Saturday, August 23, 2008

Capra 1: The Turning Point

Fritjof Capra is best known for his book The Tao of Physics, which combined the theories of quantum mechanics, relativity, and astrophysics, with ideas from Eastern mysticism. It was a bestseller and spawned a bunch of similar works (for example books like The Dancing Wu Li Masters, The Holographic Universe, and The Physics of Consciousness, as well as the film What the #$*! Do We Know!?). I read it and found it interesting but as time went on I found it less useful. Apparently Capra did as well.

He wrote a second book in 1982, The Turning Point, expanding his focus to ideas in biology, medicine, psychology, and economics. He begins by pointing out how the mechanistic (he refers to it as Cartesian-Newtonian) model that physics has moved beyond is still the baseline in other fields that want to prove they are as scientific as physics. Here he admits that while quatum theory is useful in some domains (the subatomic and the cosmological), it doesn't apply to much in the realms we usually deal in. He also is clear the mechanistic model is useful sometimes--he just doesn't want to see it applied indiscriminately.

After pointing out how this mechanistic viewpoint is so limiting in the fields of biology, medicine, psychology, and economics (he devotes a chapter to each), Capra moves on to focus on technological and corporate overdevelopment in a chapter entitled 'The Dark Side of Growth'. It's a critique that encompasses pollution, consumption of fossil fuels (he references M King Hubbert in his economics chapter--and points out not only oil peaking, but our depletion of almost every natural resource), the connections between nuclear energy and nuclear weapons, the pharmaceutical industry and the misuse of drugs, and how agribusiness destroys the soil and contributes to world hunger.

He follows all this with a new section entitled 'The New Vision of Reality', which begins with a chapter on 'The Systems View of Life'. Here he develops an ecological viewpoint which he ties into the thinking of mystics and "Eastern 'psychologies'". He ends this chapter with references to Taoism and the thinking of Teilhard de Chardin, paleontologist, Jesuit priest, and mystic. Capra spends the next two chapters exploring what this means for medicine, health, psychology, and psychotherapy, and generally covers most of the Alternative Medicine/Human Potential/New Age thinking of the '70's.

Capra entitles his final chapter 'The Passage to the Solar Age'. In retrospect it's easy to see that he was a bit over-optimistic. He begins by looking at economics from an ecological perspective. He talks about 'systemic wisdom' (a term he takes from Gregory Bateson). Probably his most important piece of systemic wisdom (at least as far as I'm concerned) is this quote: "The vital social choices we face... are choices between principles of self-organization--centralization or decentralization, capital-intensity or labor-intensity, hard technology or soft-technology--that affect the survival of humanity as a whole." He quotes E F Schumacher reconciling opposites and then says "The global interconnectedness of our problems and the virtue of small-scale, decentralized enterprises represent such a pair of complementary opposites. The need to balance the two has found eloquent expression in the slogan 'Think globally--act locally!'"

His criticisms of economic systems seem so on target, that it's hard to remember this book came out twenty-six years ago. He talks about alternative technology, organic farming, and systems of recycling waste. He even mentions alternative economies: "...emerging countereconomies based on decentralized, cooperative, and ecologically harmonious life styles, and involving the bartering of skills and home-produced goods and services. These alternative economies--also known as 'informal', 'dual', or 'convivial' economies--cannot be centrally planned and installed but have to grow and develop organically, which usually involves a great deal of pragmatic experimentation and requires considerable social and cultural flexibility."

He even talks about how feminism and feminist spirituality offers an alternative. But the ending of his book reveals its age and naiveté when he says: "Such predictions may seem rather idealistic, especially in view of the current political swing to the right in the United States and the crusades of Christian fundamentalists promoting medieval notions of reality....
"The social movements of the 1960s and 1970s represent the rising culture, which is now ready for passage to the solar age."

I remember the eighties. I thought we had learned from the '60's and '70's and were ready for passage to a new age. (I will do a post on the eighties in the future.) Unfortunately, only now is the swing to the right coming to an end and those Christian fundamentalists are still promoting their 'medieval notions'.

The book seems to have been a 'turning point' for Fritjof Capra. Trained as a physicist, he began moving toward biological models for change and abandoning the paradigm of modern physics. He wrote a book about some of the various thinkers who influenced him called Uncommon Wisdom and then co-authored a book on Green Politics with Charlene Spretnak.

Then he wrote a book that pulled together ecological theory and complexity theory. He called it The Web of Life.

Next: The Web

Quote of the day: "To restore a healthy balance we will have to return those variables which have been overstrained to manageable levels. This will include, among many other measures, the decentralization of populations and industrial activities, the dismantling of large corporations and other social institutions, the redistribution of wealth, and the creation of flexible, resource-conserving technologies." - Fritjof Capra
Word (or phrase) of the day: Self-organizing systems
Hero(es) of the day: Tanya Nash

No comments: