November 20, 2004
CAPRA: I’d like to tell you a little about my work and give you some of the context. As you know, I am a scientist and a science writer. I’m also an environmental educator and an activist. I was trained as a physicist. I am from Austria and graduated at the University of Vienna in the sixties. I then spent twenty years doing research in theoretical physics in a field called high energy physics, which is also called “particle physics” because it is about subatomic particles. As a student and from the beginning of my work life I was fascinated by the philosophy that is implied by these new theories of physics, like quantum theory and relativity theory.
I was very influenced by a book by Von Heisenburg, who is one of the founders of atomic physics. He wrote a book called Physics and Philosophy, which was published in the fifties and is now a classic. I read this when I was your age. I understood only about a quarter or at most a half of the science, but it had very interesting historical and philosophical parts where he tells the story of how a handful of scientists in Germany and France and Denmark, and various European countries were exploring a new kind of reality with their experiments. This was the world of atoms and subatomic particles in which the standard concepts of physics like space, time, trajectory, matter and energy, had to be modified very dramatically. The great thing about this book is that he tells a personal story about how they were thrown into a crisis where they could not use the language they were used to, and they were struggling with a new kind of reality. Out of that struggle came radically new theories of matter, which are now quite complete theories, like “quantum theory” a” relativity theory.” People are still trying to combine those two theories of physics into an overall theory of matter.
You may have heard of the latest ‘string theory,’ or some people talk about a “theory of everything,” which shows you the attitude that physicists often have, that they believe they own the secret of the universe, and that once you understand physics, you understand everything. It’s actually quite arrogant to think that, because there are many things in life that have nothing to do with physics. Life itself cannot be understood by physics.
As a student, I was fascinated by Von Heisneberg’s book, and it accompanied me through my student years and my years as a researcher. Quite soon after graduating in the late sixties, I began to think about philosophy and science, and I was very influenced by Eastern philosophies, like Hinduism and Buddhism and Taoism. This was a period in the sixties when a part of the young population turned towards the East and began to meditate and experiment with mind-altering drugs. They began to read about the Vedas and the Buddhist Sutras and the Chinese philosophy. I was very interested in that, and saw very striking parallels between the theories of modern physics and those ideas in the eastern spiritual traditions. That interest eventually came to fruition in my first book, the “Tao of Physics,” published in 1975. The book was a big success. I hoped it would be, but never really expected it. As a consequence I got invited to give a lot of talks to all kinds of audiences, not only to scientists, but to doctors, nurses, architects, artists, anthropologists, and psychologists; people from all walks of life, and I engaged in conversations with them.
I want you to make a mental note of this, because this is the technique of how I work—I engage people in conversations, in dialogues. I have developed a skill over the years that allows me to draw people out and to ask them questions in fields that I may not know very well, but I have a an intuition about what is new in this field and what is important. Consequently, most of what I learned, I learned first through dialogues, and only secondarily through books.
Anyway, in those years of the late seventies, I met a lot of people who told me that they were working in fields where change of world view was happening, similar to the one that happened in physics in the early twentieth century. I began to get interested in that, and I planned a book who’s working title was, “Beyond the Mechanistic World View.” I was going to investigate various areas, various disciplines. The actual title of that book was “The Turning Point,” which was published in 1982.
In this second book, I also wrote a chapter about physics, but then went beyond physics to talk about health, about psychology, economics, ecology, various other fields. I became aware while I was writing the book that I really had to go beyond physics because when you talk about health or the economy, or politics, or education. In one way or another all of these fields have to do with life. They either have to do with individual people or individual living organisms, ecosystems, plants, animals, microorganisms, social systems, communities, nations, cities, and so on. All these fields have to do with life, and physics cannot say anything about life because it deals with nonliving matter.
I saw the need to go beyond physics and to put together a framework which would allow me to deal with the various aspects of life. I used the tradition of “systems thinking,” or as it is also called “systems theory,” which is the “theory of living systems,” This tradition is not very well defined, but it is a tradition. It is a language and a type of thinking that emerged in the 1920’s and1930’s. I took some cues and concepts from there and put together a theoretical framework, which I call the “systems view” of life. That is actually the title a whole section in “The Turning Point.”
From 1980 to 2000—I spent nearly twenty years developing this framework. I was working in the life sciences, especially in ecology to develop a framework that would allow me to discuss various aspects of life in an integrated way. The result of this is my last book, “Hidden Connections,” which you have here in front of you. I feel that this is a very big book for me because I have reached a sort of plateau in my research.
What I have done in this book is I’ve found a framework that integrates three dimensions of life: the biological, the cognitive, and the social. The first three chapters of the book are the theory. The first chapter is called The Nature of Life (biological life), and then Mind and Consciousness (cognitive life), and then Social Reality (the social aspect). In the rest of the book, I apply this framework to some of the critical problems of our time.
That brings me now to the other part of my work as an environmental educator and activist. The sixties were not only a period where people turned toward the East and spiritual traditions. It was also a time when people began to question many traditional institutions. They began to question the establishment and authority in many areas. There was a very popular bumper sticker that just said “Question Authority.” To me, that was the theme of the social movement of the sixties. I turned, not towards politics, but towards ecology and environmentalism, and became primarily interested in promoting the idea of a sustainable society of ecological sustainability. Fortunately, for me, those two types of activities are very closely connected. When you ask, what is ecological sustainability? You can say that a sustainable community is one that is designed so that its ways of life, businesses and physical structures, do not interfere with nature’s ability to sustain life.
Nature has an inherent ability to sustain life, and if you study the history of life or in other words, the history of evolution on the planet, then you see that the outstanding characteristic of the biosphere is that it has sustained life for billions of years. You also see that industrial society has interfered with this ability to sustain life in quite dramatic ways. In order to live sustainability, we have to first understand how nature sustains life, and then redesign our communities accordingly. This question, “How does nature sustain life?” brings us to the question, “How do ecosystems work? How do ecosystems organize themselves to sustain life?” When you study that, sooner or later you will find that the question, “How do ecosystems organize themselves?” leads you to the general question, “How do any living systems organize themselves”?
Ecosystems are part of life. They are an example of a living system, and there are certain principles of organization that are common to all life, to all living systems. So, the question of how to live sustainably becomes connected to the question, “What is life essentially?” This has been my principle research question for the last twenty years. Those two activities are closely connected. In my activities as an environmental educator, I got together with colleagues and friends and other activists in the mid-80’s, and founded an organization, which we called an “ecological think tank” that we ran for ten years. We did all kinds of conferences and public dialogues and publications. It was then transformed into this institution, which is called Center for Eco-Literacy, where we focus on education, and promote this idea of ecological literacy or understanding the principles of ecology in order to live accordingly. This is part of my activist and educational work. If you want to know more about that, we have a website, www.ecoliteracy.org . There is also a journal that is published in England, which is called “Resurgents,” which I highly recommend. It’s one of the best journals of ecology, and this is a special issue where there are six articles about our eco-literacy work. So, this is my introduction. When I get to talking, I don’t stop easily. (laughter)
ERIKA: You said you spent twenty years working on the framework to find the connections between all these disciplines. I am really interested in how you did that—specifically, how you found the connections between the things you’ve mentioned here?
CAPRA: Well, twenty years is a long time. What I do is I try to talk to people as much as possible. I had a good head start because my first book was very successful, so I became known in public and academic circles and among philosophers and thinkers as a best-selling author. It was relatively easy for me to contact people. Sometimes I didn’t need to contact them at all because I be invited to meet them. I developed a skill to recognize when people were on the same wavelength and I could see that this person thinks like I do, or shares the same values, or has the same interests.
Of course, that alone, is not enough. They also need to have something to say. That is not trivial. You have to recognize whether they really have something to say, or if they are just pretending. In the academic world, there’s a lot of pretension. Even people who have not much to say would hold forth and make you think they’re very learned and very smart.
I developed this skill to seek the right ones out. For example in ’82 or ’83, I was invited to a one week seminar in Switzerland to give a talk with some lecturers. It was in the mountains near the city of Sermak. I grew up in Austria, and I skied a lot all my life. I went come early to ski There was a biologist from Chile—Francisco Varela—who is one of the leading researchers in developing a view of life that overcomes the division between mind and matter. He has a new, systemic view of life and consciousness. He was just beginning that work. I knew about his work and I looked forward to meeting him. It turned out that he also skied and came early to the conference. We were both there a week before the conference started and we had to take the train each day for one our to go skiing, and then an hour back, after skiing. So we talked for two hours every day for a whole week. We talked and talked. He told me about his new theories, which I found very hard to understand. It was a real struggle. But this is the kind of thing that I like doing: drawing people out. Then late at night I would take notes, and the next morning on the train, I would ask him a new set of questions.
The people I talk to like this would recommend books, which I would read. I would not start by reading books, because what I’m doing in my work is to deal with many fields where I don’t have experience. I need to find experts in the fields I can trust for their intellectual capabilities and their values. Then, when they recommend something to read, I will read it. But I don’t go out to the libraries and look around for books to read because I can’t judge.
In answer to your question, I just went on from one person to the next, and sort of put things together. I also wrote all the time. I take notes all the time. When there’s a certain volume and a certain coherence to my notes then I think I can write something about it, either an article for a journal or a whole book. This conversation with Varela in Switzerland was integrated into the book I wrote before this, which is called The Web of Life.
So it was with my main books: the “Tao of Physics, The Web of Life, The Turning Point, and Hidden Connections.” That’s the trajectory of my thinking. I wrote other books in between, but there were side themes. If you take the Tao of Physics, The Turning Point, the Hidden Connections, and the Web of Life, there’s a coherence to it. The Hidden Connections is actually a new version of “The Turning Point.” It’s a twentieth century version, twenty five years later, with a lot of new views.
BIANCA: You said there’s a lot of pretension in the academic world, and I wonder if you’ve ever felt yourself leaning that way, and what you do if you think you’re not educated enough on something. How do you deal with that?
CAPRA: I thought I wasn’t educated enough when I was your age in high school. I loved math and I loved science, and I thought I was not smart enough to be a scientist. When I was seventeen or eighteen, I read some books about library science, and how to become a librarian. I thought this would be good, because if I can be a research librarian in a science library, I could be in touch with science without being a scientist, because I was not smart enough to be a scientist.
Then I began to study physics and math, and I wasn’t a brilliant student, but good enough. I passed my exams and got a P.H.D. I wrote my thesis, which was not outstanding, but was a sort of a nice little theme that gave a result. I had a lot of help. I had a good professor, and good thesis advisors. Then I started doing research, and, again, I was not one of the leading lights in my field, but I was good enough to talk to people. At that time I talked to people about physics. I went to physics conferences, and I knew some of the leading physicists from 1965 to 1980. In those fifteen years in the field of particle physics, I knew practically everybody’s work, and I knew people personally from conferences. I was good enough to ask people some questions. Already at that time, I loved to talk to people. This was technical talk. I wrote a couple of papers that some people remembered having seen. They were nothing to brag about, but they were ok. I would say, “I wrote this,” and they’d say, “Oh yeah, I remember, I saw your publication” and I could engage them in conversation.
Then, when I began to combine physics and philosophy, I really thought I was on to something. I gathered a lot of confidence. This was around 1970. From 1970 to 1980, I really gained a lot of confidence. From 1978 on, I knew that I had a creative mind and I could trust my creativity. I knew that I would have creative and new ideas, which gave me a lot of confidence.
I’m being honest with you. I’m not hiding and pretending and being modest. I want to answer your question. I was in this position that I thought I wasn’t smart enough, and it took me quite a while to overcome this. First I overcame it with a lot of really hard work in physics. Science, if you really go into it, is hard work. You sit for hours and hours, and do calculations, and work on things, and it’s tough. I remember when I wrote my thesis, I was in Vienna. It was a very hot summer. It was maybe 80 or 95 degrees, and I was just sweating and sitting in my study at home. I had a small apartment. I was just working away, doing calculations for two or three months, and it was tough. But if you go into science, this is what you have to do.
When I say I’m trusting my creativity, it’s also based on hard work. Even now, when I work, I read things and take notes. I’m very organized, and I work hard. I type for hours and organize my notes, and so on. People often think that because I travel a lot and I give a lot of talks and interviews and I know famous people that I just hang out in cafes and have a great time.
One thing I can also tell you is that if you have the most interesting job – it doesn’t matter what it is – the most creative, you’re an artist, you’re in theatre, you’re a writer, a scientist…no matter what, about at least a third of your work is very boring. No matter what you do. There is a lot of boring work. You have to pay bills, answer letters, you get phone calls, you have to get your act together. A lot of things get boring, but then there are the highlights. You have to be able to do both.
MADELINE: I was wondering if through doing all of your research for these books, and all the extensive researching that you’ve done in general, have you been changed by this? And if so, how has your world been affected by your point of view and state of mind?
CAPRA: Well, I’ve been changed hugely. I grew up in Insbrook in Austria, and then I went to the University of Vienna, then spent two years in Paris at a research job. Then I came to California, and spent two years at U.C. Santa Cruz, doing research and teaching. Then I went back to Europe. I spent four years in London—that’s when I wrote the Tao of Physics—and since 1975, I’ve been in Berkeley. So, a lot of changes of culture, geography, thinking, and I’m a very different person now from what I was. I’m multi-cultured because I’ve lived in several different countries. I’ve worked in science and philosophy, and in social movements. I find it hard to answer your question in any detail because it’s a huge change.
LARA: You mentioned how when you talk to people, you would make connections, and that you have a talent for drawing out those connections. In your books, there’s also a theme of connections, which for me brings up a feeling of responsibility, because if you act, it’s going to affect something else. How can we be responsible when we don’t know all the effects of our actions?
CAPRA: I think it is maybe a question of values. If you act according to values that are concerned with the well-being of your community, or of other communities, and ultimately the global community, and also with the well-being of non-human communities—ecosystems, if you have values in this directions, that is a lot of responsibility, and you will act in a certain way, and you will make choices in a certain way.
I think whatever we do is motivated by our values, whether it is work in your job, whether you’re an artist or scientist, what you write, what you research is motivated by values. If your values are to make money and become very wealthy, that’s one type of value, and if your value is to have the community in mind, that’s another type of value. I think that’s where the responsibility comes and connects with values. You cannot follow all the consequences of your work. You cannot worry how this will affect the world. If you have the right values and work in this direction, I think that’s all you can do.
TRAVIS: What is the role of the reader in reading the book? Because anybody can pick up your book and invest on different levels. Were you counting on us, as readers, to make the connections, and become active ourselves?
CAPRA: No. First of all, I make it clear in the preface, I think, that the first three chapters of the book are theory, and if you’re not really interested in theory, you can skip them, and you can go to whatever part of the book interests you. This a book that doesn’t need to be read from the first to the last page. If you’re interested in biotechnology, there’s a chapter dealing with the problems and challenges of biotechnology. You can go to that. If you’re interested in eco-design, you can go into the eco-design section. And I think in terms of getting involved and doing things, it’s really the last chapter that’s relevant, where I talk about sustainability, and reshaping, and globalization, and I give names of a lot of organizations and their websites, and authors. And that’s the chapter where you can really go in some directions, and just read more of the books I recommend.
I’m not so sure, but I would say, at your age, don’t worry about that. If you’re interested in things, don’t immediately think, what can I do with it? Just think, what am I interested in, and do I really understand it? And how can I understand it better? I think that’s more important than thinking, what can I do with it? Because, as you go on learning and maturing, and getting into college, or getting into a profession, you will find things to do. If you maintain your interest, your curiosity and creativity, you’ll find things to do. So, I wouldn’t worry about that.
LULU: It feels like people our age feel a little helpless, and we want to get out there and do things. We couldn’t vote this time, and we’re frustrated with that. So, are you saying we need to prepare ourselves…?
CAPRA: No, I wasn’t saying that. It’s very good that you bring this up. My answer is not, “forget about political activism.” That was not what I wanted to say. I was more thinking about career choices, and what to do with the rest of your life, and how to choose a career and profession. But if you feel that you want to be politically active, I think it’s very important to do this, especially now. There are lots of youth organizations that work politically. You can join them and educate yourselves, educate your friends, and work politically. I think it’s very important to do that. You have enough time now to do that without worrying about immediate success or failure. You can do some groundwork without worrying about the results, and then the results will come.
MAILLIARD: We were talking today about the importance of understanding context. Our culture, in a sense, is a context in which we all codetermine each other’s existence. Can you say something about your exploration of contexts?
CAPRA: Yes. You talked before about connections. It’s a theme of my work. And once you connect things, you have a link, or a relationship. And relationships are very much what I work with. In fact, systems thinking means thinking in terms of relationships, in terms of connectedness. A living system is actually defined by a pattern of organization, which is a set of relationships. The entire living organism—let’s just talk about a cell, which is the simplest organism—a cell, like a bacterium is an individual cell, or the cell in a body or a plant—each cell has a membrane. And inside the membrane there are thousands of biochemical processes that are interlinked in a network. So, the network is a pattern of relationships among the components of the cell. We are looking for patterns of relationships. Every living system is involved in two kinds of patterns of relationships. One is the pattern of relationships of its components. That is inside the system, so all of its components are interrelated and work together. The other type of relationship is the relationship to the environment, because no living system can exist in an isolated way. We all need to eat and breathe and drink. There is a constant flow of nutrients, of energy and matter through the living system. These relationships within the environment are what I call the context. The context is how something is related to the rest of the world. This can be a physical context, a cognitive context, a mental context, an emotional context. You have all these various dimensions of context. There are all these relationships to the environment, and also connections with the history. You have a cultural history, a historical context. You also have a genetic history, and that would be the evolutionary context. All these are relationships in the environment to space and time.
AMELIA: Can you talk about how in moments of crisis there is an emergence of new relations and orders, for a living being, or an organization?
CAPRA: This is one of the key discoveries of systems theory, and especially complexity theory, which is the latest version of systems theory. It’s the discovery that living systems occasionally encounter points of instability, and at those points of instability, there’s a spontaneous emergence of novelty. Anything that is new in the evolution of life has emerged, at some point, from a situation of instability. If it is a major instability, you can call it a crisis. Hence a crisis is an instability where there is an opportunity, a potential for something new to emerge. That is very characteristic of life. All novelty comes from these crisis situations, or situation of instability.
At a certain point you give up. You go for a walk, or you take a shower, or you listen to some music, or you do something totally different. You take a nap, or whatever. And it happens that during this period of relaxation, there is a click, an insight, and then you understand what you didn’t understand before. This is because the mind and the brain are a nonlinear complex system, and your subconscious continues to work on the problem and continues to make connections, and something emerges out of that instability and confusion. Nobody knows how it happens. It’s mysterious because it’s a highly nonlinear process, and no one can understand it. We can understand some of its characteristics, but not exactly what happens.
I remember I heard an interview of a jazz drummer once. I’m very much into jazz, and have been for many years. They interviewed this jazz drummer on the radio, and they said, “It’s amazing because when you play with your fellow musicians, you seem to get to the same note, or get to the same point in your improvisation in the same second. You, as a drummer, mark the rhythm, and at a beat, everybody’s there at the same time. How does this happen? It seems miraculous.” The drummer said, “When you have people who have been together for a long time, and have improvised together, and it looks like a miracle and that’s what it is.” In other words, you can’t explain it.
VIVIAN: I would love to follow up on that question because the idea of emergence is one of the most optimistic. I also was very fascinated by my earlier exposure to Prigogene’s theory of dissipative structures. In some ways, reading your book was a survey of some of the favorite thinkers of mine. Missing question
CAPRA: Well, I think it will happen. The crisis is already here. It’s already bad enough. Last year there was a heat wave in Europe, and thousands of people died. And this is a direct consequence of the vehicles we drive, and the greenhouse gases that are emitted, and the climate change that is human-made. Or government doesn’t believe in that because we have a government that doesn’t believe in science. Of course, then the militaristic side: they would attack innocent people in Iraq, who didn’t do any harm to them, and kill a hundred thousand people because of the desire to have free access to oil, which is something we don’t need in the first place because we’d have alternative energy sources if we worked on that. And the global climate change is produced by that very oil. To put it in an extreme way, in order for all those thousands of people to die in Europe, we killed another hundred thousand to get more of the same oil, so that more people will die from heat waves. That is exaggerated, but that is the direction the country’s going. I think it’s going to be much worse, but eventually there will be a revolt. This is the crisis, and people will not take it anymore, both within the country and abroad.
Economically, it is very easy for the rest of the world to force the United States to change its policies because all they have to do is change their dollars to Euros. Foreign investments are propping up the American economy, and if those foreign investments disappear, then the economy collapses. They can say to the Bush administration, “Look, we’re not going to support you anymore if you don’t sign the Kyoto agreements, and be a little more reasonable.” The question is, are they going to do that, or not? I think, eventually, they will. So, something is going to happen. And in the meantime you can work on educating yourselves and your friends and others in being politically active and individually active, to make people see the situation and understand the context and connect the dots.
ALEX: If the world is always changing in context and relationships, and it always seems to be in some state of crisis, how are you to choose where you invest your time?
CAPRA: That’s a difficult question. If you ask different people, you will get different answers, but my answer would be to take the ecological perspective and the systemic perspective, and ask yourself, what does a sustainable society look like? What is a society in which we can avoid catastrophes? Maybe of a natural kind, like those hurricanes in Florida, which also didn’t appear from nowhere, but because of human activities. So, ask yourself, how can we move toward a kind of society that avoids that, and how can we have different sources of energy, nonpolluting sources? Also, how can we be more secure and at peace with the world, and cooperate with other peoples more than we do now? And then let those ideas guide you to what you’re doing. I don’t think you can go wrong if you do that.
JOHN: This environmental movement has been around since the sixties. I’ve been working to promote change and you’ve been working on creating change for a very long time. Do you ever feel frustrated change isn’t occurring? And if you do feel frustrated, how do you work past that?
CAPRA: I do feel frustrated. I felt very frustrated after this election. It was actually a déjà vu for me, because in 2000 I knew Al Gore, and I had friends who had contacts with Al Gore. And my friends and I were planning a series of dialogues with Al Gore between the election and the inauguration when he would be president elect. We did a lot of work on that, and prepared dialogues about how to translate the characteristics of sustainability into politics and policies. This time around, I didn’t work so much on it, but I also had some plans to talk to the Kerry administration, and was actually invited, with a group of people, to help Kerry formulate environmental policies. And again, it didn’t happen. So, it was very frustrating.
AMELIA: And how do you deal with that?
CAPRA: I went back to more long-term work, which is necessary. I also convinced myself that, although things are not going to change right away, there eventually will be a crisis where things will change. But I am still frustrated.
ASHA: You say you started off as a physicist, and then saw the connections, and diversified, and related it to everything else. Would you say that your training as a scientist has helped you to think in a way that helps you to see the connections?
CAPRA: Absolutely. I left physics in the mid-80’s, so it’s now almost twenty years since I stopped doing research in physics. But what has stayed with me is the scientific approach and the way scientists think. I approach problems with a scientific mind. If I read something, I can extract the main ideas from the text, or from a conversation, or from pages of notes, and I can put it together in a way that is coherent and makes some sense. I also know that the way I put it together is also only one of many ways. Other people will look at the same notes and put them together in a different way, and it would also make sense. There’s no black and white, no absolute truth, but there are approximate renditions, approximate formulations. All that is part of the scientific method, and that is what I learned in science.
Pattern recognition is something else that I learned in the sciences. One of the founders of Cybernetics, which is part of this systems tradition in the early twentieth century, was an anthropologist called Gregory Bateson. He was a true systemic thinker who always wrote about recognizing relationships and patterns. He was also quite witty. He had this British sense of humor. He was asked to define a pattern, and he said a pattern is anything you see twice. Actually, a lot of scientific thinking is in that statement, because you see certain relationships among components, and what you remember is the set of relationships, and then you encounter a similar set of relationships somewhere else—maybe in a different field, or under different circumstances—and you say, “Ha! I’ve seen this before.” Then it takes you a while to remember where you have seen it. But if you remember, and if you can draw the connections, then you learn something. This pattern recognition and comparing patterns is something we learn in science.
One more thing that I mentioned before is discipline. You can’t succeed in science if you don’t have discipline. If you just flit around and look at all the interesting things, you’re not going to discover anything or make your mark in science. You have to have discipline. You need to spend hours and hours of working. This is what we do, as scientists. These are various things that I learned in science and I’m still applying.
TAPAN: You spoke of the extrication of the thoughts of others, and I was wondering if it’s possible to do this with the thoughts of others that you might not agree with?
CAPRA: Well, it’s not something I do. I made a conscious choice. I would enter into arguments with people occasionally, just to see what the differences are and explore a little bit. But mostly, as you said, I try to extract the thoughts of people that I can learn from that I know I would agree with. I establish a basic agreement. I may be wrong in that. I may end up not agreeing with them, or I may not agree with them, and be wrong, and have to change my thinking. But basically, I establish a sort of common framework or common context in order to really explore things further. This is not to say that this is the best way of doing it. You can also draw people out in debate. It is also valuable. But debate is not something that I do or enjoy.
ERIKA: You talk about how you approach problems with a scientific view, but in researching philosophy and science, do you ever come into a conflict? Do they ever conflict in any way?
CAPRA: Yes, they do. There are several ways I can answer that. One is I need to decide if I want to go more into science or more into philosophy. That was a conflict in my life. It was a conflict, mainly, because of the way science is organized. I wrote a number of books, but these books didn’t get me tenure at any university or at least, not at the universities that I would want tenure. The universities where I would’ve liked to have had tenure, like here at Berkeley, or the University of London, or other places where I worked, they wouldn’t reward the kind of philosophical books I was writing. It was even more extreme because in the 1980’s I was working as a physicist here at the U.C. Berkeley. I was working with a professor who was the head of the theory group at the university, and he wanted to get a research grant for me. But I didn’t want to work full time, and he couldn’t get a part time research grant because if you’re a physicist, you either do something in full time in physics, or you do something else. So, lucky me—by that time, my books were successful, and I could live from the royalties. So, I did the physics work for free. I wasn’t paid for it. But it could have been a major problem. That is one issue about whether you go more into science or more into philosophy.
The other way I could answer the question is, suppose you do scientific research and you find that it really interferes with your philosophy or with your values. What do you do? Do you stop it or not? I think that’s a character issue. So, you can find in biology, for instance, if you go into genetic engineering and molecular biology, there’s a lot of money and research grants. If you go into ecology sustainability, there’s very little money. I believe it is the more valuable thing to do. Not that molecular biology is not valuable, but there is enough work being done there already, and there is a lot of damage being done, too. It is a question of values, and that is another example how philosophy and science might interfere with each other.
AMELIA: think it’s interesting how you were talking in one of our workshops about the science of consciousness, and how, in the last twenty years, the scientists are talking about consciousness as a subject that’s philosophical. Perhaps you could talk about how consciousness manifests in life and science.
CAPRA: Yes, this is another angle to your question. What is considered proper for scientists to pursue changes all the time. The study of consciousness is one such example. Previously it was just not done. I remember my friend, Varela told me that when he was a student of biology and neuroscience, he said that consciousness is something you discuss in the bar over a glass of wine, but not in class. It was taboo. That changed dramatically in the 1990’s. Now there is a science of consciousness studies, and there is a journal called “Journal of Consciousness Studies,” and there are conferences with thousands of people discussing the nature of consciousness from a scientific point of view, so that has changed.
EYLA: Do you think if there was more of an emphasis put on education for children at younger ages, like elementary school and middle school, learning about the environment and ecology and the planet, other than their local community, or what’s happening in the U.S.—do you think that would be a step into the new paradigm?
CAPRA: Yes, absolutely. And that’s what we do here at the Center of Ecoliteracy. We will have been here ten years next year. It started when we were approached by a school to help the teachers design an environmental curriculum. We pulled a few people together who were educators and ecologists, and worked on it systematically. Very soon we found that it’s not that easy. We spent ten years developing what we now call our paragolgy (spelling?). It is a paragolgy that we call education for sustainable living. It involves much more than just teaching ecology.
Recently I wrote an article, “Why Teaching Ecology is Not So Easy?” There are several reasons: one is you need to understand how ecosystems work. You have to think systemically. You have to think in terms of relationships, in terms of context, in terms of processes, and this is not something that is usually taught, either in schools or in universities. You have a school, and you have a subject called Ecology or Environmental Science, or something like this. You want to teach in a systemic way and get kids to think of terms of connectedness, relationships, processes, context. You may do this in your class, but in all their other classes they will think in terms of building blocks and cutting things up into pieces, and that’s very unsatisfactory. What you ideally want to do is to have a common goal for the entire school to be able to think in that way, not only in the Environmental Science class, but also in the English class and the Math class and the History class, and so on. In order to do that, you need to somehow stimulate the school so that they organize themselves in such a way that everybody contributes to a curriculum that is an integrated curriculum that teaches kids to think in that way. This can only happen when the teachers actually talk to each other and cooperate. We found ten years ago in most schools that is not the case. So, we spent ten years building community in schools. We took the teachers out of the schools, we took them on retreats, on weekends where they were discussing things, experiencing things. We did all sorts of meditative experiences, rituals, all kinds of things to get them out of their everyday thinking and to start to cooperate and to discuss different issues. That’s one reason why teaching ecology is not so easy: It needs systemic thinking which requires school communities that are working together.
Another reason is that an ecosystem is a community of plants, animals, and microorganisms and their environments. To understand ecosystems, you need to have a lot of knowledge of biology, but also soil chemistry, atmospheric chemistry, geology, thermodynamics. Ecology’s very multidisciplinary. If you want to teach this even at a school level, even at a fourth grade, you will need teachers to cooperate. It comes back to the same concept that the whole school has to be reorganized.
The third reason is that if you teach ecology just theoretically, then you could produce students that are theoretically excellent ecologists, but they don’t care about the fate of the planet. So, what we do is we have an experiential approach where kids go out into nature. If you look at the picture behind you, you see children in nature. And they have a visceral, sensual experience of nature, which creates an emotional bond between the natural world and the child. And this is how we hope that it will then lead to a sense of responsibility. The love of nature would then foster a responsibility. These are some reasons why is not so easy to just teach ecology.
AMLEIA: You told me once a really lovely example about the children that were trying to save this particular species near a river.
CAPRA: This was called the Shrimp Project. At the beginning of our work, almost ten years ago, we came across a school and a fourth grade class where the kids heard somebody talk about endangered species, and they decided they wanted to adopt a species and save it. They had a teacher who was a great ecologist, and who invited ecologists from outside to tell the kids about endangered species in their environment. They found several, and one was freshwater shrimp. This was in Marin County, across the bay here. There was a freshwater shrimp that was endangered because in the creeks that run through the county, there was a pasture where cows were grazing, and the cows were trampling down the creek banks, and the shrimp needed the roots of willows to hang on to. But there were no more willows. The farmers cut down the willows, which were in the way of the cows, and the cows were ruining the environment of the creek, and so the shrimp was endangered. So, the kids had to learn all about that. They had to learn how to draw maps to see where those creeks are. And they had to learn the biology of the shrimp, and how the shrimp lives and why it was endangered. And they had to decide to either talk to the farmers and see what they think, or go to the city council. And their teacher said, “Well, you could write a letter to the mayor or to City Council.” But remember, these are fourth graders. You have to write a letter where the spelling is correct. Otherwise, the mayor won’t read it, right? So, there comes the English class. So, the entire curriculum was organized around that shrimp. And it took many years, but the project was very successful.
TRAVIS: In “Hidden Connections,” you talk about cloning, genetic engineering. I wonder if it has ever occurred to you that Americanism, in a way, enters a country and clones itself. It’s not an identical copy, but it’s close. And in a way, it can be seen as a virus inducing itself into a cell and ultimately taking over.
CAPRA: Give me an example.
TRAVIS: It seems like America is a strong role in leadership of the world, but it seems like a lot of countries get caught up in trying to be like America. I was wondering if you’ve seen this, and what are the first steps we could take to change this?
CAPRA: This is an interesting idea, and I have not thought about this in the context of cloning. But it’s an interesting idea. I mean, I have thought about the whole monoculture of globalization and cultural imperialism and mass production, and fast food, and all these various influences on other countries. But to connect it with cloning—I think it’s a very interesting idea. I think you should write about that. Just think about it more, and this might be a very nice paper.
I can give you something to read. One of the key activists in agriculture and in the anti-globalization movement is Vandana Shiva in India, who promotes community-oriented agriculture. And I don’t know if I have this in my bibliography, but she wrote a book, “Monocultures of the Mind,” and that would be, I think, very inspiring for you to read.
MADELINE: If you could get one message across to the American people, what would it be?
CAPRA: Ok, it’s not going to be a sound byte because the problems we are in cannot be resolved by giving sound bytes. Maybe that would be the message. I would say the key challenge of our time is to create and nurture societies that are ecologically sustainable. In order to do that, we can learn from nature what a sustainable system is, and we can identify certain principles in ecology that we can observe in ecosystems that sustain life. This is what I call “ecological literacy” That could be one message, “We need to become ecologically literate.”
The second step, then, is to redesign our technologies and social institutions so as to bridge the gap that now exists between human design and the sustainable systems of nature. Then the third would be to summarize…you look at the principles of ecology: the recycling, solar energy, diversity, all these various principles of ecology, and then ask yourself, “how does nature sustain life?” Can you put it into one sentence? And I’ve tried this over the years, and the best I’ve come up with recently is to say, “Nature sustains life by creating and nurturing communities” We can take a lesson from nature. Those ecosystems are communities. If we create and nurture communities—we don’t need to create them, because we have them already—but we should nurture them rather than destroy them. That is the way to go in order to live sustainably. You can apply that to everyday life in community, you can apply to foreign policy, to military policy, energy policy. It’s a wide field.