Deep green with a grey manifesto

The Web of Life
March 7, 1997

The publishers bill this book as "a new synthesis of mind and matter", designed to provide theoretical backing for a new and greener way of looking at the world. But perhaps it is really something more familiar: a book by a particle physicist who thinks that by comparison with his discipline, topics like philosophy, ecology and politics can be sorted out in a morning.

Capra made his public reputation with The Tao of Physics, in which symmetries were found between modern physics and older eastern learning. But since then, he has aligned himself with deep green thinking and he now runs the Centre for Ecoliteracy in California. However, much of this latest book is not so much an ecomanifesto as a piece of traditional popular science, in which Descartes, Newton, Darwin and the like appear, make their contribution (deeply criticised in some cases) and leave the stage to make way for 20th-century figures such as Norbert Wiener, John von Neumann, and eventually the current heroes of nonlinear systems thinking, such as Stuart Kauffman, and the Gaia theory. Some of what Capra says is plain wrong (did the earth really form from "a fireball of molten lava"?) and some, for example on consciousness, is less cut and dried than he makes out.

Unfortunately for the green activist reading this elegant tour of intellectual history, the ideas about the world which it reveals are not much of a guide to possible action. A heavily industrialised world is not incompatible with the synthesis he proposes. Old-fashioned linear science said that polluting the river will kill the fish, but the complexity theorists would argue that the effects will be too distant and diverse to be determined. And while some Gaia theorists, like Lynn Margulis, are allied with deep green interests, the theory has also been used to justify atmospheric emissions and other apparent environmental evils.

Perhaps the most unsatisfactory aspect of The Web of Life is its agreement with Ilya Prigogine that science itself is "but a limited window on the universe". Of course it is. But a method that allows us to determine in detail the workings of stars and galaxies on the other side of the universe, find out how humans came to exist, discover what the weather was like 100 million years ago or find the gene for cystic fibrosis, is a window with a pretty good view. We argue about climate change, but the success of the computer-based global climate models that monitor it ought to impress anyone. Where the book is at its best is at the intersection of the worlds of nonlinear mathematics, Gaia theory and computing. The findings are presented in a somewhat triumphalist way, as if the mysteries of the ages have finally been solved in the past decade. But more interesting is the way in which Capra finds links between the apparently cold and mechanistic world of computer-generated artificial life and the ecology we see around us, by contrast with the approach of many greens who find computers handy but reject them as a metaphor for "real" life.

In this part of his synthesis, Capra supports the Gaian idea of the earth's living systems as a single "autopoeitic" web which encompasses living creatures, the world they make and the world which makes them. If awareness of this truth were more widespread, people clearly might make kinder choices about how they act. In this century, after all, people have failed to treat other people as deserving of respect, let alone the organic and inorganic world around them. But it is misleading of Capra to treat this realisation as a spiritual one. It has been expressed beautifully by Richard Dawkins, perhaps the most aggressively unspiritual person imaginable, in The Extended Phenotype, where he makes the case very clearly that animals and plants do not end at the surface of their skin but exist within their total environment, ranging from predators and prey to sunlight and rainfall.

However, it is hard to disagree with Capra's thinking on consciousness and the mind, which are now entering the scientific mainstream much as earlier topics written off as mysterious, such as evolution and the interior of the atom, have done. The key, he says, is to view consciousness as a process, not as a piece of machinery, as many religions have long done. The most interesting feature of the human brain is its ability to remain plastic, capable of dealing with a wide range of problems or pieces of information, and for this process the adaptability of Gaia is in some ways a valid analogy.

But the oddest feature of The Web of Life is left to the end, where an afterword contains Capra's ideas for the way our ecological consciousness should develop in practice. Here he separates "ecological communities" from "human communities" in a way that the real ecologist would regard as bogus. Indeed, the fact that we humans worry about conservation means to the true believer in Gaia that the world's living systems have already taken the problem on board.

Capra's actual policy ideas, however, would look dull in a European Commission study document. They include green taxes that attack waste and encourage new technology, more use of recycling, conflict resolution, and a recognition of the importance of diversity. Is this really the outcome of a spiritual voyage that wends its way from Aristotle to James Lovelock via Leonardo da Vinci, James Clerk Maxwell and James Watt?

Martin Ince is deputy editor, The THES.

The Web of Life

Author - Fritjof Capra
ISBN - 0 00 255499
Publisher - HarperCollins
Price - £18.00
Pages - 320

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