The eco-literate mystic

November 15, 1996

Fritjof Capra set out to find 'the way' 40 years ago and ended up fusing science and spirituality and selling an awful lot of books. Graham Lawton reports.

Fritjof Capra, bestselling author, physicist, philosopher and mystic, has just taken six months off. It was a well-earned break. He has been working hard for the past 14 years. Now he is back, touring the United States and Europe to promote the fruits of his labours, a new book called The Web of Life. It is an important book, even for someone of Dr Capra's standing. He claims it offers a new answer to an age old question: what is life?

Capra, now 57, grew up in Austria. He trained as a particle physicist in Vienna and took up research in 1966, flitting from one university to another across Europe and the US for the next 22 years. But it was not science that made him famous. As a 17-year-old student, Capra was seduced by what he calls the "dynamic world view and philosophy of wholeness" expounded by the father of quantum mechanics, Werner Heisenberg. "I have always had an inclination towards spirituality," he explains. It is his spiritual side that turned Capra into a household name.

In 1968, he left Europe for the heady atmosphere of the University of California at Santa Cruz, a small college town south of San Francisco famous for its spirit of groovy beach-bum academia.

"In the 1960s there was this trend into all things eastern," says Capra. To Capra, eastern mysticism, especially the ancient Chinese philosophy of Tao, seemed to offer a way to reconcile the tangles of indeterminacy presented by quantum mechanics.

Tao is an ancient Chinese word that literally means "the way". In Taoism, "the way" is used in a cosmic sense. It sees reality as dynamic, ever-moving. "The new physics was a radical break with Cartesian, deterministic, mechanistic philosophy," says Capra. "It uncovered the fundamental interconnectedness of nature at the subatomic level. The reality of subatomic physics is that not only are objects tightly interconnected but that there are no objects, just interconnections. This is close to the eastern mystical way of thinking. Physics is 'the way' to find the answers to spiritual questions."

Capra set out to explain himself. His first book, The Tao of Physics, was published in 1975 and won him a huge international following. It has sold 200,000 copies in the United Kingdom and has been translated into 17 languages. But mainstream scientists were unimpressed. Most of them just could not swallow the connection of physics with mysticism.

Even Capra's admirers are sceptical about The Tao of Physics. "What Capra did was to recognise that the same metaphors are used by physicists and mystics in describing the deep nature of reality," says Alastair Macintosh, fellow of the Independent Centre for Human Ecology in Edinburgh. "But that raises huge philosophical questions. We need to be open to the possibility of confusion of categories."

Capra was attracted to systems theory, the emerging science of interconnectedness, early in his career. Systems thinking is the antithesis of reductionism. Where reductionism analyses by taking things apart, systems thinking analyses the whole. It sees the properties of a cell, an organism or an eco-system as being properties of the entire system. Dissect the system and the properties are lost.

Ten years ago Capra abandoned high energy physics altogether. "Particle physics, among all science, is stagnating," he says. "Nothing much new is happening. If you compare high-energy physics to chaos theory or Gaia theory these are far more exciting. I don't quite know why."

Systems theory led Capra to reject the received notion that physics is the fundamental science. "Physics can no longer be a model for a new understanding of the world because the new understanding is dealing with living systems," he says. "The new world view is ecological, and I try to put life at its centre." The sense in which Capra uses the term "ecological" is deeper than its standard use. To think ecologically is to conceptualise the world as an inseparable network of interconnections, to focus not on the parts but on the whole. It encapsulates the essence of systems thinking.

This holistic approach has begun to find a voice in science. It underpins the theories of chaos and complexity, fractal geometry and the Gaia hypothesis of James Lovelock and Lynn Margulis. It pervades more arcane fields like Ilya Prigogine's theory of dissipative structures, which deals with the emergence of order in systems far from thermodynamic equilibrium, and the Santiago theory of Humberto Maturana and Francisco Varela, a systems theory of cognition that identifies the process of knowing with the very process of life itself.

The rise of systems thinking, according to Capra, represents a shift in world view as dramatic as the Copernican revolution. For the past 14 years he has been writing about its disparate strands, attempting to weave them together to form a coherent answer to the question, what is life? The Web of Life, a synthesis of the scientific, the philosophical and the spiritual dimensions of systems thinking, is the result.

Capra has a huge international audience and he can almost take it for granted that The Web of Life will sell. But he is eyeing a bigger target - the scientific avant-garde whose ideas he has woven together. "Most of all I want to reach the protagonists. I'm very eager to hear what they think," he says.

"I want to find out, for example, what Maturana thinks of Prigogine. Those people don't talk to one another."

The Web of Life also serves another agenda. Capra's ecological world view does not just offer an explanation of the phenomenon of life, it offers guidelines about how to live it. "I am an environmental activist," he says. Human societies, according to Capra, have become disconnected from the web of life. To reconnect, and to address the problem of sustainability, mankind needs to develop a deeper understanding of ecosystems. Systems thinking holds the key to that understanding. Capra's mission is to spread the word of ecology. It is a project he calls ecoliteracy.

He pursues his activism through the Center for Ecoliteracy in Berkeley, California, of which he is founder and director. The goal of the centre is to build an integrated school curriculum with ecology as its backbone. Capra and his staff take teachers and government education officers on weekend retreats to teach them ecology and systems thinking. "What we need in education is a cord that pulls things together," he says. "Teachers and students need a common language. I see systems language as that common language."

So what would an ecoliterate school curriculum look like? "If you're learning to read French, you have to read about something. Why not read about the environment?" Curriculum reform is the first step towards building ecological thinking into every part of the California school system. From there, says Capra, it should spread into politics, business and management. An ambitious programme, but in the state that gave the world Ronald Reagan will indoctrinating schoolchildren with a liberal idea like ecoliteracy not incur the wrath of powerful interests somewhere along the line? Capra is not worried. "We're too small for that," he says.

Indeed, ecoliteracy is verging on the respectable. In association with Capra's centre the state is preparing to issue a book, The California Guide to Environmental Literacy, to all its schools. Since 1992, the ecoliteracy ideal has been promoted in the UK by a north London charity called the Oakwood Trust.

The Web of Life is intimately connected with the ecoliteracy project. In the final chapter Capra sets out proposals for building sustainable human communities based on the principles of deep ecology. Given that man and his environment are interdependent, he argues, what we need is more of the following: recycling, solar power, eco-taxes, cooperation and biodiversity.

Fine ideals indeed, but for a book that claims to offer a revolutionary take on the meaning of life they hardly amount to a radical manifesto. Can Capra really claim to be offering anything new? He admits that his recipe is no different to the established green agenda. "But," he says, "I provide a theoretical background that can help us to have a deeper understanding of sustainability."

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