Review Of ‘The Systems View Of Life: A Unifying Vision’ By Capra And Luisi-Book Review


Hazel Henderson’s analysis of The Systems View Of Life: A Unifying Vision from an economy perspective.

Describes how economics and finance are influenced by the connection between hard sciences and social sciences.

Highlights Fritjof Capra and Pier Luigi Luisi’s multidisciplinary approach to putting our understanding of life in the context of a global economy.

The Systems View Of Life: A Unifying Vision by Fritjof Capra and Pier Luigi Luisi, Cambridge University Press, UK 2014

This hefty volume, The Systems View of Life: A Unifying Vision, is a tour de force and will be a perennial textbook for decades for multi-disciplinary researchers worldwide. Authors Fritjof Capra, a physicist, and Pier Luigi Luisi, a biochemist, transcend their original scientific pursuits, arriving at systemic overviews of life on Earth, synthesizing research from complexity and chaos theories, cybernetics, thermodynamics, geology, fractal geometry, biology, ecology, genetics, epigenetics to sociology, anthropology, psychology, economics and finance. Their damning critique of economics and global finance make it must reading for investors and asset managers – since Fritjof Capra’s books are international bestsellers. This almost 500 page treatise is firmly grounded in the history of science and the evolution of industrialism and far more satisfying than Thomas Piketty’s critique in Capitalism (2013), limited to the defunct toolbox of the economics profession. Just as asset managers and investors had to learn geology to understand fossil fuel companies, so today they must learn biology, life’s principles and to interpret the real time data from Earth-observing satellites. Are market players up for this new challenge? Yes, as we learned from managers of successful fossil-free portfolios at our Finding Ethical Alpha conference. Capra and Luisi also call for correcting prices to internalize all costs of fossil fuels and nuclear energy, favoring a carbon tax rather than taxing all forms of pollution as we advocate (p. 419).

Our times call for sweeping new syntheses if we are to understand the 7.5 billion member human family’s current situation on planet Earth. Scientists call this the Anthropocene Age with humans consuming some 40% of primary production (photosynthesis which supplies our food), hastening the current 6th extinction phase of other life forms while altering the oceans, atmosphere and land. The Systems View of Life is one of the most comprehensive of these global overviews – all of which are multi-disciplinary systems-based approaches, many of which I have reviewed: The Third Industrial Revolution (2013) and The Zero Marginal Cost Society (2014) by Jeremy Rifkin; Reinventing Fire by Amory Lovins; The Second Machine Age by Erik Brynjolfsson, Andrew McAfee and Jeff Cummings; The Nature of Investing (2014) by Katherine Collins; Corporation 2020 (2010) by Pavan Sukhdev; Why Nations Fail (2012) by Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson; The Sixth Wave (2010) by James Moody and Bianca Nogrady; 2052: A Global Forecast for the Next Forty Years (2012) by Jorgen Randers; Radical Abundance (2013) by Eric Drexler; Breaking New Ground (2013) by Lester Brown, and others.

These necessary overviews of human affairs on Earth are threatening to traditional academic institutions and single-discipline science – usually incurring hostile reviews. Thomas Kuhn described the evolution of the scientific method in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (1962) and over my dinner table in Princeton summarized his famous shift of paradigms as “progressing one funeral at a time.” Capra and Luisi trace these paradigm shifts through the ages in biology, medicine, genetics and physics to the emergence of systems thinking, quantum mechanics and cybernetics. They emphasize networks at all levels from cells to ecosystems and the flow of energy, matter and information through networks as fundamental to living processes (p. 68). They summarize this paradigm shift in perception from material objects and structures to the non-material processes and patterns of organization. This emphasis on networks, relationships, qualities and processes does not mean that objects, quantities and structures are no longer important. Rather, there is a shift of focus: from parts to wholes; from objects to relationships; from measuring to mapping; from quantities to qualities; from structures to processes; from objective to epistemic science; from Cartesian certainty to approximate knowledge – all inherently multi-disciplinary.

Romping through early cybernetics, complexity theory, non-linear dynamics, Rene Thom’s catastrophe mathematics, Lorenz attractors, Fibonacci sequences and Mandelbrot sets, the authors arrive at new definitions of life as a synergy of three domains: the organic living structure interacts with the environment via a cognitive sensorium. This builds on the theory of autopoiesis of Chilean biologists Francisco Varela and Humberto Maturana: a self-organizing ability inherent in all living organisms, with a structural coupling with their environment, sensed in various cognitive processes from cellular to multicellular life forms. I was aware of this research on autopoiesis as a fellow member with Varela and Maturana of the Lindisfarne Fellowship, which included Amory and Hunter Lovins and Paul Hawken, co-authors of Natural Capitalism (2008); Gregory Bateson, author of Steps to an Ecology of Mind (2000); James Lovelock and Lynn Margulis, who developed the famous Gaia Theory; Maurice Strong, Secretary General of the UN’s Earth Summit in 1972 and 1992; Stewart Brand, creator of The Whole Earth Catalog; Heinz Pagels, physicist, and Elaine Pagels, philosopher; architects Paolo Soleri and Sim Van der Ryn, and others, convened by meta-historian philosopher William Irwin Thompson, author of Passages About Earth (1974), Evil and World Order (1976) and other books. I’m happy to see authors Capra and Luisi dedicate their treatise to Francisco Varela, who I introduced to Capra at a conference at which we were all presenting in Barcelona, over dinner and several bottles of wine.

Living systems, according to Varela and Maturana, are cognitive systems, and living is a process of cognition, valid for all organisms with and without a nervous system (p. 254). This leads the authors into the contentious areas of brain research, mind and consciousness, for which Capra became famous with his The Tao of Physics (1975), a global bestseller, and his The Turning Point (1982) to which I contributed a history of economics and how it failed to address the evolution of human technology and society due largely to theory-induced blindness about energy as the fundamental factor of production – ignoring the laws of thermodynamics. For full disclosure, Capra generously wrote a foreword to my The Politics of the Solar Age (1981), documenting the shift beyond fossil fuels already visible to me as a science-policy wonk at the US Office of Technology Assessment (OTA), the National Academy of Science and the National Academy of Engineering from 1974 until 1980. In 2009, Capra and I co-authored Qualitative Growth, calling for reform of economic and financial models and multi-disciplinary metrics beyond GDP, such as the Calvert-Henderson Quality of Life Indicators (2000) which I co-developed with Calvert and is now being updated as the Ethical Markets® Quality of Life Indicators.

 The Systems View of Life then turns from microbiology to a macro view, with chapters on health, social systems, corporations, political and economic systems and the rise of global casino finance. They call for a paradigm shift in education, following Capra’s influential Center for Ecoliteracy with its worldwide outreach, and cite examples, including Cortona Week, run by co-author Luisi and Schumacher College, founded by Satish Kumar in Devon, UK, in both of which I have participated. A chapter is devoted to the current paradigm battles between genetically-modified crops and industrial-scale monocultures using pesticides versus agro-ecology which is now practiced more widely in many countries as markets for natural, non-toxic, organically grown foods continue to expand. Curiously, the authors don’t mention the potential of using the 10,000 halophyte plants to provide food, edible oils and biofuels, as now operating in Mid-East countries, China, India, Mexico and the USA. These salt-loving plants are grown on desert lands, irrigated with seawater while sequestering CO2, as we report. This issue of food is fundamentally linked with population growth, estimated to reach over 9 billion people. Capra and Luisi correctly point to statistics showing how birth rates have fallen in many countries as education levels rise among women. However, the issue here is more of power, technology and reaching gender equality at all levels of societies. Computer models show that if rural and oppressed women everywhere were able to access today’s cheap solar panels and LED lighting, together with more microfinance, that 3 billion more births would be avoided.

Capra and Luisi see an eco-design and biomimicry revolution underway, as I do in reshaping cities, transportation architecture, corporations – still not covered in mainstream media – but flourishing in all the alternative movements and networks worldwide. Reforming markets, metrics and financial models and practices is slower – yet seen by the authors as the most urgent. They identify globally networked, information-based finance as inherently unstable, widening poverty gaps and destroying conditions for sustaining life and the ecosystems that sustain the planetary biosphere. They point out that our increasingly unstable societies and disrupted ecosystems can lead to breakdowns – but also breakthroughs. Yet breakdowns also drive breakthroughs as we map in our research on pioneers in finance and business at Ethical Markets Media. I predict that The Systems View of Life will become another perennial bestseller.