Theory of unity connects science and social values

30 April 2007

The Festival of Science 2006, held in Genoa, Italy, attracted 250,000 visitors. Physicist and systems theorist Fritjof Capra, one of the special guests of the event, talked to Beatrice Bressan about his vision and objectives for education in sustainable living.

For four years, the Genoa Festival of Science, which took place in 2006 on 26 October – 7 November, has been one of the best-attended events in European scientific communication. The aim is to create a crossroads where people and ideas can meet.


One of the many influential speakers at the 2006 festival was Fritjof Capra, founding director of the Center for Ecoliteracy in Berkeley, CA, which promotes ecology and systems thinking in primary and secondary education. Capra is a physicist and systems theorist, who received his PhD from the University of Vienna in 1965 before spending 20 years in particle-physics research. He is the author of several international bestsellers, including The Tao of Physics, The Turning Point, The Web of Life and The Hidden Connections, and at the festival he gave a talk entitled “Leonardo da Vinci: the unity of science and art”.

You started your career as a researcher in particle physics and became well known for writing a very popular book in 1975, The Tao of Physics, which linked 20th-century physics with mystical traditions. Did you expect such a success when you wrote the book?

During the late 1960s I noticed some striking parallels between the concepts of modern physics and the fundamental ideas in Eastern mystical traditions. At that time, I felt very strongly that these parallels would some day be common knowledge and that I should write a book about it. The subsequent success of the book surpassed all my expectations.

Recently, I was especially gratified to learn that my work as a writer was acknowledged by CERN. When CERN was given a statue of Shiva Nataraja, the Lord of Dance, by the Indian government to celebrate the organization’s long association with India, a special plaque was installed to explain the connection between the metaphor of Shiva’s cosmic dance and the “dance” of subatomic matter with several quotations from The Tao of Physics.

Particle physics can be seen as a reductionist approach, but you moved towards advocating viewing systems as a whole. When did you begin to move into systems theory and what guided your thoughts?

In the epilogue to The Tao of Physics, I argued that “the world view implied by modern physics is inconsistent with our present society, which does not reflect the harmonious interrelatedness we observe in nature”. To connect the conceptual changes in science with the broader change of world view and values in society, I had to go beyond physics and look for a broader conceptual framework. In doing so, I realized that our major social issues – health, education, human rights, social justice, political power, protection of the environment, the management of business enterprises, the economy, and so on – all have to do with living systems: with individual human beings, social systems and ecosystems. With this realization, my research interests shifted and in the mid-1980s I stopped doing research in particle physics.

This now seems to be becoming a popular approach with increasing interest in the ideas of complexity. Are you pleased to see how complexity is developing?

Yes, I am. I think the development of nonlinear dynamics, popularly known as complexity theory, in the 1970s and 1980s marks a watershed in our understanding of living systems. The key concepts of this new language – chaos, attractors, fractals, bifurcations, and so on – did not exist 25 years ago.

Now we know what kinds of questions to ask when we deal with nonlinear systems. This has led to some significant breakthroughs in our understanding of life. In my own work, I developed a conceptual framework that integrates three dimensions of life: the biological, the cognitive and the social dimension. I presented this framework in my book The Hidden Connections.

How did you become involved in the Center for Ecoliteracy at Berkeley?

For the past 30 years I have worked as a scientist and science writer, and also as an environmental educator and activist. In 1995, some colleagues and I founded the Center for Ecoliteracy to promote ecology and systems thinking in public schools. Over the past 10 years, we developed a special pedagogy, which we call “education for sustainable living”. To create sustainable human communities means, first of all, to understand the inherent ability of nature to sustain life, and then to redesign our physical structures, technologies and social institutions accordingly. This is what we mean by being “ecologically literate”.

How successful would you say your projects are, and how do you measure their success?

I am happy to say that our work has had a tremendous response from educators. There is an intense debate about educational standards and reforms, but it is based on the belief that the goal of education is to prepare our youth only to compete successfully in the global economy. The fact that this economy is not life-preserving but life-destroying is usually ignored, and so are the real educational challenges of our time – to understand the ecological context of our lives, to appreciate scales and limits, to recognize the long-term effects of human actions and, above all, to “connect the dots”.

Our pedagogy, “education for sustainable living”, is experiential, systemic and multidisciplinary. It transforms schools into learning communities, makes young people ecologically literate and gives them an ethical view of the world and the skills to live as whole persons.

From what you know of education on both sides of the Atlantic, do you think there are major differences between the education systems in Europe and the US, and do you think they can learn from each other?

The educators attending our seminars include people from many parts of the world. These dialogues have made us realize that, although our pedagogy has inspired people in many countries – in Europe as well as in Latin America, Africa and Asia – it cannot be used as a model in those countries in a straightforward way.

The principles of ecology are the same everywhere, but the ecosystems in which we practice experiential learning are different, as are the cultural and political contexts of education in different countries. This means that education for sustainability needs to be re-created each time.

Can physics contribute to the vision of sustainable living?

Absolutely. Ecology is inherently multidisciplinary because ecosystems connect the living and non-living world. Ecology, therefore, is grounded not only in biology, but also in many other sciences, including thermodynamics and other branches of physics.

The flow of energy, in particular, is an important principle of ecology, and the challenge of moving from fossil fuels to renewable energy sources is one in which physicists can make significant contributions. It is no accident that one of the world’s foremost experts on energy, Amory Lovins, director of the Rocky Mountain Institute, is a physicist.

You are currently working on a new book about the science of Leonardo da Vinci. In your seminar at the Genoa Festival of Science you explained that what we need today is exactly the kind of science that Da Vinci anticipated. How do you think physics should – or could – evolve in the future? Is there, in your opinion, a future for physics?

Well, you are asking several questions here, all of them very substantial. I’m not sure whether I can do them justice in this short space. We can indeed learn a lot from Leonardo’s science. As our sciences and technologies become increasingly narrow in their focus, unable to understand the problems of our time from an interdisciplinary perspective, and dominated by corporations with little interest in the well-being of humanity, we urgently need a science that honours and respects the unity of all life, recognizes the fundamental interdependence of all natural phenomena, and reconnects us with the living Earth. This is exactly the kind of science that Leonardo da Vinci anticipated and outlined 500 years ago.

Physicists have a lot to contribute to the development of such a new scientific paradigm. In modern science, the fundamental interdependence of all natural phenomena was first recognized in quantum theory, and various branches of physics are essential for a full understanding of ecology.

However, to contribute significantly to the great challenge of creating a sustainable future, physicists will need to acknowledge that their science can never provide a “theory of everything”, but is only one of many scientific disciplines needed to understand the biological, ecological, cognitive and social dimensions of life.

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