Age of Awareness
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Age of Awareness

Understanding Life as a Regenerative Community

A Conversation between Fritjof Capra and Daniel Wahl (Transcript Part III — still unedited!)

… Fritjof Capra:

Yes, we could actually go on for days.

Daniel:

I think we could. And I hope you come back to Mallorca sometime.

Fritjof Capra:

Yes.

Daniel:

Because our snorkeling trip at Cala Murta is still one of my favorite memories. … So what I wanted to ask you to tell us a little bit more about is that at the end of your and Luigi Luisi’s book, The Systems View of Life, you have a whole chapter of sustaining the web of life. And after spending such a long career really looking into how life works as a process and as a systemic interconnected process, what would you advise people to pay attention to in terms of what we need to do as human beings to redesign the human presence and impact on earth within the lifetime of the generations alive today? And in this process of redesigning our impact, what do we need to begin to do?

Fritjof Capra:

Daniel, let me say first that this textbook is half theory and half applications. So, there are over 200 pages of applications to the economy, to politics, to environmental activism, but also to medicine and health care management, various other things. And the same is true for my online course, the Capra Course, which begins with the theory, with The System’s View of Life, the nature of systems thinking, and then the systemic understanding of life. And then what does it mean for a systems view of health? What does it mean for the climate crisis? What does it mean for economics? And so on, and so forth. So I think from my early years of writing, The Turning Point in the early 1980s, I’ve always had applications in my mind.

Fritjof Capra:

And if you want to put it in extreme way, I could quote Marx who said, “Philosophers usually interpret the world. But the point is to change it.” And so in that sense, I’ve been Marxist in this broader sense in all my life, because the new understanding, the new paradigm, and the change of paradigms has important social and political implications, and they’ve always been in my mind since the 1960s. So in answer to your question, I think the great challenge of our time, the central challenge is to build sustainable communities, to build communities that do not interfere with nature’s inherent ability to sustain life. So for billions of years, nature has sustained ecosystems and individual species, and has sustained the processes of life. And human activities, especially since the Industrial age, have interfered with this ability to sustain life. And now we need to very urgently reconnect with nature, cooperate with nature, honor nature’s ability to sustain life, and organize ourselves accordingly.

Fritjof Capra:

And so, in order to do that, obviously, first we have to understand how nature sustains life, and that’s part of the system’s view of life, of the ecological dimension of the system’s view of life. In the long history of evolution, nature’s ecosystems have developed certain basic principles of sustainability, or principles of ecology to sustain life. Principles like networks, cycles, diversity, cooperation, partnership, and so on. And we need to understand those and then redesign our physical structure, our business organizations, our technologies, our social institutions accordingly.

Fritjof Capra:

I have spent several decades now trying to explore and understand the basic principles of ecology. And I’ve come to the conclusion that you can summarize all these principles of ecology by saying nature sustains life by generating and maintaining communities. Community seems to be the key issue here, that we know that no living organism can exist in isolation. And in the long history of evolution from the very first bacterial cells, which emerged about three and a half billion years ago, from that point, those cells formed communities known as bacterial colonies. And ever since then, nature has created and sustained communities at all levels of life. So in the last few years, and this is not in the textbook, I didn’t write about this in the textbook which was published in 2014. So in the last six years, the importance of community has become ever more important to me, and has come to the foreground of my thinking evermore. And if you want to I can tell you why I think community is so important, there are several reasons.

Daniel:

Please do.

Fritjof Capra:

The first one I mentioned already, nature sustains life by creating and nurturing communities. And if we want to do that, then we will find very soon that one of the greatest obstacles in the way of creating a sustainable future, is a constant assault by corporate advertising which tells us every day that in order to be happy you have to consume, you have to buy our products, that’s what will make you happy nothing else. Until excessive material consumption, which is used by the corporate world to sustain the illusion of perpetual growth, corporate, and economic growth, this excessive consumption is seen as the way to happiness. If we can show that true happiness lies in human relationships rather than material consumption, in other words in community, then this is the biggest and most effective counter dose. So that’s the second reason why communities-

Daniel:

Also if you, which I know from having lived in an intentional community, if you organize our patterns of consumption communally, you get a higher standard of life with less consumption.

Fritjof Capra:

Yes. And that’s also what the transition town movement does, there are many movements now who are trying to do that. That’s the second reason, the third reason is that what we need to live sustainably and change the design of our physical structures and social institutions, we need to learn a lot how to do that. And it’s not learning in terms of just absorbing new information, but it’s learning this transformative, transformative learning that really changes our being, our values. And in my experience, community is the most effective vehicle for transformative learning, learning as a learning community. So those are three reasons. And there’s a fourth one and that is something we haven’t talked about yet, or implicitly we have but not explicitly. And that is that the change to a new paradigm is not only a conceptual problem, but it’s also a problem, and even more so a problem of values, a problem of ethics.

Fritjof Capra:

And ethics is usually talked about in relation to religion or philosophy, but there is also a scientific approach that I have recently discovered to the question of ethics. And that is that, as I said before, nature has sustained life by creating and nurturing communities. And natural selection has favored those communities in which the individual members behave for the benefit of the community as a whole. And in the human realm, that’s what we call ethics. But it’s common to all of life, behavior for the common good is his ethical behavior. And that means ethics is always related to community. So these are several reasons why community is so important.

Daniel:

Aldo Leopold, as you know in his wonderful little book, Sand County Almanac from the 1960s established, I hope I’ll remember the quote correctly, “A thing is right if it protects the vitality and connectivity of the biotic community, it is wrong if it does otherwise.” And so ultimately that’s also… And uses the word biotic community. So basically, we need to not just pay attention in a much more equitable way as a human family, but as life as a community of living beings on this planet. How do we judge our actions based on that ethic of is it supporting life or not?

Fritjof Capra:

Of course, community is a technical term in the science of ecology. An ecosystem is defined as a community of multiple species in interaction with their nonliving environment.

Daniel:

What I would add to that, which I think it’s so wonderful because it is at the heart for me also of understanding life as a regenerative community. How do we build regenerative communities that are sourced from the uniqueness of place and the uniqueness of culture in a particular location? But what I personally noticed if I look at what’s going on globally, in terms of the hope for change movements, a lot of people have come to a similar conclusion as I have after spending 15 years working with eco-villages, and transition towns, and very much focusing on design for sustainability at the community scale for many years, even set up the world’s first master’s with Heriot-Watt University on sustainable community design.

Daniel:

And what I began to realize is that there is as with life being a nested network at different scales, and where place is always fractal meaning what I do locally affects the region and affects the global. And the one layer that we haven’t paid a lot of attention to because of the mental colonialism of the nation-state, which is a relatively new invention, is the bioregion, the watershed. Which is where most of our species history, we’ve lived in bioregional settlement patterns and in communities at the local level, whether we were nomads or settled. And when you really want to create the whole system’s design that creates all the benefits around renewable energies, circular bio-materials, economies, and all that, to do so at the scale of a community is difficult. Also, to do so at the scale of the city alone is difficult. But when you put the city or the community into the context of its watershed or region, it’s at that scale that those communities in that region collaborate to create designs that are regenerative and actually take care of the local ecosystem.

Fritjof Capra:

Yeah. Have you written something about that?

Daniel:

I’m writing more and more about it. Yes-

Fritjof Capra:

I think you should. I think that’s a very important idea. And I was just thinking you should also write about the fact that this in some way contradicts what many people think of when they think of community, because they think of global digital communities, which are important too. So how to interface those two, the global worldwide community… My daughter who is 34 has friends all over the world with whom she’s in contact continually, and she also has a large circle of local friends with whom she goes out. So, translated to ecosystems, we could say that developing these economic structures within a bioregion, and being inspired by, say, Crystal Waters, the eco-village in Australia that was co-created by my friend Morag Gamble, the interface between those levels is something very interesting.

Daniel:

Yeah, I know. What’s interesting is that while you can go back as… I know I’m digressing here but this is important, have you ever come across, you know Sir Patrick Geddes, you’ve heard of him?

Fritjof Capra:

Yes.

Daniel:

The last book that Geddes wrote was with another biologist from Aberdeen University and was called, Towards a General Biology of Life. And it’s published in the 1930s. And with the limit of all the signs that you draw upon in The System’s View of Life, of course, wasn’t done yet. He actually was very strongly influenced by Jan Christiaan Smuts who wrote the book on holism, and he tried something similar to that grand synthesis. But the reason why I started talking about Geddes is not because of that. But Geddes was also the first person who, as a biologist, he is like he’s known for being one of the founders of the discipline of town planning and the scientific study of sociology. And he always said that cities had to be planned in their region, and in many ways, was the first Westerner to speak about the need for a bioregional approach.

Daniel:

And then he influenced Mumford very strongly, and Mumford influenced Ian McHarg very strongly. And Ian McHarg was kind of a mentor to the early bioregionalists where you live, Peter Berg and Raymond Desmond and the Planet Drum Foundation. And so in the 1970s, there was this first idea of re-inhabitation and re-fitting the human presence to the bioregional scale. But-

Fritjof Capra:

Very well. Yeah.

Daniel:

It never really went anywhere for many years. Kirkpatrick Sale wrote some wonderful books about it. But in recent years, if you look the Planetary Health Alliance that was funded by the Rockefeller Foundation is this global network now, they recognize that their work on planetary health and the link between human and ecosystems health, has to also happen at the bioregional scale. And then the Capital Institute just launched the regenerative communities network, which is another network of initiatives around the globe that want to create bioregional regenerative economies. So there’s something really, and I think my next book-

Fritjof Capra:

I think that’s a very fertile ground that needs to be explored. Absolutely.

Daniel:

But not to digress any further because we just had the economy keyword. One thing that I would love for you to just speak a bit about, because for me that was a big insight when I first came across this paper by you and Hazel Henderson from 2009 that you wrote for some, I don’t know obscure body like the British Insurers or British, I can’t remember-

Fritjof Capra:

Accountants. The British Accountants.

Daniel:

Accountants. But there’s this wonderful paper on the internet, if anybody wants to look at it just say Fritjof Capra, Hazel Henderson, qualitative growth and it pops up as a PDF.

Fritjof Capra:

Or you can go to my website fritjofcapra.net and it’s in my blog.

Daniel:

This notion, because I feel deeply uncomfortable as a biologist with the framing around no growth, de-growth, anti-growth, it’s the type of growth measured with the wrong type of instruments like GDP, then is the problem. So you can you say a little bit about that?

Fritjof Capra:

When I looked at major problems of the world from a systemic perspective, this was around the year 2000 when I wrote the book The Hidden Connections. And when I realized that they’re all systemically interconnected, I actually drew a conceptual map of all the interconnections of the problems, which is also reproduced in the textbook, The System’s View of Life. And I realized that at the very basis of these problems is the fundamental dilemma of the illusion of perpetual quantitative growth on a finite planet. Which is obviously an illusion, it’s nonsensical to believe that corporations and economies can continually grow. And yet, virtually all our corporate and academic economists believe in that. And so when they look-

Daniel:

And also our politicians as well.

Fritjof Capra:

Politicians, of course, yeah. So when they look at an economy, they say, “Well, 2% growth is okay. 1% is bad, it’s weak, three or 4% is a healthy economy.” And even if that three or 4% of growth is caused by wars and catastrophes and accidents, and epidemics-

Daniel:

And it means a doubling of patterns of consumption every 27 years.

Fritjof Capra:

Yeah. So this is obviously an illusion. And so many people have said, we have to stop this, we have to build a no-growth economy, or de-growth, in Italy there’s a big movement called [foreign language 00:21:45] which is de-growth or negative growth. And I agree completely with you, from a biological and ecological standpoint, you can say growth is an essential characteristic of life, all living organisms grow. But not everything grows at the same time and not everything grows all the time. So, in an ecosystem for instance, while certain things grow, others reach maturity, then decline, disintegrate and provide nourishment for new growth in the next season, like the leaves falling off trees and so on. So, what we need is this kind of growth and I called it qualitative growth, growth that is multifaceted and growth that includes inner growth in terms of an increase of complexity and maturity. And so what we very urgently need is to qualify growth, we need to distinguish between good growth and bad growth. And then we need to decrease the bad growth and increase the good growth.

Fritjof Capra:

And from an ecological point of view, this distinction is very easy and very simple. So bad growth is growth that uses fossil fuels, that includes toxic substances, that consumes excessively material resources, that is destructive of communities, and so on. Good growth is the opposite. It’s the opposite, that now its growth that nourishes communities, restores ecosystems, is based on renewable resources, contains no toxic chemicals, and so on. So we need to make that shift, and it’s a shift in terms of tax policies, in terms of economic subsidies, and so on. One thing I absolutely can’t understand is the governments today still subsidize fossil fuels, now to the tune of billions and billions of dollars. This are so-called perverse subsidies. And it’s-

Daniel:

More than 70% still go to fossil and nuclear, and only 30% go to renewables.

Fritjof Capra:

So that’s what is meant by qualitative growth.

Daniel:

And I highly recommend to anybody to read that paper of yours. One other thing that I would love to pick up just also to honor a common friend of ours who’s sadly died over 10 years ago now, Professor Brian Goodwin who I met when you had started the Master’s in Holistic Science at Schumacher College. And one of the things that I learned so much from Brian in that time, one of the things that always struck me was that as one of the, you could say, founding fathers of complexity theory, as a mathematician and biologist, he always felt that central lesson of complexity was that, if you slightly simplify what’s the definition of a complex dynamic system, it’s any system that has more than three interacting variables. Going back to Poincare’s three-body problem, those systems are fundamentally unpredictable and uncontrollable beyond certain scales of space and time. So he said that really, and you alluded to it earlier, the purpose of the scientific enterprise for so long has been to predict, and control, and wrestle more manipulability out of complexity, out of the rest of nature.

Daniel:

And Brian made this point that what we really need is to know how to participate appropriately. And he said that this is not something that we’re going to get through a statistics and quantitative analysis driven science, which is useful and powerful and we should continue to do it, but put it in its place. What we need is a science of quality to really make this shift. And then he drew on Goethean Science, he drew on complexity and a number of lineages from which to build The Science of Qualities.

Fritjof Capra:

Brian Goodwin influenced my thinking enormously, I met him In the early 1970s, in London. And he was a kind of Maverick, who had outrageous ideas. And in the biological community, people smile when they go, “Oh, there’s Brian Goodwin.” And this was long before complexity theory, but he was very unique as you know because he had a very rich philosophical and artistic background. And in science was an evolutionary biologist, complexity theorist, and because he was also a mathematician he also had a strong spiritual dimension. And that combination of art, and literature, and philosophy, and spirituality on the one hand, and science and mathematics on the other is very unique. And so Brian participated in many of my Schumacher courses and we had fabulous discussions. And one statement I remember very well was that he said, “Complex systems are not predictable, but they are intelligible.” And that is just very beautiful statement that encapsulates the nature.

Fritjof Capra:

And he was completely right with The Science of Qualities. And I alluded to that when I talked about quantitative growth. But not only that, the entire System’s View of Life is a science of qualities, because it is the science of patterns, a science of relationships, a science of systemic properties, and this is what quality is. Quality is a property of the whole, which is not present in the past, it’s a systemic property. For instance, my state of health is not the sum of the health of my heart, and liver, and my toes, and my teeth, but is a result of the interactions between those spots and the relationships between those spots. It’s an emergent property, a systemic property, this is what qualities are, and this is exactly what the system’s view of life is.

Daniel:

Picking you up on the health thing, which I think was one of the big insights that I also gained through working with Brian, and it ultimately led me to… When I wrote my PhD, you also met Seaton Baxter, I met him at Schumacher College. And Seaton was the one who read my slightly oversized master’s thesis which was 300 pages long, Stefan didn’t even want to read the whole thing and said, “Cut it down, that’s a PhD.” And Seaton came back and said, “Look, I’ll find a scholarship for you if you ever wanted to do a PhD.” And so a couple of years later ended up doing my PhD with Seaton in a design school. And I thought that it was going to be on design for sustainability.

Daniel:

And then being influenced by your work, being influenced by Brian’s work, by Stefan Harding and all the wonderful people that I’ve met at Schumacher College, I actually realized that when we talk about sustainability, we talk about the pattern that connects us Bateson would have called it. And when we ask, what is it that we’re trying to sustain? We’re trying to sustain the web of life, that regenerative community. And so another word of saying that is health, systemic health, exactly as you just described it. And I use this notion of health being an emergent property at different scales across the complex dynamic system, it is a systemic property that has fractal-like it’s cellular health, organ health, body health, family health, community health, ecosystems health, planetary health. And I use this to work with what I call the scales of design. And I don’t know, I wanted to ask you, are you familiar with the work of a guy called Aaron Antonovsky an Israeli health scientist?

Fritjof Capra:

No.

Daniel:

He did a lot of research on Holocaust survivors and looked at what was the uniqueness that enabled people to go through enormous trauma and still be able to go on. And also how different people responded to stresses that would make some people ill and die and other people would survive. And he developed in a book called Health, Stress, and Coping in the 1960s, a new approach to health rather than a pathogenic approach to health. Which is looking at what drives the disease and dealing with symptoms, so the normal allopathic approach. He said we need a salutogenic approach to health, we need to look at what are the conditions? Because health is this dynamic balance, you constantly get viral vectors and bacterial vectors trying to-

Fritjof Capra:

In fact, that is my definition of The Systems View of Health. Health is a state of dynamic balance, which involves biological dimensions, social dimensions, and ecological dimensions.

Daniel:

I’ll send you some links or actually, I’ll send you a link to a whole book on salutogenesis. That’s basically what the salutogenic approach is about. Okay, there’s one last question, thank you so much for this marathon conversation. I just really wanted to name one more person in this context of our conversation who has been another elder of mine like you and Brian, in putting me on my path. And that’s David Orr, who I first met at Schumacher while I was on the master’s course. He and John Todd and Nancy Jack Todd, offered a short course on ecological design. And that’s when I first understood the power of design in bringing human intention expressed through interactions and relationships, bringing this new holistic worldview and systems view of life into action is through design.

Fritjof Capra:

Let me just quote David Orr here, that this is what I use in all my work. He defines design as the shaping of flows of energy and matter for human purposes, that’s an ecological definition of design. And then he defines ecological design or eco-design as meshing those human purposes with the natural flows and patterns in nature. So that has been very inspiring to me.

Daniel:

Basically, that put me on my path. I was somewhat impatient and frustrated having learned the wonderful theory of holistic science, and I wanted to say, this is coherent but the world’s burning how do we put this new worldview into action? And that’s when I realized meeting John Todd and also, Nancy Todd, and David, that ecological design was what I wanted to dedicate my future to. And so I wrote this PhD and at the end of it, David actually ended up being my external examiner. And when it was all over and done, I went to see him at Oberlin College in Ohio. And I did an interview, which still floats about on YouTube somewhere. In 2006 with him where I asked him about, the original question was actually about the dimension of spirituality and the sacred in the transition that we now have to do to redesign the human impact on earth before our very young species would die an early death.

Daniel:

And in his answer, he said something that was just basically the seed for designing regenerative culture, 10 years before I wrote the book, he gave me the seed for that. He said, “Before we can ask or answer appropriately the what we need to do to create a sustainable human presence, or how we might go about doing it, we need to ask ourselves a more complicated question, a much more difficult question. Which is, what is it about human beings that makes us worth sustaining?” And that just for me was a big question to mull on for a long time. And I would love for you to give us your take from your long life, and having met some of the most inspiring human beings in my perspective on the planet in the last 50 years, what is it that you think is our unique contribution as human beings? And why would it be a shame if we died earlier as a species?

Fritjof Capra:

I think I would give you an answer from the perspective of evolution, what the life forms that are worth sustaining are actually the ones that are sustained in evolution. And they are the ones that best contribute to the continual regeneration and unfolding of life. So, to the extent that we contribute to that, we are worth sustaining and we will be sustained by nature if we do that. To the extent that we are not contributing, which is much more at present than our contributions, we will not be sustained. If you look at the history of evolution, you can see that the average lifespan of a species from its emergence to extinction is about 5 million years. So, on the average there are species that have lived much longer and others much shorter, but the average is about 5 million years. Now, homo sapiens has lived for about 30,000 years, so we are newcomers still on the planet, we have lived less than 1% of the average lifespan of a species.

Fritjof Capra:

So, it is much too early to tell whether we are worth sustaining or not, but at present it doesn’t look very good, we can definitely say that so this is a dire question. And I would say that my sense of hope for sustainability and the continuation of humanity on the planet has been inspired very much by Vaclav Havel, the great Czech play write and former president of the Czech Republic. And Havel wrote something where he turns the assessment or the exploration of hope, into a meditation on the nature of hope. And he says that hope is a dimension of the soul, not the result of a certain assessment of the state of the world. And he writes, and he wrote this while he was imprisoned as a dissident by the Soviet regime. And let me read to you what he writes about hope. He writes, “Hope is not the conviction that something will turn out well, but the certainty that something makes sense regardless of how it turns out.” So this has inspired me tremendously for the last many years in the tide, trying to live my life.

Daniel:

I would second that. And also there’s something about get people finally going into the streets and raising an alarm about the imminence of not just… We’re already in the middle of catastrophic climate change, but we have an opportunity, and the window of opportunity is closing, to avoid cataclysmic climate change, where we get to a point where basically higher life forms such as ours will not be on this planet for a while. And facing almost like a species-level rite of passage, facing the real possibility of death at this early point in this jump to the next stage of being a more mature species, a more mature member in the community of life. I often find that what we actually ask to also come back to is where you also started. We were talking about a couple, of course earlier, that there is some kind of spiritual subtext to all of this that brings us back into not just what we do, but how we are. Into our being and our connection like this wonderful conversation we just had, and to celebrate this.

Daniel:

For me, it’s that level of connection that is why we’re worth sustaining as a species. That we can write poems about love like Neruda did. And that we can write symphonies or songs like the Ode to Joy that was written by Schiller and then put to music by Beethoven. There is some grandeur, there is some beauty in us. We have proven, particularly our indigenous brothers and sisters have proven in many places around the world, that we can also be gardeners, that we can have a healing influence on ecosystems. Like for example, the Amazon rainforest being Partially human made by its early inhabitants. So for me, it’s a coming back to the moment, and appreciation, and so deep appreciation also to you for everything you’ve given to me.

Fritjof Capra:

Thank you, Daniel. We should continue having these conversations, and continue to build these communities of systemic thinkers and activists as I do in my Capra calls, and you do in your networks, and you work so let’s continue.

Daniel:

We will.

Fritjof Capra:

Thank you.

Daniel:

Regeneration rising trim tabs united, is what I sign my emails with these days.

Fritjof Capra:

All right.

Daniel:

So thank you so much.

Fritjof Capra:

All right. Great.

Daniel:

This was really rich and wonderful. I’m just going to stop the recording and then we…

See also this short summary with a link to the recording:

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Daniel Christian Wahl — Catalyzing transformative innovation in the face of converging crises, advising on regenerative whole systems design, regenerative leadership, and education for regenerative development and bioregional regeneration.

Author of the internationally acclaimed book Designing Regenerative Cultures

https://www.patreon.com/DanielChristianWahl?fan_landing=true

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Daniel Christian Wahl

Daniel Christian Wahl

Catalysing transformative innovation, cultural co-creation, whole systems design, and bioregional regeneration. Author of Designing Regenerative Cultures

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