Capra’s Hidden Connections

Fritjof Capra The Hidden Connections: A Science for Sustainable Living HarperCollins 2002


In the future, this strict division [between the material and social] will no longer be possible, because the key challenge of this new century – for social scientists, natural scientists and everyone else – will be to build ecologically sustainable communities, designed in such a way that their technologies and social institutions – their material and social structures – do not interfere with nature’s inherent ability to sustain life. (xv)

Part 1: Life, Mind and Society

3. Social Reality

Meaning – the Fourth Perspective

Being able to hold mental images of material objects and events seems to be a fundamental condition for the emergence of key characteristics of social life. Conflicts of interest, based on different values, are at the origins of the relationships of power … . Our intentions, awareness of purposes and designs and strategies to reach identified goals all require the projection of mental images into the future. (63/4)

[Culture] is created and sustained and sustained by a network (form) of communications (process), in which meaning is generated. (65)

Social Theory

Social thought … was greatly influenced by positivism … . Its assertions include the insistence that the social sciences should search for general laws of human behaviour, an emphasis on quantification and the rejection of explanations in terms of subjective phenomena, such as intentions or purposes. (65)

The Dynamics of Culture

Our ability to hold mental images and project them into the future not only allows us to identify goals and purposes and develop strategies and designs, but also enable us to choose among several alternatives and hence to formulate values and social rules of behaviour. All of these social phenomena are generated by networks of communication as a consequence of the dual role of human communication. On the one hand, the network continually generates mental images, thoughts and meaning; on the other hand, it continually co-ordinates the behaviour of its members. From the complex dynamics and interdependence of these processes emerges the integrated system of values, beliefs and rules of conduct that we associate with the phenomenon of culture. (74/75)

The Origin of Power

Coercive power wins submission by inflicting or threatening sanctions; compensatory power by offering incentives or rewards; and conditioned power by changing beliefs through persuasion or education.

Part 2: The Challenges of the Twenty-First Century

4. Life and Leadership in Organizations

Metaphors in Management

[It] is evident why a management style guided by the machine metaphor will have problems with organizational change. The need to have all changes designed by management and imposed upon the organization tends to generate organizational rigidity. There is no room for flexible adaptations, learning and evolution in the machine metaphor, and it is clear that that organizations managed in strictly mechanistic ways cannot survive ion today’s complex, knowledge-oriented and rapidly changing business environment. (91)

The emergence of Novelty

The phenomenon of emergence takes place at critical points of instability  that arise from fluctuations inj the environment, amplified by feedback loops.

[There] must be a certain openness within the organization, a willingness to be disturbed, in order top set the process in motion; and there has to be an active network of communications with multiple feedback loops to amplify the triggering event. The next stage is the point of instability, which may be experienced as tension, chaos, uncertainty or crisis. At this stage, the system may either break down, or it may break through to a new state of order, which is characterized by novelty and involves an experience of creativity that often feels like magic. (102)

Emergence and Design

The issue is not one of discarding designed structures in favour of emergent ones. We need both. (106)

Two Kinds of Leadership

Facilitating emergence includes creating that openness – a learning culture in which continual questioning is encouraged and innovation rewarded. Organizations with such a culture value diversity and … ‘tolerate activities in the margin: experiments and eccentricities that stretch their understanding’. (107)

5. The Networks of Global Capitalism

Understanding Globalization

[Before] attempting to reshape globalization, we need to understand the deep systemic roots of the world that is now emerging. ‘I propose that the hypothesis … that all major trends of change constituting our new, confusing world are related, and that we can make sense of their interrelationship. And … in spite of a long tradition of sometimes tragic intellectual errors, that observing, analysing and theorizing is a way of helping to build a different, better world. (114)

Complexity and Turbulence

The new economy … does not display … stability … . [The] system as a whole is spinning out of control. [We] need to design and implement regulatory mechanisms .. . (122/3)

The Social Impact

Global capitalism has increased poverty and inequality not only by transforming the relationship between capital and labour, but also through a process of ‘social exclusion’ … . (126)

The Ecological Impact

One of the tenets of neo-liberalism is that poor countries should concentrate on producing a few special goods for export … . (128)

The Transformation of Power

The rise of the network society has gone hand in hand with the decline of the nation state as a sovereign entity. (130)

6. Biotechnology at a Turing Point

This notes the important of the ability to adapt mutability (e.g., learning) to the situation.

Problems with the Central Dogma

The ‘central dogma’ is that organisms are programmed by their genes.

[Cells] maintain multiple pathways for the production of essential cellular structures and the support of essential metabolic processes. This redundancy ensures not only the remarkable stability of biological development but also great flexibility and adaptability to unexpected environmental change. … It seems that life has evolved ample diversity and redundancy at all levels of complexity. (152)

Changing the Game

Ecoliteracy and Ecodesign

[The] first step in our endeavour to build sustainable communities must be to become ‘ecologically literate’, i.e. to understand the principles of organization, common to all living systems, that ecosystems have evolved to sustain the web of life. [Living] systems are self-generating networks, organizationally closed within boundaries but open to continual flows of energy and matter. …[There] are six principles that are critical to sustaining life: networks, cycles, solar energy, partnership, diversity and dynamic balance.

[Ecological literacy , or ‘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 … . (201)

Capra recommends that

  • Development aims at forming clusters, minimising long-range imports and exports. (205)
  • Taxes are gradually shifted to become ‘taxes on unsustainable behaviours, such as waste’ (226)

Epilogue: Making Sense

Capra re-emphasises his conceptual framework: form, matter, process, meaning. (228) He puts additional emphasis on the need for a yin-yang style balance, balancing object-based and relational thinking. (231)


Capra provides a good general view of the concepts that will be needed to support sustainability, while leaving it to others to discuss how urgent this issue is. An optimist might accept the bulk of the thesis, but still retain an unconditional belief on the power of technologies within a free market to put off the day of reckoning for another generation. Capra’s optimism, like Wheatley‘s, is that if one embraces change what emerges will be acceptable, or at least better than the alternative.

Capra puts complexity theory at the heart of the concepts needed to support sustainability, but he mainly draws on US theory post 1980. I think it helpful to draw attention to:

  • Smut’s Holism, which is very similar to the Capra’s holism and which informed scientific thinking of the 1930s, including biology and ecology.
  • Whitehead’s emergence, which underpinned Smuts’ Holism and which seems very like Capra’s concept of emergence.
  • Russell’s brand of positivism which, purged of illogicality, avoids the substance of Capra’s critique and even becomes helpful.
  • Logical concerns about object-based maps, and the need for balance between object-based and relationally-based views.
  • Turing’s notion of critical instabilities, which are very like Capra’s.

For example, Capra repeatedly describes how people act on mental images of possible futures. This may be psychologically accurate of most people, particularly in a social or organizational context. Yet my own view, as evidenced on this blog, is that we should always be aware that our images’ relationship to reality is uncertain, and act accordingly.


Dave Marsay


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