Systems View of Life with Fritjof Capra

It is my great pleasure to welcome Fritjof Capra, my dear friend and teacher, to the Sense-making in a Changing World podcast. Together with my 14yo daughter, Maia and 12yo Eve (founders of Permayouth), we explore the systems view of life and the links with permaculture.

I first met Fritjof in 1992 when he was teaching a residential course at Schumacher College and interviewed him for my first short film, Think Global: Eat Local – a Diet for a Sustainable Society in 2005.

Download this list of 10 of Morag’s favourite books.

Morag’s 4 part introduction to permaculture video series.

Fritjof Capra, Ph.D., is a scientist, educator, activist, and author of many international bestsellers that connect conceptual changes in science with broader changes in worldview and values in society. The main focus of his environmental education and activism has been to help build and nurture sustainable communities.

Throughout our conversation, we talk about Fritjof’s early career as a Physicist, and his journey to becoming the writer, environmental educator, and activist that he is today. This is a different episode to my usual podcast, and I find that the melding of Fritjof, a physicist, and two young Permayouth, it makes for a very enjoyable and unique listen/watch.

Watch the full conversation here

Download and listen to the Podcast by clicking here.

A bit about Fritjof Capra

Fritjof’s first book published in 1975, The Tao of Physics, was incredibly popular. It was published in 1975, however, it is still in print in more than 40 editions worldwide. In this book he explored the ways in which modern physics was changing our worldview from a mechanistic to a holistic and ecological one.

His most recent book, The Systems View of Life, presents a grand new synthesis of this work—integrating the biological, cognitive, social, & ecological dimensions of life into one unified vision. He offers a course based on this book, called the Capra Course.

Fritjof’s other books include The Turning Point (1982), The Web of Life (1996), The Hidden Connections (2002), The Science of Leonardo (2007), Learning from Leonardo (2013), and Belonging to the Universe (1991).

Fritjof also co-wrote the screenplay for the feature film, Mindwalk (1990). Fritjof is a founding director of the Center for Ecoliteracy, a Fellow of Schumacher College, and serves on the Council of the Earth Charter Initiative.

He also created a short film about the SDGs, ‘To the Heart of the Matter‘.


Read the Full Transcript

Morag: So welcome to the sense-making in a Changing World podcast. It’s my great pleasure today to introduce a dear friend of mine Fritjof Capra. So it’s really after um inviting you here with these young women from the Permayouth, Maia my daughter and Eve to really talk about some of the questions that will help them to make sense of what’s going on and to to share the insights that you have from a systems perspective and we’re going to be talking a little bit later on as we move forward about your book  The System View of Life and so we’re working with Maia and the Permayouth too to find a way to access that material for them and to really uncover a sense of eco-literacy and eco-design and a deeper understanding of the world. Both of these girls are homeschooled and have brilliant minds and so it’s really wonderful to be able to join you together. A typical thing that we do in Australia is a welcome to country – It’s a acknowledgement of indigenous community.

Maia: So I acknowledge the traditional owners of the land on which we each respectively meet and belong to. And for me it’s the Gubbi Gubbi land which was never seeded. I also pay my respects to the leaders past, present, and emerging.

Morag: Yeah thanks Maia.

Fritjof: Well it’s a great pleasure to join you in this experiment. I should say because I’ve never had a sustained conversation with young people and i’m very happy to do it with you Morag. You are by far my most brilliant student so I’m very happy to pass that on to the next generation with your help and I really look forward to this conversation.

Eve: It’s a pleasure to meet you and the first question I have to ask you is could you tell us a little bit about yourself and what you do.

Fritjof: Yes pleasure to meet you Eve and Maia, too. Well I am a scientist and writer and I’m also an environmental educator and activist. I didn’t start out like this obviously – I started out as a Physicist, I was trained in Physics and got my PhD in Austria. I’m Austrian so at the University of Vienna. I got my PhD in the same time I became interested in eastern philosophy in the spiritual traditions of Hinduism and Buddhism and Taoism and almost immediately I saw significant parallels between the world view presented by these eastern spiritual teachers and the worldview that emerged in modern physics and so ten years later I published a book called the Tao of Physics and I got a copy here so you can see it. It has a meditating Buddha and then it has these tracks of subatomic particles from Physics laboratories and so I explored the parallels between uh you know modern physics and eastern mysticism and this book was tremendously successful more successful than I had ever dreamed or imagined and so as a consequence I was invited to give lectures and seminars to all kinds of audiences beginning in London where I lived at the time and then all over the world and I talked to professionals of all walks of life and many of them told me that this change of paradigms as it was called from a mechanistic view to a holistic and what I call an ecological view was not only happening in physics but in many other fields and so I explored these other fields and spent the next 30 years designing a grand synthesis of this new paradigm which I call The Systems View of Life and that’s the title of my latest book which is a textbook published by Cambridge University press and it’s called The Systems View of Life.

So that’s briefly what I have been doing I have been teaching this Systems View of Life lives at Schumacher college. I now teach it in an online course called Capra course which I’ve you know held for years now and I have a network of alumni around the world with 1500 or more and so my activity is you know writing researching teaching and you know helping to you know create a better world the more sustainable future..So that’s what I do.

Morag: And, thanks for doing that because that’s inspired I mean it certainly inspired our family and I know so many and it’s inspired Permaculture. The underpinning work that you’ve done is very much the foundation of the thinking and the philosophy behind things like Permaculture I see them as an applied systems thinking.

Fritjof: And that’s really an Australian connection right – Permaculture started in Australia right.

Maia: So how would you describe the new paradigm and how you how would you suggest that we transition to that

Fritjof: Well that’s really two questions so let’s split that into two questions okay and I’ll talk about the first uh well this uh change from mechanistic world view to a holistic or systemic view uh to sum it up in a nutshell in a single sentence it’s really a change a very fundamental change of metaphors from seeing the world as a machine to understanding it as a network. We have learned in quantum physics that the material world at the very small level of atoms and subatomic particles is not a world of separate objects but rather a work a world of patterns of relationships and network of relationships and that’s true not only for atomic physics but it’s true for life in in general ecologists speak of food webs which are networks of feeding relationships and then biologists say that tell us that a cell is a network of molecules a network of chemical processes so one of the most important discoveries of 20th century science has been that the network is the basic pattern of organization of all living system. So this is essentially what the new paradigm is to think about the world in terms of networks and let me just mention one consequence which is maybe uh the most important consequence of this shift from the machine to the network and that is when you think of the major problems of our time: energy, environment, economic inequality, violence and war, the climate emergency, now the COVID pandemic. What you realize very soon is that none of these problems can be solved in isolation they’re all interconnected and interdependent in fact Eve mentioned that in one of the introduction to one of the questions she sent in so these are systemic problems interconnected and interdependent.

Maia: How would you suggest we transition?

Fritjof: Well I think what we need to do is we need to educate ourselves and uh you know that there are many ways we we can transition and we have to transition but if you ask me the answer will always be education and in order to transition there’s even an organization called a transition network which you may know started with a transition down movement and then morphed into transition network there’s also a field of design a new field called transition design and there are literally hundreds of these organizations and so the question is no longer where do we start how do we transition but which organization do we join.

Morag: Yeah the transition movement is a really positive one and interestingly the transition town movement emerged out of directly out of permaculture because one of the projects of the course Rob Hopkins was running a permaculture course in Ireland and the project he set for his students was to look more broadly at how permaculture could be applied to changing the way that their  town was in terms of getting ecological features getting ecological livelihoods and really thinking more broadly and so they came up with this this plan this transition plan and so from that point the transition movement sort of emerged out of permaculture and went into that broader thinking but very much has its roots in that and I had a recent conversation with Rob about permaculture and transition town yeah

Fritjof: You know I have many connections with permaculture uh many of my students in the Capra course are you know practitioners of permaculture and one is an editor of magazine permaculture magazine and what I noticed from my conversations with them is that the term permaculture has evolved over time from the meaning of culture in agriculture to the meaning of culture in a more general way this is very interesting and of course you with your new permayouth movement are sort of the latest branch in this in this evolution I find this really interesting it’s a it’s a very creative field with that field of Permaculture.

Eve: So I have read that you have said the human observer constitute the final link in the chain of observational processes and the properties of any atomic object can be understood only in terms of the object’s interaction with the observer from a permaculture viewpoint principle one is observe and interact. Do you see this as one of the same..?

Fritjof: Yeah I must say that is an amazing question from a 12 year old – I’m really impressed.

Morag: I surround myself with wonderful young people I have to say.

Fritjof:  And it’s a really interesting question and the answer is uh that it’s not the same there’s a difference and and this difference leads us right into the heart of quantum theory. When you look at a field a permaculture field or anything else..The process of observation does not influence what you are observing. So the field is just there and the plants grow and you observe them growing and then you interact. So, first you observe and then to interact. Well when you observe an atom it’s very different because an atom of course is so small that you can’t see it so imagine our whole planet earth tightly packed with cherries that are the magnified image of the orange. Atoms.. there’s no way we can see them. So in order how do we observe them? Well to shine light on an atom means to bombard it with photons which are the particles of light which changes the structure of the atoms. So the very act of observation is always already an interaction.

Eve: The concept of regenerative gardening has evolved from a combination of sustainable/regenerative agriculture and agro ecology and growth forestry and sustainable gardening using permaculture ethics. Some people say that the place to be in gardening is no longer just in sustainability it’s being regenerative. Do you feel that this is a true statement and do you have any thoughts on the benefits of the regenerative gardening and farming.

Fritjof:  Yeah again this is a fantastic question and a very important one and I have the same experience here in California people more and more says ah sustainability that’s such an outdated word and what we need really need is regenerative agriculture and the regenerative economics and so on. Now I must tell you that i really like the term regenerative because it’s very evocative it is immediately understandable whereas sustainability is not immediately understandable but to say that as some people do that to talk about sustainable agriculture is really wrong we should talk about regenerative agriculture uh that’s sort of a an erroneous perception that sustainability means to sustain what we have to sustain the status quo and if you understand life from a system’s point of view you can easily see that regeneration is an essential property of life but you know what I do when I talk about sustainability and now you both and I say you know we need a sustainable regenerative agriculture or you know sustainable regenerative economics or healthcare system and so on so you I use both terms because i really like the term regenerative but that’s this does not deny the nature of sustainability.

Morag: I think that’s a really great response because it has created a little bit of feel friction somewhere in the conversations that happen and really at this point we can’t behaving that kind of conversation which diminishes what we’re doing we really need the conversation that brings all of that work together so that we can move forward with more strength than to help get the political will behind the movement.

Maia: How can we shift from rational linear thinking to ecological non-linear thinking?

Fritjof:  well there are speaking as a scientist and mathematician you know there are there’s a non-linear mathematics many kind of non-linearity but what we what we mean and what I understand that you mean in your question is the kind of non-linear thinking that is thinking in terms of networks because this is the main shift in the emergence of the new paradigm shift from the machine to the network so for example uh why is organically growing grown food more expensive than industrially grown food if you go to a supermarket you will see at least here in California there are sections of organically grown food fortunately they get larger and larger and in more and more markets but they are more expensive than the industrially grown food. now it doesn’t really make sense because organically grown food has fewer energy inputs and has fewer chemical inputs is actually no chemical inputs and it is locally grown so fewer transportation costs so it should be cheaper not more expensive. So this is how you train yourself you practice systemic thinking by always asking how are things connected to other things and you know what’s behind it all. It’s not easy to do but it is it’s something that I do I have done for a very long time another technique is to  draw conceptual maps which are also called mind maps where you put concepts and ideas on a piece of paper and then interconnect them with lines that’s Avery good technique also to practice this non-linear thinking but it’s not easy.

Morag: We’ve been practicing lately too with warm data conversations. So using Nora Bateson’s kind of approach.. that’s been really getting that sort of transcontextual understanding of ideas. So we’ve been using that as a way to have conversations with teens around the world which has-been a great  fun process too.

Fritjof: Let me ask you something uh both Maia and Eve. You know you belong to a generation who has grown up with social media. I don’t know how old you were when you first used them but you live in this world of social networks. I mean you are very aware of being connected to networks in your everyday lives every time you pick up your phone.. I don’t know how much you use your phone but every time you pick it up you’re connected to a network. Now it would seem that you would find it easier to think in terms of networks because of this experience and I wonder whether that’s true i mean it’s probably difficult for you to compare your thinking to that of others who haven’t grown up in networks like myself but do you can you say anything about that or Morag can you.. about you know interacting with this young generation and and uh communicating with them.

Morag:  I’ll let Maia and Eve answer first and then maybe I can respond..

Maia: I don’t really use social media that much but for what yeah but from what I do  it’s actually I think for me it’s less network because it’s very one-dimensional like there’s no you can’t see their faces and it’s just the words on a page usually like messaging apps and stuff social media like it’s very hard to tell what people mean as well because you know there’s no gestures there’s no eye contact

Morag: How about you Eve do you use social media at all?

Eve: l do quite a lot because I use Skype to connect with friends who don’t live in my vicinity but I get like when youjust message you don’t you’re not so much connected to them because you can’t see their body language and what they they’re meaning because you could easily misunderstand what they mean by.

Fritjof: That’s very interesting so it is a network.. the social media then is a network that extends farther than your personal face-to-face network of people but it’s impoverished at the same time that’s what you’re telling us.

Morag: But the thing where we are finding a  level of richness and never quite the same as being face to faces through using this zoom and the permayouth connects via zoom and like I was saying before we have people from Zanzibar and Sweden, Thailand, Philippines, UK,  Germany… even the kids the permayouth kids from refugee camps in Uganda join in sometimes as well and so we have this much broader sense of I guess our place in the world and our reach and our capacity to change and to learn and to and our friendships our understanding of different cultures and languages and needs and what’s happening in the world for example having a deeper context different understanding of the context of the refugees for example that you know we just learned the other week that their rations have been cut by half and so we so we’re now supporting them directly through helping them to access materials to do urgent kitchen gardens and so these relationships form by having these networks over social media but particularly when there’s this there’s more texture to it like this visual like we can create more of a relationship when we have more of that warm data

Fritjof: Yeah yeah interesting

Maia: I mean we’re just talking about how webelong online and stuff that kind of related to my questionabout what does it mean to belong.

Fritoj: Yes uh I think in my view to belong means to be a member of the community. Now in our daily lives we all belong to several communities maybe to many communities but all of us share two communities to which we belong to large communities we are all members of humanity and we belong to the biosphere the community of life..and as such we should behave in a certain way that shows that we belong to these communities. To belong to humanity means that we should respect human rights and human dignity and to belong to the biosphere to the community of life means that we should respect ecological sustainability.. and in both cases the behavior is for the common good which is what is also known as ethical behavior.

Morag: One of the things i just wanted to mention about that too that we in the permayouth we have quite a lot of conversations around ethics because the core part of permaculture is this set of three ethics which is earth care, people care and fair share and so that’s you know obviously earth care caring for the planetary systems, caring for the ecological, the biosphere, people care caring for ourselves, for family for others and fairs hare is really looking at  that question of well how can we live within a certain means so that or diminish the footprint that we have so that it leaves enough space and resources for other people for other cultures other communities and also the community of life and so these three ethics are the foundation of then the set of principles of design which are based on the the  principles of ecology and then applying that into how we design human systems flow through that..

Fritjof: Well this is really interesting to me because I just said a minute ago that the two communities to which belong we belong imply a respect of human dignity human rights and sustainability and you can associate sustainability with earth care and human dignity with people care and human rights and fair share.

Morag: Absolutely yeah yeah it fits beautifully yeah

Eve: Abundance is one of my favorite words. From my 12-year-old point of view I see that the major problems of our time is climate change, food security, replenishing soils to sequester carbon out of the atmosphere and producing enough energy. I see these problems as interconnected. In our permaculture garden at home with my family we are trying to tackle all these problems systemically independently, as a whole. Do you think we I say we as global citizens can tackle these problems using interconnectivity on a large scale.

Fritjof: Yes well I totally agree with you what you say about the interconnectedness of the problem that’s what I mentioned before in the in the beginning that the major problems of our time are systemic problems which means that they’re all interconnected and interdependent and  you know the important thing to realize is they cannot be solved in isolation which means that systemic problems require corresponding systemic solutions. Meaning solutions that look at every problem in terms of how it’s connected to other problems that solve a particular problem within the context of other problems..and this means that typically systemic solutions solve several problems at the same time. I come to the conclusion that today we have the knowledge, the technologies, and the financial means to move toward a sustainable future..what we need is political will and leadership that’s that’s all we need.

Morag: There was a quote from your book I think it was from the very early pages of your textbook that that you’re saying that there are solutions to the major problems of our time and some even simple. I think you know it’s actually we to not overcomplicate things but actually to see where there’s some very simple straightforward solutions that we already have and that and that you go on to say but they require a radical shift in our perceptions our thinking and our values and then that leads into really that I guess that then shapes our will doesn’t it if we perceive our relationship differently if we understand we have a different set of values we make different decisions and we lead from a different position.

Fritjof: Yes and you know if we realize and really experience that we are connected to the entire community of lives then we also realize what we do to the community of life we do to ourselves and therefore just uh from a value of self-preservation and you know growth and development uh we would take care or you know be responsible in our actions uh to what the community of clients.

Maia: How important is shifting cultural norms and expectations with how we interact with the world and how can we amplify these changes that are happening to meet the scale of the crisis and also is this the right question to be asking?

Fritjof: Yes absolutely this is a very important question and you know we have talked about community, we have talked about networks , we have talked about interconnecting networks as you do in the permayouth movement and and I think that’s the answer that’s what we have to do. We have to educate ourselves, we have to educate others, and we have to interconnect our networks.

Eve: With all of nature’s complexities and abundance do you think we as a whole work with nature and come together to respect what nature can teach us?

Fritjof: Well, I think it should be clear now from our conversation that working with nature is our only chance if we want to survive as a human civilization we have to change our ways you know dramatically and work with nature rather than you know trying to dominate her and control her and I want to mention something to you which i don’t know whether you know I subscribe to an online journal which is called The Optimist Daily. Have you heard about that? Google The Optimist Daily and as the name says it comes out daily and it has daily good news of sustainable solutions. It’s really fabulous. The examples mentioned were taken from this magazine. I read it every day and then I take excerpts and it’s it’s really fantastic.

Morag: Amazing wonderful thank you for that link we were just talking the other day about how we need to have more good news stories..

Maia: So we have a society that doesn’t particularly like death but how do we embrace it in an ecological systems approach.

Fritjof: Yeah that’s also a really interesting question I think I have a really interesting answer for you so when you and I relate it  to what we talked about when we talked about regeneration. So, remember that the very essence of life is to regenerate itself but for the individual cells if we move to the level of cells, that regeneration is a cycle of life and death right? So the cells die continually and are reborn continually so that, at a higher level, the organism continues to live. You know the fact that we are born and live and get old and die is regenerative for society, for humanity as a whole, and ultimately for the community of life. So that’s the positive view of life and death.

Maia: How can we help balance the yin and yang?

Fritjof: Yeah that also is the question actually I loved it and when you sent this to me I didn’t know what to say initially. I had to meditate it a little bit but then I came up with something which is really a new idea that I haven’t had before and I’m very grateful to you for asking the question because it led me to something new so in my understanding of these Chinese terms which are very important in Chinese philosophy. The yang describes qualities of expansion of competition of extraction and as an umbrella term you can call them qualities of self-assertion. So in order to practice our integrative qualities uh we can do that by enhancing the importance of community so thank you again for the question great question.

Eve: What do you think we need to change to be able to tackle the major problems of our time.

Fritjof: I think we really have talked about that this is really sort of a summary question I think we need to change our thinking and to change our values. But fortunately we have a magnificent document that has done that lay out the values of you know respect of human dignity, human rights, ecological sustainability and that’s the earth charter I don’t know whether you are familiar with the earth charter but it’s a fantastic document that was created about 20 years ago in a very unique process of global collaboration of many many organizations individuals and communities and the earth charter is a declaration of 16 ethical principles and values to create a world that is sustainable, just, and peaceful. That’s how they describe it and I recommend it very highly and and this would bee very good working document for you guys for you know exploring ethics and values.

Morag: Fantastic! We will do that. That’s great. We have a weekly newsletter that goes out we’ve been exploring each of the ethics and the principles of permaculture. We’ve just finished that so it’s perfect time to start exploring The Earth Charter. I wanted to ask you then  another set of goals I suppose is SDGs – The Sustainable Development Goals. So that’s come more recently. How do you feel that’s a really useful tool as a I guess is. I was talking to May East who I believe was one of the authors of it she was Maia and I met her recently from GAIA Education and she was saying that she sees the SDGs as a kind of a framework and that permaculture she’s seen around the world that it’s often kind of the pathway to implement the SDGs and I’m just wondering if you’d where does the SDGs sit in your thinking.

Fritjof: Well, I thought about them quite a lot last year because I got an invitation from the United Nations to produce a video about the SDGs and about the importance of systems thinking and the video is called the heart of the matter and so it has been seen by thousands of people and I’m actually somewhat surprised that you haven’t seen it yet. So my main point is that since as I said before since the major problems of the world are all interconnected, the solutions need to be interconnected too. Therefore the SDGs need to be interconnected and they are conceptually but practically they are not. So the SDGs have their problems but it’s a good effort and they can be you know worked on.

Morag: I know that one always stands out to me is this glaring mismatch amongst the rest. That’s right. We will also share that video with that with the rest of the Permayouth I think, Eve and Maia, that would be a really great focal point for discussion. Fantastic.

Fritjof: Maybe you can create a new set of Perma SDGs you know.

Morag: That’s a great idea absolutely

Maia: How can we learn from intuitive wisdom of ancient traditions?

Fritjof: Well I mentioned at the beginning that you know in my life as a physicist I noticed a very striking parallels between modern physics and ancient east and wisdoms. So then I investigated those and wrote a book about them and so i think this is very fertile ground. Systemic thinking is not you know limited to science or to you know people in the networks we have talked about but many indigenous traditions embody a vision of the world in terms of relationships, in terms of networks there is a very famous phrase of Native American thinking which talks about nature in terms of all my relations. When you look at that from a science point of view you can take this literally because as Darwin has shown us all derive from a common living ancestor and so when we say that the plants and animals in our environment are our cousins that is literally true. Maybe you in Australia with the Permayouth movement you can do some pioneering work here because you have a very rich aboriginal traditions in Australia and so the question is are you in contact with them or do you plan to be in contact with them. I’m actually very curious about that.

Morag: We have an an elder here who came to our first camp and talked about indigenous culture Urunga and I’ve just met and connected with an amazing cultural ecologist, an indigenous woman from south of here who she has a PhD in indigenous seasons and plants and indigenous agriculture and so I’m just uh trying to work out a time to connecting with her so very much thinking about how we can connect with uh the local indigenous culture.

Fritjof: You know uh I have worked a lot in education and Morag knows that I’m the co-founder of an organization called center for eco-literacy..  promoting the idea of ecological literacy of knowing about ecology, the principles of ecology, and we have worked very closely for many years with a an indigenous so-called wisdom teacher a Canadian woman called Jeanette Armstrong who is an Okanagan member of the Okanagan Nation in British, Columbia and so we have worked a lot with her in developing teaching methods for the center for eco-literacy so this has been a very fruitful collaboration so I would encourage you to go in this direction..

Morag: Yes it’s it feels we’re just I think what we’re doing at the moment with permayouth is making connections building the relationships and just seeing what kind of emerges through those regenerative conversations and and following curiosities and opening up to new things and it’s really quite wonderful process and uh experience to be involved in. Well thank you so very much for taking the time to answer these questions and to and to you know explore new ideas and open up the into the world of systems thinking and really ground it in something that feels  really significant.

Fritjof: Thank you for inviting me and thank you Maia and Eve for your fabulous questions they were really inspiring and I hope I helped you to learn something I certainly did and let’s do it again sometime okay.

Morag: Alright. Thank you so much!