occasions, do not have a direct and simple solution. There are many interests at stake and not all economic and social partners, and institutional governance itself have the same interest in solving the problems we currently have. The same policy developed by the different levels of government in many cases becomes in many cases a brake that hinders the achievement of objectives.
In the process of evaluating public policies related to the economic planning and employment process, we find that it is normal for projects, programs and actions to be evaluated, but in almost no case are the policies that make such programs possible evaluated.
11.Do you think that there is a need for indicators that identify and help for a better understanding of the impact of public policy in favor of finding innovative and creative solutions to current challenges?
– In my view, the fundamental dilemma underlying all our global problems is the illusion, sustained by most of our economists and politicians, that unlimited growth is possible on a finite planet. Perpetual economic and corporate growth is pursued relentlessly by promoting excessive consumption and a throw-away economy that is energy and resource intensive, generating waste and pollution, depleting the Earth’s natural resources, and increasing economic inequality. Moreover, these problems are exacerbated by global climate change, caused by our energy-intensive and fossil-fuel-based technologies.
– Our key challenge is 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. But growth in nature 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 GDP growth used by today’s economists. Qualitative growth is growth that enhances the quality of life through generation and regeneration.
– So, we need to qualify growth. Instead of assessing the state of the economy in terms of the crude quantitative measure of GDP, we need to distinguish between “good” growth and “bad” growth and then increase the former at the expense of the latter. From an ecological point of view, the distinction between “good” and “bad” economic growth is obvious. Bad growth is growth of production processes and services that externalizes social and environmental costs (thereby harming local communities and damaging the environment without necessarily being aware of the full scope of the problems one is creating). Bad growth is based on fossil fuels, involves toxic substances, depletes our natural resources, and degrades the Earth’s ecosystems.
– Good growth is the opposite of all that. It is growth of more efficient production processes and services that involve renewable energies, zero emissions, continual recycling of natural resources, support of local communities, and restoration of the Earth’s ecosystems. Today, there are a number of new economic indicators that distinguish between these two types of growth.(see https://ec.europa.eu/environment/beyond_gdp/background_en.html).
The change towards Sustainable Development, constitutes an important transition of thought, whose main objective is that this transition reaches the hearts of people, organizations and institutions, and especially must reach especially the core of the policies of Institutional Governance. This inevitably happens through the realization of new behaviors, be they political, economic and of the citizenship (Social Innovation) in favor of that sustainable and inclusive development.
A systemic view of life in organizations (Fritjoz Capra)
You, along with two of your colleagues, Peter Buckley and Zenobia Barlow created in 1955 the non-profit organization: “The Center for Ecoliteracy” dedicated to education for sustainable living. The Center for Ecoliteracy (CEL) is a non-profit organization dedicated to education for sustainable living. The project has supported different projects related to habitat restoration, food transformation and curricular innovation, among others.
12.Can you tell us which are the strategic and thought lines that your organization is inspired by?
– The great challenge of our time is to create sustainable human communities, designed in such a way that their ways of life respect, honor, and cooperate with nature’s inherent ability to sustain life. The first step in this endeavor, naturally, must be to understand how nature sustains life. Over billions of years of evolution, the Earth’s ecosystems have evolved certain principles of organization to sustain the web of life. Knowledge of these principles of organization, 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 literally 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. The Center for Ecoliteracy is dedicated to promote eological literacy and systemic thinking at the level of primary and secondary education.
13.You can give us a brief evaluation of the activities that have been carried out in said Center
– At the Center for Ecoliteracy (www.ecoliteracy.org), my colleagues and I have developed a special pedagogy for teaching ecological literacy in primary and secondary schools. Called “schooling for sustainability,” it is a pedagogy to teach the basic principles of ecology and the skills that are necessary to build and nurture sustainable communities. Schooling for sustainability offers a systemic, participatory, and experiential approach, extensively documented in books and teaching materials. Since its inception more than twenty years ago, the Center for Ecoliteracy has worked with schools in hundreds of cities on six continents to implement its pedagogy.