Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Capra 3: The Hidden Connections

Fritjof Capra begins this book by reviewing and augmenting the arguments of The Web of Life (his previous book and the subject of my last post). He then goes on to discuss how systems theory and sustainability can be used in business organizations. While some of the theory here is useful, it felt like it's trying to prop up the very system destroying the ecosystem and disempowering people. The beginning of the next chapter (on 'The Networks of Global Capitalism') has a similar feel, as if it's apologizing for and attempting superficial reforms of global capitalism.

But as the chapter progresses, Capra begins building the case against global capitalism. He ends this chapter with a critique of globalism from Manuel Castells (author of the three volume dissection of modern business, The Information Age) who predicts: "the social, cultural, and political rejection by large numbers of people around the world of an Automaton whose logic either ignores or devalues their humanity."

He devotes the next chapter of The Hidden Connections to a discussion of biotechnology which is informative and devastating. He talks about how the original genetic understanding, "Genes determine behavior", "DNA makes RNA, RNA makes protein, and proteins make us", and "one gene--one protein", turns out to be massively oversimplified, and sometimes downright wrong. He discusses genetic engineering, cloning, and biotech agriculture, and shows how, while scientists are re-evalutating the roles of genes in development, business interests are pushing things like biotech medicine and genetically modified seeds. He clearly states that this is being driven by 'financial gain' rather than need or science.

But he's just warming up. In his next and final chapter, 'Changing the Game', he points out the ruin caused by global capitalism ("... the causes of most of our present environmental and social problems are deeply embedded in our economic systems. ... More stringent environmental regulations, better business practices, and more efficient technologies are all necessary, but they are not enough. We need a deeper systemic change.") He also talks about emerging alternatives: the Seattle actions and the World Social Forum, as examples. He talks about a new, emerging 'civil society', "based on the respect of human dignity, the ethics of sustainability, and an ecological view of the world". He then focuses on three particular issues: 'reshaping globalization'; rejecting genetically modified foods and, instead, building sustainable agriculture; and ecologically redesigning our culture. As he talks about 'ecoliteracy and ecodesign', he goes over what he sees as the basic principles of ecology, noting that this is what he has been covering throughout this book (and The Web of Life as well).

His main principles are:
  • Networks (" systems nesting within other living systems--networks within networks.")
  • Cycles ("... an ecosystem generates no waste, one species' waste being another species' food.")
  • Solar Energy ("... drives the ecological cycles.")
  • Partnership ("... exchanges ... are sustained by pervasive cooperation.")
  • Diversity (" ... stability and resilience through ... richness and complexity...")
  • Dynamic Balance ("... a flexible, ever-fluctuating network... of multiple feedback loops...")

He goes on to give real-world examples of ecological design and talk about policies (especially tax policies) that promote sustainable building. He concludes with an epilog that pulls the ideas of the book together, summarizing his views on complexity and ecology, looking at the value shifts being brought about by the feminist and ecology movements, and finishing with reasons for hope. He begins and ends the book with quotes from Vaclav Havel, the first on education and 'hidden connections', and the last on the nature of hope.

I found the book fascinating because it pulls together insights from complexity theory, basic understandings from ecology, and an analysis of our current situation. I don't agree with everything. I think that the systemic changes that will be needed will go far beyond things like "Natural Capitalism" and looking at ecodesign as "good business". But the same principles he describes (and I condensed, above) will be necessary for redesigning the world: small systems networked together, using solar energy (which includes wind, etc) and real 'recycling' (creating a no waste system where everything feeds something else), built on sharing and cooperation, replete with diversity, and filled with learning and complexity (and contradiction) in an ever-changing balance. Yep. That's where I want to go.

Quote of the day: "At the deepest level, feminist awareness is based on women's experiential knowledge that all life is connected, that our existence is always embedded in the cyclical processes of nature. Feminist consciousness, accordingly, focuses on finding fulfillment in nurturing relationships rather than the accumulation of material goods.
"The ecology movement arrives at the same position from a different approach. Ecological literacy requires systemic thinking--thinking in terms of relationships, context patterns, and process..." - Fritjof Capra
Word (or phrase) of the day: Social Ecology
Hero(es) of the day: Mitsuye Endo

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