Systems thinking is now reaching the agendas of many leaders from some of the largest businesses and organisations around the world. For many decades Fritjof Capra has been one of the leading proponents of systems thinking as the foundation to the interconnected global problems we are facing today. His latest project is Capra Course, his online course which is allowing executives, leaders, managers and professionals from a wide range of backgrounds to develop their systems thinking skills and understand how systemic solutions can be put into practice across many different disciplines.
Paul Pizzala is a business development manager at WHEB Asset Management, a specialist investor focused on the opportunities created by the global transition to more sustainable, resource efficient and energy efficient economies. Paul combines client and investment experience with sustainability expertise, completing an MSc in Holistic Science in 2013 and then working as Finance Director for a renewable energy society in Devon. He went on to found Climate Risk, a consultancy developing investment and business strategies to commercialise sustainability before joining WHEB Asset Management.
In this wide-ranging interview Fritjof discusses with Paul the way in which the systems view of life impacts on our understanding of economics, ecology, leadership and a new understanding of growth and prosperity.
PP: Sustainability is an emerged trend in terms of a notion and emerging as a practice – in the US some of the companies that we invest in would not even describe themselves as being sustainable and would see themselves as just being competitive. We don’t believe that what’s happening in the US and Europe will detail sustainability but of course it is a risk and how do you perceive it in terms of systems change and complexity?
In my view, building and nurturing sustainable communities is the great challenge of our time. What is sustained in a sustainable community is not economic growth or competitive advantage, but the entire web of life on which our long-term survival depends. In other words, a sustainable community is designed in such a way that its ways of life, businesses, economy, physical structures, and technologies do not interfere with nature’s inherent ability to sustain life. The first step in this endeavor, naturally, must be to understand how nature sustains life. It turns out that this involves a new ecological understanding of life. Indeed, such a new understanding of life has emerged in science over the last 30 years. In my textbook The Systems View of Life, coauthored with Pier Luigi Luisi, and in my online course (www.capracourse.net) I offer a grand synthesis of this new understanding of life.
PP: Can you summarize this “systems view of life” for us?
FC: Basically, it amounts to a change of paradigms from seeing the world as a machine to understanding it as a network, or rather as networks within networks — biological, ecological, and social networks. Wherever we see life, we see networks. Now, a network, as everybody knows, is a particular pattern of links, of relationships. So, to understand networks, we need to learn how to think in terms of relationships. This is what “systems thinking,” or “systemic thinking” is all about: thinking in terms of relationships, patterns, and context.
This kind of thinking is also crucial to solve our major world problems, because none of these problems — energy, the environment, climate change, economic inequality, violence and war — none of them can be understood in isolation. They are systemic problems, which means that they are all interconnected and interdependent. They require corresponding systemic solutions, solutions that do not solve any problem in isolation but deal with it within the context of other related problems. Hundreds of these systemic solutions are being developed today all over the world. To recognize and implement them, the ability to think systemically is crucial.
PP: We feel that one of the unintended consequences of protectionism is that, rather than bring jobs back home it will force further investment into automation and the internet of things. It seems to us that the conjoining of the web, objects, processes and networks and people’s ability to relate to them in new ways accelerates innovation. How is it harnessed for good rather than pushing the trends that have seen a lurch to the right as the social contract in the West is disrupted? How do you see this in industry v health for instance?
You are right, the Internet, and the information technology revolution in general, have brought the importance of social and technological networks to everybody’s attention. Globalization — with its great beneficial and also with its harmful aspects — would not have been possible without that technology. As with every technology, whether it’s beneficial or harmful is not a technical problem, but a problem of values, and therefore of politics. And it requires appropriate leadership.
PP: What kind of leadership?
I believe that leadership in today’s global, multi-faceted crisis requires two fundamental qualities: the ability to think systemically, and the possession of a “moral compass,” in the memorable words of Václav Havel. Unfortunately, most of our so-called “world leaders“ do not have these qualities. By refusing to adopt policies that would solve our global problems, they are leading the world toward global catastrophe.
PP: We haven’t been investing much in education, for instance a company like Pearson, as it struggles to digitise – what does a hybrid education look like and how can people be better self educated so that they can make more informed choices when social networks force them into echo chambers that reinforce points of view rather than engender curiosity?
As I mentioned at the beginning of our conversation, the great challenge of our time is to build and nurture sustainable communities, and to do so we first need to understand how nature sustains life. Over billions of years of evolution, the Earth’s ecosystems have evolved certain principles of organization to sustain the web of life. Knowledge of these principles of organization, or principles of ecology — also known as “ecological literacy,” or “ecoliteracy” — is crucial for designing sustainable human communities.
In the coming decades the survival of humanity will depend on our ecological literacy — our ability to understand the basic principles of ecology and to live accordingly. This means that ecoliteracy must become a critical skill for politicians, business leaders, and professionals in all spheres, and should be the most important part of education at all levels — from primary and secondary schools to colleges, universities, and the continuing education and training of professionals.
PP: Can you give us some examples of these basic principles of ecology?
Sure. “Waste equals food“ is a basic principles of ecology. It means that in an ecosystem one species’ waste is another species’ food, so that matter cycles continually through the system. Other examples would be that the energy driving the ecological cycles flows from the sun; that diversity assures resilience; and — perhaps most importantly — that life, from its beginning more than three billion years ago, did not take over the planet by combat but by partnerships and networking.
PP: Economics seems to be fostering a cycle of addiction, ignorance and relative poverty …. how can economics foster a cycle of education, development and prosperity?
I am glad you asked this question. It points to the fundamental dilemma that seems to underlie all our systemic global problems: the illusion that unlimited growth is possible on a finite planet. This irrational belief in perpetual economic growth, held by virtually all economists and political leaders, amounts to a clash between linear thinking and the nonlinear patterns in our biosphere — the ecological networks and cycles that constitute the web of life. This highly nonlinear global network contains countless feedback loops through which the planet balances and regulates itself. Our current economic system, by contrast, is fueled by materialism and greed that do not seem to recognize any limits.
Economic and corporate growth are the driving forces of global capitalism, the dominant economic system today. In this economic system, perpetual growth is pursued relentlessly by promoting excessive consumption and a throw-away economy that is energy and resource intensive, generating waste and pollution, depleting the Earth’s natural resources, and increasing world poverty. Moreover, these problems are exacerbated by global climate change, caused by our energy-intensive and fossil-fuel-based technologies.
It seems, then, that our key challenge is how to shift from an economic system based on the notion of unlimited growth to one that is both ecologically sustainable and socially just. “No growth” is not the answer. Growth is a central characteristic of all life; a society, or economy, that does not grow will die sooner or later. Growth in nature, however, is not linear and unlimited. While certain parts of organisms, or ecosystems, grow, others decline, releasing and recycling their components which become resources for new growth.
This kind of balanced, multi-faceted growth is well known to biologists and ecologists. I call it “qualitative growth” to contrast it with the concept of quantitative growth, measured in terms of the undifferentiated index of the Gross Domestic Product, or GDP, used by today’s economists. In fact, most of what is called “growth” today is waste, which means that we have an economics of largely waste and destruction. Qualitative growth, by contrast, is growth that enhances the quality of life through generation and regeneration.
All views expressed by Paul Pizzala in this interview are his own and do not necessarily represent those of WHEB Asset Management.
Registration is now open for Capra Course and the online course starts on 1st March. Enrollments are strictly limited to allow Fritjof the maximum amount of time with each person participating. For more information please see www.capracourse.net.
If you are thinking about joining us or taking part in any way, you may be interested to hear what the most recent alumni had to say about their experiences in this article: What Do People Say About Fritjof Capra’s Capra Course?