The Systems of Life – a MAHB Dialogue with Fritjof Capra, Systems Scientist and Author of The Tao of Physics

Geoffrey Holland | August 19, 2021 | Leave a Comment

“Deep ecology does not see the world as a collection of isolated objects but rather as a network of phenomena that are fundamentally interconnected and interdependent. It recognizes the intrinsic value of all living beings and views humans—in the celebrated words attributed to Chief Seattle—as just one particular strand in the web of life.” – Fritjof Capra

Geoff Holland – Where life on Earth is concerned, are we at the beginning of the end or the end of the beginning?

Fritjof Capra – When we look at the long history of evolution, we realize that humans are latecomers to the Earth. If we compress the age of the Earth into the six days of the biblical creation story, we see that all visible forms of life evolve on the last day. The modern human species appears in Africa 11 seconds before midnight, and written human history begins around two-thirds of a second before midnight. Nature has sustained life for billions of years, and as latecomers, it behooves us to respect, honor, and cooperate with nature’s inherent ability to sustain life. Today, we have the knowledge, the technologies, and the financial means to do so. What we are lacking is political will and leadership.

GH – How do physics and meta-physics connect to become The Tao of Physics?

FC  During the first three decades of the twentieth century, a dramatic change of concepts and ideas occurred in quantum physics. The new concepts have brought about a profound change in our worldview; from the mechanistic worldview of Descartes and Newton to a holistic and ecological view. This change of paradigms has been my main interest as a scientist and writer. During the 1960s I also became interested in Eastern philosophy, following the zeitgeist of that period, and I discovered striking parallels between the worldview implied by modern physics and the views of Eastern spiritual and philosophical traditions. These parallels had been hinted at before by some of the leading quantum physicists, including Werner Heisenberg and Niels Bohr, but I was the first scientist to explore them in detail in my book The Tao of Physics.

GH – In The Systems View of Life, you advocate for moving from quantitative to qualitative growth. How would that transform the way we live?

FC – When we look at the state of the world today, at our multi-faceted crisis, what is most evident is that none of our global problems can be understood in isolation. They are systemic problems, which means that they are all interconnected and interdependent. The fundamental dilemma underlying them is the illusion that unlimited growth is possible on a finite planet. In today’s global economy, perpetual, undifferentiated growth is pursued relentlessly by promoting excessive consumption and an economic system that is energy and resource-intensive, based on fossil fuels, generating waste and pollution, depleting the Earth’s natural resources, and increasing economic inequality. 

What we need is a shift from quantitative to qualitative growth; the kind of balanced, multi-faceted growth we observe in nature where certain parts of organisms, or ecosystems, grow, while others decline, releasing and recycling their components which become resources for new growth. Qualitative growth is growth that enhances the quality of life through continual regeneration. Since relentless quantitative growth underlies all our major problems, the shift to qualitative growth would dramatically transform all aspects of our lives.

GH – What should every leader know about systems change?

FC – The traditional idea of a leader is that of a person who is able to hold a vision, articulate it and communicate it clearly, and lead people in the direction of realizing the vision. In past times, such leaders were often religious leaders; today the term is applied mostly to political and corporate leaders. However, by refusing to adopt policies that would solve our global problems most of our leaders are leading the world toward global catastrophe. In this critical situation, we urgently need leaders with three main competencies and qualities. They need to be systemic thinkers, capable of thinking in terms of relationships, patterns, and context; and thus to recognize the systemic nature of our global problems, as well as corresponding systemic solutions.

They need to be ecologically literate, understanding the principles of organization the Earth’s ecosystems have evolved to sustain the web of life and recognizing the value of corresponding ecodesign technologies and projects.

They need a “moral compass,” in the memorable words of Václav Havel. Such a moral compass is laid out in detail in the Earth Charter, a declaration of ethical principles and values for creating a just, sustainable, and peaceful world. Leaders guided by the moral compass of the Earth Charter should be called “Earth leaders,” rather than world leaders, because their vision is the well-being of humanity and of the larger community of life on Earth, rather than political, economic, or corporate success. 

GH – You are a primary founding force behind the Center for Ecoliteracy. Why is it important to teach children they are a part of nature, not above and superior to it?

FC – Nature’s principles of organization, or principles of ecology, have enabled her to sustain life on Earth for over three billion years. This wisdom of nature is far superior to human knowledge and technologies. At the heart of the current change of paradigms, we find a profound change of metaphors from seeing the world as a machine that can be dominated and controlled by humans to understanding it as a vast living network — the web of life — in which humans are fundamentally embedded. This deep ecological awareness is urgently needed today. The survival of human civilization will literally depend on it.

GH – What are the basic principles every human should understand to be eco-literate?

FC – The basic principles of ecology are the principles of organization that nature’s ecosystems have evolved to sustain the web of life. We need to teach our children, our students, and our political and corporate leaders these fundamental facts of life — for example, that one species’ waste is another species’ food; that matter cycles continually through the web of life; that the energy driving the ecological cycles flows from the sun; that diversity assures resilience; that life, from its beginning more than three billion years ago, did not take over the planet by combat but by partnerships and networking. 

All these principles of ecology are closely interrelated. They are just different aspects of a single fundamental pattern of organization that has enabled nature to sustain life for billions of years. In a nutshell: nature sustains life by creating and nurturing communities. Sustainability is not an individual property but a property of an entire web of relationships. It always involves a whole community. This is the profound lesson we need to learn from nature. The way to sustain life is to build and nurture communities. 

GH – Almost 40 years ago, you wrote a book titled, Green Politics. Do you see the world’s politics becoming more green?

FC – When I wrote Green Politics with my colleague Charlene Spretnak, our goal was to document the emergence and rise of the German Greens. Since that time, Green parties have been active and very successful in many parts of the world, and politicians in other parties have been inspired to propose Green policies with our without using that label. The most recent example is the so-called Green New Deal proposed by a group of representatives in the United States Congress. It is a policy package involving a dramatic shift to renewable energy sources, combined with massive job creation. Similar policies are being discussed in the EU and in other parts of the world. These policies embody a far-reaching ecological vision which, unfortunately, is vigorously opposed by short-term corporate interests that dominate American politics because of the systemic corruption inherent in the political system.

GH – You are now fully committed to what you call the Capra Course that teaches systems thinking. Can you talk about that effort?

FC – Over the last thirty to forty years, a new systemic conception of life has been developed at the forefront of science. In 2014, my colleague Pier Luigi Luisi and I published a synthesis of this new understanding of life in the textbook The Systems View of Life. For me, this book represents a grand synthesis of my entire work as a scientist and writer. After the publication of the book, I created an online course to teach the essential concepts and implications of my synthesis. Called Capra Course (, it consists of 12 pre-recorded lectures, one lecture per week, and includes a discussion forum in which I participate daily for the duration of the course. I have now taught the Capra Course for over five years and we have an alumni network of over 2000 in 86 countries around the world. I am very proud of this global network of systemic thinkers and activists.

GH – The world appears to be rapidly embracing a green renewable hydrogen energy future. Is this biomimicry at its most fundamental level?

FC – I would not call renewable hydrogen an example of biomimicry because nature does not use hydrogen fuel cells. True biomimicry would be to use photosynthesis as an energy source (which biomimicry researchers and engineers are trying to develop). However, a transportation system based on green renewable hydrogen will be a critical component of a future sustainable economy.

GH – You are a leader in the Earth Charter movement. What remains to be done to get the world’s nations and peoples working together for a common, life-affirming vision for humanity?

FC – I am part of a global network of elders who spent most of their professional lives developing a coherent conceptual framework based on a systemic and ecological vision of life. This vision is consistent with the principles and values of the Earth Charter. In the political realm, we now have a series of grassroots movements of young people who are passionate about systemic social change (Fridays for Future, the Sunrise Movement, Extinction Rebellion, and many others). Their values are also consistent with those of the Earth Charter and with the systemic understanding of life that has emerged at the forefront of science. My concern is: how can we combine the passion, energy, and creativity of these youth movements with the insights of the generation of elders who have developed the systemic vision of life so that the youth movements don’t have to reinvent the wheel?

Fritjof Capra is a scientist, educator, activist, and the author of many books including The Tao of Physics. His principal focus these days is on expanding awareness of the systems’ view of life. His website is

“The Systems view of life is a lucid, wide-ranging guide to living maturely, kindly, and durably with each other and with other beings on the only home we have.” – Amory Lovins, Chairman, Rocky Mountain Institute  

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