Ecoliteracy: A Path with a Heart

An Interview with Fritjof Capra

by Barbara Vogl





Fritjof Capra is the author of the ground-breaking book, The Tao of Physics (1975) which explores the parallels between modern physics and Eastern mysticism. He observed that the world views of both physics and Eastern mysticism emerge when humans "enquire into the essential nature of things, the deeper realms of matter in physics; the deeper realms of consciousness in mysticism when they discover a different reality behind the superficial mechanistic appearance of everyday life." (p. 304) From this beginning, his other books such as his latest, The Web of Life, and his popular film, Mind Walk, have consistently laid the path to his present work as founder and director of the Center for Ecoliteracy in Berkeley, California. The Center is dedicated to fostering the understanding and practice of the principles of ecology, the "language of nature." It is dedicated to using those principles for creating sustainable human communities; in particular, learning communities.

I first met Fritjof when he was a post doctoral lecturer at the University of California at Santa Cruz in the late '60s. It is obvious to me now, that at that time, his explorations into Eastern mysticism was a search for his own path. At the beginning of The Tao of Physics, he quotes Carlos Castaneda, from The Teachings of Don Juan, a book that had a profound affect on many of us UCSC students. "Look at every path closely and deliberately. Try it as many times as you think necessary. Then ask yourself, and yourself alone, one question...Does this path have a heart? If it does, the path is good; if it doesn't it is of no use." Fritjof Capra's work has heart. I felt it when I met him for the following interview at a cafe in Berkeley where he lives with his wife and 13 year old daughter. ~Barbara Vogl, Editor



Barbara: I was reading the book of your conversations with the Benedictine monks, Brother David Stendl-Rost and Brother Thomas Matus, where you emphasize the importance of the sense of Belonging to the Universe, the title of the book. So many of us are confused and wondering where they belong now in our very complex society. I was wondering how the systemic concept of self-organization in our individual lives and organizations can be useful in helping us to see how to get through the anxiety in our period of transition—passing into new paradigm thinking.

Fritjof: Well I think self-organization and the newer understanding of life and complexity, when it is applied to the social realm and human organizations, can help people to find their authenticity as human beings The old paradigm model is a mechanistic model where people are seen as parts of a big machine and the machine is designed by experts who either sit at the top of the organization or are brought in from outside as consultants. Then this design of new structures is imposed upon the people who work in the organization and they are pigeon-holed in certain departments with well-defined boundaries. So the underlying model is that of a machine working very smoothly.

What self-organization tells you, among many other things, is that creativity is an inherent property of all living systems. All living systems are creative because they have the ability to reach out and create something new. In the last 20-25 years we have begun to understand the dynamics of this creativity, in terms of emergence of new structures and in terms of instability, bifurcation points, and the spontaneous emergence of order. This is the underlying dynamics of creativity at all levels of life.

When people understand this they will realize that human individuals as well as groups of individuals are inherently creative. So when you have an organization and you want to design a new structure and you bring in outside experts and then impose this structure on the organization you have to spend a lot of energy and money to sell the idea to the employees and the manager. Since human beings are inherently creative they will not accept the idea as it is. since this will deny their humanity. Therefore you can give them orders and they will nominally adhere to the orders but they will circumvent the orders; they will re-invent the orders and will modify it, either boycott it or embellish it, adding their own interpretation.

B. Otherwise their soul wouldn't be in it.

F. So the smart thing.... and entrepreneurs and managers are beginning to learn this now... is not to impose a new structure but to involve people in the creation of this organization because that acknowledges their humanity and inherent creativity. When they participate from the start you don't need to sell them the idea because it is their idea. The ideas of self-organization are very important to understand the autonomy, the authenticity and basic humanity of people.

B. There is so much talk now of the soul and the spirit and this is seeping into the educational literature. I've often felt that the wholistic perspective which includes the soul, the emotions, the intellect and the whole person is a part of the self-organizing process.

F. I, myself, don't use the term 'soul.' I find it has too much baggage and can be misinterpreted. I use the terms 'consciousness' and 'spirit' but not soul.

B. You have said that in the new paradigm, how you observe something changes what you are observing.

F. Right.

B. If, for instance, you were to change how you observe schools, would that actually bring about changes in the structure of schools?

F. This is a difficult question. I think you're referring to an understanding of cognition in the currently emerging theory of living systems. There is a piece that is called the Santiago Theory of Cognition developed by Humberto Maturana and Francisco Varella. It says that cognition is not a representation of an objectively existing world but is a bringing forth of a world in the process of living. So the process of knowledge or the process of cognition ( that's what it means, the process of knowledge) is a creative process of bringing forth a world. There is no fixed world out there or fixed objects. This is a difficult subject because it does not mean there is nothing there. It means that there are no "things" there with fixed outlines. So, for instance, when we look at a tree we see a certain outline of the tree and we say, "this is a tree"...we draw a picture of the tree and if we did a little test we would find that most of us wouldn't draw the roots...The part above the ground would be larger than the part showing the roots. But in nature, that's not so. The part below the earth is just as large. In fact, in the forest all the trees are interlinked so there is really only one system, only one network, and the trees nourish each other through this network of roots.

So who is to say where one tree begins and another tree ends? Then if you take a cat or a deer looking at a tree, they will see different outlines because their sensory apparatus is different. So what's the correct outline of the tree? Is it mine or is it the deer's or the rabbit's?

This shows you that what we call an object really depends on how we look at it and how we look at it depends on who we are.

But the important thing to recognize is that we don't need to go through this analysis all the time. This is important to understand.... this process of cognition and to understand how cognition is part of all levels of life. Once you have understood that, you can revert back to seeing external objects. You know in the back of your mind there are no really fixed objects but for us, as humans, we all see more or less the same objects. This is important so that we can say, "let's meet at such and such a place at such and such a time." We don't say there really is no such place; we bring it forth together.

B. That is the clearest explanation I have ever heard.

F. There is a famous Zen saying.

Before you study Zen,
rivers are rivers and mountains are mountains.
While you study Zen rivers are no longer rivers
and mountains are no longer mountains.
But when you have reached enlightenment
rivers are again rivers and mountains are again mountains.


The Santiago Theory is similar. Once you have understood it then you can talk again about rivers and mountains. You don't need to go through the cognitive analysis at each step. So I would say in answer to your questions about schools, it doesn't really play a role--that process of cognition.

B. I see. Schools are not objects. We have an organizational mind that is determined by the machine metaphor and that determines how schools are structured. But if we begin to see organizations as living systems then it would begin to change, wouldn't it?

F. Yes, that would play a big role. What we do at the Center for Ecoliteracy we start with Ecology and we say that the great challenge of our times is to create ecological and sustainable communities. Now when you look at nature you see that nature has the inherent capability to sustain life. Life is over 3 billion years old and from the very first cell has continued in this process to the present day without interruption. I think that, in itself, is a fact that people don't appreciate because of our mechanistic biology which makes us believe that when an organism reproduces it sends the genetic material into the new cell. The DNA from the parents splits and recombines and receives the information for creating the new cell. But this is not what happens. This is the mechanistic model. What happens is that the whole cell splits and what is transferred to the next generation is not just the DNA but the entire cellular process. So all the equipment of the cell plus all the processes that take place in the cell go on, without interruption, when the cell divides.

It's like dividing an organization. You say, you guys go over there. This will be your organization but you continue to do your business and accounting and meet for lunch all the -processes continue. And then there's another part that goes over to another side and continues the same processes, circulating the same newsletters, etc. doing the same business.

With the cell, it is similar. The process applies continuously and has continued for billions of years. This is quite awe-inspiring.

B. So are you saying memory is transmitted this way?

F. I'm not sure about memory. But it's mimetic material.

B. Gregory Bateson speaks of all life having intelligence.

F. I think you can call it memory but I don't know if that statement is metaphoric or not. So nature has an inherent ability to sustain the same life. But what is happening with human industrial society is that we interfere with nature's ability to sustain life. We disrupt the natural cycle, we decimate the biodiversity, we pollute and poison the environment. What we need to do is fundamentally change our technologies, our businesses, our life styles, our institutions, our physical structures so that they do not interfere with this ongoing process of sustaining life.

Now in order to do that, the first thing we need to do is to understand what that process is. Because, if we're going to develop technologies that mimic that process, first we need to understand it. This is what I call ecological literacy.

B. So how do you teach this?

F. There's a theoretical part and a practical part. The theoretical part is systems theory because we're talking about eco systems--living systems--and in order to understand the basic principles of ecology and sustainability we need to think systemically...in terms of interconnections, relationships, and context. As for the practical part, we could educate our children so they understand it theoretically but if they don't care about it they would throw away the garbage and not recycle and do other harmful things. So at the Center for Ecoliteracy we're trying to foster both the understanding of nature and the love of nature. We get children out into nature...we help them experience ecology. We help them to gain a sense of place....a sense of belonging as Brother David would say. And in this process we teach them ecology.

Now, since ecology is based on systems thinking, this helps also with the rest of education. For example, there are a lot of new insights about learning from neuroscience recently that show that the brain is in a constant search for pattern. The children come to school, not with an empty mind but they come with their own context and they relate everything they hear, that's presented to them, to their own context, searching for meaningful patterns. So the search for patterns and meaning is central to the learning process.

And again, to understand this you have to think systemically. Just to understand meaning you have to think systemically. Then this affects the instruction because you would want to have a curriculum that is integrated where these same patterns can be recognized. Then, on the other hand, it affects the process of teaching because if you teach in integrated fashion so that what the geography teacher says is related to what the math teacher says and that's related to what the PE teacher does with the kids, obviously those teachers need to talk with each other and collaborate. This translates into community and, in fact, most of our work to date has been in community building, teaching ecology and systems thinking too, but mostly community building. So we teach ecology, the experience of nature, community building, learning theory and integrated curriculum.

B. And that in itself is all integrated in the process because it's all at the same time.

F. And that hangs together through systems thinking...because those are all interconnected systemically.

B. And, for me, that gives the sense and the spirit, ...the feeling of getting it all together...the sense of being a whole piece of cloth...the feeling that people so desperately seem to be needing now.

F. We've been working in schools for 7 years now and what we're hearing from teachers when we ask what ecoliteracy means for them, is that it has made teaching meaningful again. That's the main reason why they like it.

B. And to me, meaningfulness is soul. That's what we seem to be lacking now.

F. To me, it is connectedness. I define meaning as the experience of context. When you see how something belongs to a larger context and not only understand it intellectually, but when you experience this, then you experience meaning. B. I was reminded of the Constructivist theory in your description.

F. Yes that's what I was describing.....absolutely. And of course you could say that the Santiago Theory is also a Constructivist theory. That fits very well.

B. The metaphors we use seem so important because it is only through metaphors that we seem to make that stretch of understanding we need today.

F. Right.

B. In your conversation with Brother David you agree that there is a shift of metaphors from Knowledge as a Building to Knowledge as a Network. For example, you point out that 'God as Architect' has been a metaphor in both Science and Religion. Brother David speaks of the new paradigm in religion as containing "a dialogic dimension of meaning." In other words, "our interaction with God as co-creators of the world." Certainly, in the context of Deep Ecology there is dialogue with nature. In both instances there is a shift from domination and control to dialogue. What Riane Eisler would call partnership. This seems a shift from the prevalence of top/down hierarchy to that of an exchange as in a network... a shift from structure to process which you say is a criteria of the new paradigm thinking in Science. Would you say something about Knowledge as a Network?

F. This goes directly back to the basic question, What is Life? because one of the first insights and still one of the most important insights of the systemic understanding of life is that living systems are networks. Again, I think it is important to point out that we're not talking about network structure, although that's also there. For example, the nervous system is a network structure. It is anatomical. But what we're talking about in an organism is a functional network. So its a network of relationships, a network that interconnects the processes. Then you can ask what are these processes? It depends on the level of life you are looking at. If you look at a cell then the process is a chemical process. If you look at an ecosystem the basic network process is feeding relationships. The animals feed on certain plants, the plants feed on sunlight, the plants die, the insects and the fungi feed on them and we have the whole recycling process. When you come to the human realm--human society or community-- the process is communication. You have language and conversation. I think this is why conversations, such as dialogue, is so important now. When we talk about networking in the human realm we don't talk about exchanging chemicals or eating each other, we talk about communication networks.

B. And certainly the internet is playing a big part.

F. Yes, it's an electronic communication network.

B. What I like is that in their websites, people can express their creativity and get it out there so it can be exchanged. I see it as a potential for future education.

F. It is a potential but you have to be careful because the computer industry wants to push computers into elementary and even kindergartens and preschools. That is premature. It has to come in at the appropriate level of development of the child because it requires a certain sense of abstraction. At a young age children are much better off playing and learning in the real world rather than in the virtual reality.

B. I'm interested in the difference between purposeful thinking and playful thinking and particularly in story-telling as a way of communicating playfully in order to find meaning.

F. I have thought a lot about purpose recently. Purpose requires the ability to form mental images. If I go somewhere with a purpose I have something in mind. If I develop a strategy for some purpose I need to be able to have alternatives in mind. This is why plants and lower level animals don't have purpose because they don't have a nervous system and they don't have the ability to form mental images. Once children are able to think in an abstract way then they can act purposefully but at the beginning they act more playfully. Of course there is an interplay between the two. My daughter is now 13 and she acts purposefully but she also likes to act playfully.

B. There is increasing interest in the importance of acting playfully in order to further creativity and meaning.

F. One big theme in the new understanding of life is the understanding of complexity and non-linearity. Purposeful thinking is linear thinking. You zoom in on something linearly whereas the playful thinking is non-linear.

B. I think of playful thinking as being much more systemically oriented. Playfulness seems to allow for the kind of letting go so we can deal with the new paradigm thinking. For example, in new paradigm thinking in Science you say there is a shift from truth to approximate description. Everything we say is limited and approximate yet we act as if there were absolute truths.

F. In science we know that but I would say not in experience. You can experience true love for instance and it's not approximate.

B. It is your own experience. But there is dogmatism in both religion and science.

F. I think the expression of experience and the verbal representation of experience can never be absolutely true. It is always approximate. But the experience itself can have this feeling of truth.

B. If you think of representation of experience, in other words, knowledge, as approximate, how do you teach children through tests in the old way of teaching?

F. That's not a contradiction at all. In Science, for example, in classical mechanics, I would give my students a test. For instance, I have an object and I drop it from a certain height and they have to calculate how long it takes for this object to reach the ground. They can do this with certain formulas and equations from Newtonian physics but it is approximate because it does not take into account the air resistance. And if a student asks me, "Should I take this into account?" I can say, "No just forget about it. Let's just do it as if it were in a vacuum." But then I can teach them to refine the formula and add a term for air resistance and then it will again be approximate because the air resistance depends on the weather conditions and son and on.

B. It's a part of the fact that everything is interconnected.

F. Right. I sometimes say everything is interconnected but some things are more interconnected than others. This is where Science comes in. We try to identify the important interconnections and leave out the unimportant. Of course there's a risk of error but that's part of the game.

B. Would that relate to being aware of the shift from objective science to epistemic science in your five criteria for new paradigm thinking in Science?

F. Yes, because the nature of the approximation depends on the human observer, on our epistemology.

B. In your childhood or in your life do you feel there was anything that directed you toward the kind of work you do now?

F. Several things. Something that I have recognized only recently is that my early childhood was spent in the country. I grew up in Austria on a farm and the first 12 years of my life I was on the farm and I walked to school for about three miles through the snow and everything. And most of the summer I went around barefoot and I knew all the trees and all the insects, the birds and plants, the fruits and vegetables that were grown. I think that I acquired my basic sense of ecology in my early childhood. Then later on in my teen-age years I was influenced by a very good mathematics teacher and later still by reading Werner Heisenberg's book, Physics and Philosophy. At that point I had already become very interested in quantum physics.

B. When did you read Heisenberg?

F. Well... at the age of 17... before I went to college.

B. Did your exploration into Eastern mysticism have any effect on your development of The Center for Ecoliteracy? Certainly, your book, The Tao of Physics, has affected many of us.

F. I think that my exploration of mystical tradition gave me my whole outlook on reality, together with my work in science. So, yes, it affects everything I do.