Monday, September 29, 2008

Sustaining the web of life

Sustaining the Web of Life


Biomimicry is the process of using natural biosystems as mentors, models and measures for human inventions. Janine M. Benyus, Biomimicry (Quill, 1997)

A natural biosystem:

Runs on current sunlight

Uses only the energy it needs

Fits form to function

Recycles everything

Rewards cooperation

Banks on diversity

Curbs excesses from within

Taps the power of limits

Learns from its context

Provides for future generations

Natural Capitalism

Paul Hawken, Amory Lovins, and Hunter Lovins in a book entitled Natural Capitalism (Little Brown & Company 1999) provide an application of natural principles to business. The four measures of natural capitalism are

1. Biomimicry (Nature as model, measure, and mentor) as described above.

2. Investing in Natural Capital or supporting ecosystems that are being destroyed like forests, wetlands, etc.

3. Service and Flow Economy – Changing from an emphasis on producing things to an emphasis on the services provided by those goods, e.g. transportation rather than trucks and autos

4. Radical Resource Productivity or increasing the productivity of available resources up to ten times through increased efficiency.

See the Natural Capitalism web site

Sustainable Designs

The Hannover Principles

• Insist on rights of humanity and nature to co-exist

• Recognize interdependence.

• Respect relationships between spirit and matter.

• Accept responsibility for the consequences of design decisions

• Create safe objects of long-term value.

• Eliminate the concept of waste.

• Rely on natural energy flows.

• Understand the limitations of design.

• Seek constant improvement by the sharing of knowledge.

For the full text of these principles developed by William McDonough see

Principles of Ecological Design

From Ecological Design by Sim Van der Ryn and Stuart Cowan (Island 1996)

1) Solutions grow from place-Ecological design begins with the intimate knowledge of a particular place. Therefore it is small-scale and direct, responsive to both local conditions and local people. If are sensitive to the nuances of place, we can inhabit without destroying.

2) Ecological accounting informs design- Trace the environmental impacts of existing or proposed designs. Use this information to determine the most ecologically sound design possibility.

3) Design with nature-By working with living processes, we respect the needs of all species while meeting our own. Engaging in processes that regenerate rather than deplete, we become more alive.

4) Everyone is a designer-Listen tot every voice in the design process. No one is a participant only or designer only. Everyone is a participant-designer. Honor the special knowledge that each person brings. As people work together to heal their places, they also heal themselves.

5) Make nature visible-De-natured environments ignore our need and our potential for learning. Making natural cycles and processes visible rings the designed environment back to life. Effective design helps inform us of our place within nature.

Guidelines for Sustainable Technologies

Different technologies can have vastly different effects on building or inhibiting sustainability. The following questions provide a guide for the sustainability index of a technology and its application. Technologies and applications with more answers yes than no tend to be more sustainable technologies.

Does the technology or its application:

1. Enhance community and foster dialogue?

2. Support diversity of people, cultures, and resources?

3. Encourage self-organization, creativity and local decision-making?

4. Utilize or increase the local knowledge base?

5. Increase focus on services needed and delivered rather than products?

6. Increase social equity?

7. Enhance awareness, interaction and interdependency of humans with the natural world?

8. Use less material from the crust of the earth and focus on renewable resources?

9. Maintain and enhance natural ecosystems?

10. Enhance efficient use of resources?

11. Avoid the use of toxic or persistent organic pollutants in its manufacture or use?

12. Utilize natural energy flows?

13. Enhance the use of resources from the local bioregion?

14. Avoid direct altering of internal information systems of organisms (DNA)?

15. Eliminate or recycle waste?

16. Create safe objects of long-term value?

17. Increase efficiency of energy flows?

18. Use natural organic models in its design?

19. Encourage reduced consumption of natural resources?

20. Increase the long-term economic viability of local communities?

21. Encourage full life-cycle ecological, economic and social accounting?

July 15, 2001

Sustainability Science

Sustainability science is a new multi-disciplinary approach to science that recognizes the limitations of traditional scientific inquiry in dealing with the complex reality of social institutions interacting with natural phenomena.

Statement of the Friibergh Workshop on Sustainability Science

Core Questions of Sustainability Science

Return to Precautionary Principle Developing Sustainability-Practical Applications

Holistic Management

Allan Savory with Jody Butterfield, Holistic Management (Island Press 1999)

Holistic management is a new framework for decision making on all levels that is based on resource management of the whole. It is a systemic approach, comprehensive in its inclusion of decision makers, the entire natural resource base and money. Savory developed the approach from his wide experience managing game lands in Africa and later, farming in New Mexico. Holistic Management considers the key role that animals play in renewing the land and on recognizing the nature and importance of four basic ecosystem processes: the water cycle, the mineral cycle, the energy cycle and community dynamics. Nothing can be managed apart from an understanding of the whole, the many communities of which it is a part. Establishing a holistic goal that includes quality of life, forms of production and the future resource base drives decision making.

Savory’s system includes eight tools for managing ecosystem processes: human creativity, technology, rest, fire grazing, animal impact, living organisms, and money and labor. Testing and management guidelines, planning procedures and a feedback loop assure constant monitoring of the success of decisions. Holistic Management is an important book for people who manage people, communities, land or money or anyone who cares about creating a sustainable future.

Savory’s Center for Holistic Management in Albuquerque, New Mexico, conducts seminars, publishes materials and has a web site,

The Precautionary Principle

in the Context of an Ecological Paradigm:

Some Questions and Values

The precautionary principle is widely used today as a guideline for environmental decision-making. Several international agreements incorporate versions of it in their texts. The most widely used description of the precautionary principle is found in Article 15 of the Rio declaration of 1992:

“In order to protect the environment, the precautionary approach shall be widely applied by States according to their capabilities. Where there are threats of serious or irreversible damage, lack of full scientific certainty shall not be used as a reason for postponing cost-effective measures to prevent environmental degradation.”

Another formulation of the principle was stated at Wingspread, headquarters of the Johnson Foundation, in January 1998, at a meeting of lawyers, scientists, policy makers and environmentalists:

“When an activity raises threats of harm to the environment or human health, precautionary measures should be taken even if some cause and effect relationships are not fully established scientifically.”

While the basic elements of these and other formulations of the precautionary principle are similar, there are some differences.

1) Both formulations have the phrase “protect the environment.” Wingspread adds human health. The Rio declaration also calls for “Measures to prevent environmental degradation.”

2) The Rio statement speaks of “threats of serious or irreversible damage” while Wingspread uses “threats of harm.”

3) Rio uses “full scientific certainty” while Wingspread uses “cause and effect relationships not established scientifically.”

4) Only Rio uses an economic descriptor, “cost-effective measures.”

5) Responsibility is that of states in the Rio declaration, while Wingspread does not state an actor but implies responsibility on the actor.

Any comprehensive look at the precautionary principle needs to set itself in the larger context of an ecological paradigm. The earth, as part of the universe, is one living system. It operates through the relationship of all its elements, which are constantly in flux, adjusting to different forces, self-organizing according to principles that have been operative since the beginning of the universe and which continue to drive it. Examining the meaning of precaution in this system necessarily raises many questions which can be considered under five headings: 1) Economics, 2) Definition of Life, 3) Systems Approach, 4) Harm, 5) Science and 6) Levels of Action.


1. Economic Issues

What should the role of economic issues be in deciding an action? If economic measures are used, what is the meaning of cost-benefit analysis? What is cost? How much cost is acceptable? Who bears the cost – the actor, the “victim”, the governing authority? What are the costs in terms of resources and possible resource degradation? Are environmental costs considered costs? If effects are irreversible, how are they measured in economic terms? How are social, economic, and environmental costs defined in cost-benefit analysis? What are the benefits? To whom? What is the appropriate role of the market?

Value: The role of economics as a belief system--Money as the ultimate value rather than a means of exchange, the domination of markets over other sectors of the economy

2) Definition of Life

A. Fritjof Capra in The Web of Life (Anchor 1996) formulates a new scientific understanding of life as pattern of organization, dissipative structure and the life process of cognition. What is the threat to the web of life anticipated in an action or product? Does the action interfere with the integrated cognitive processes of the nervous system, the endocrine system or the immune system which act as one cognitive system? If the pattern of organization is embodied in a fluid structure of community described as an ecosystem, how does the product or action affect that system?

B. Biological metaphors better describe the web of life than physical metaphors. Linear and mechanical approaches to problems or a physical approach to the universe are no longer adequate as descriptors. Cause and effect implies a linearity, whereas in the complex systems of the web of life, effects are the result of multiple interacting factors. In the genome DNA may be 95% used for integrative activities. What are the effects of an activity on the integrative activities of an organism or ecosystem?

C. If the environment is us and we are the environment, an understanding increasingly supported by new scientific descriptions of the universe and its history, can we separate humans and the environment for the convenience of simplicity? If we do so, what are the implications and consequences?

Value: Integrity of creation, earth as gaia or a unified living system - Just over 50% of Americans agree that the earth is one giant living organism according to an EPA survey summarized in The Cultural Creatives: How 50 Million People Are Changing the World, New York: Harmony Books, October, 2000, by Paul H. Ray, Ph.D.. and Sherry Ruth Anderson, Ph.D. How does an action affect this living system?

3) Systems Approach

A. In a systems or holistic approach, there are no side-effects, only effects, just as any consequence is a consequence whether intended or not. Ecosystems consist of many wholes, many systems that are mutually interactive with fluid boundaries. How does the activity affect the various wholes with which it interacts? How are different effects in different systems valued one against another?

B. In a complex system the nature of cause and effect is not linear or single. It involves an integrative understanding of multiple causes and multiple effects. What systems of feedback are we developing to assess these multiple consequences of an activity?


A. Responsibility for action - Who or what is responsible? How is that responsibility assumed or assigned?

B. Accountability of actors to communities – local, national, bioregional, international, ecological – How are measures of accountability defined and instituted?

C. Participation, democracy in decision-making, informed consent - Who makes what decisions? How are they affected by their decisions? How are others affected by their decisions? Who is excluded? How are decisions reviewed?

3) Harm

A. What are warning signs for ecosystem degradation and how does an activity accelerate or decrease degradation? Some typical indicators are Population Growth, Global Warming/ Climate Change, Stratospheric Ozone Depletion, Loss of Biological Diversity, Deforestation, Desertification and Land Degradation, Freshwater Loss and Degradation, Marine Environment and Resource Degradation , Effects of Persistent Organic Pollutants, and Gross Divergence in Income. What effect does an action have on any of these indicators?

B. What is the adequacy or inadequacy of risk assessment as a tool? Risk assessment is inherently reductionist and limited in its ability both to analyze a situation and to formulate responses, e.g. it is unable to describe adequately the combination of multiple chemicals in a situation. It is also a tool for predicting probability rather than actual effect. Risk assessment does not include asking those at risk if the risk is acceptable.

C. If the four principles of the Natural Step describe basic rules for the operation of the earth, how do they apply to a proposed activity? The four principles are:

TAKE The condition of naturally occurring materials

The earth is not sustainable if we continue to take from its crust stored deposits of materials at a faster rate than nature’s own cycles take and return those substances.

MAKE The condition of socially produced materials

The earth is not sustainable if we continue to make synthetic compounds and other materials at a faster rate than they can be broken down and integrated into natural cycles.

MAINTAIN The condition of ecosystem manipulation

The earth is not sustainable unless our actions maintain or renew natural ecological systems rather than systematically destroying them by overuse and misuse.

USE The socio-economic condition

The earth is not sustainable unless we use the natural resources we have to meet the basic needs of all people.

D. Four basic cycles operate in ecosystems: the water cycle, the mineral cycle, the energy cycle, and community dynamics. Each is a necessary part of the holistic functioning of the system. What is the effect of a proposed action on each of these cycles?

Value: Prevention of harm and to what? What is the definition and scope of harm? What degree of harm is acceptable? Who defines the degree of acceptability?

5) Science

What kind of science do we mean when using science to define the credibility or acceptability of an action and the analysis of it? Sound science is understood by environmentalists to be a political definition of science meaning “industry science.” The Heisenberg Principle in quantum physics is about uncertainty. Reductionist science is incapable of providing an adequate methodology for the complexity of the universe we are beginning to understand. The application of reductionist science in fields like genetic engineering increases perils. Sustainability science is a new endeavor that is combining many different disciplines to begin to understand the human-nature system. Its core questions provide an overview.

Value: The role of science as a belief system – How adequate is science, whatever its definition, to describe the problems we face and provide a basis for solutions?

6) Levels of Action

A. There are various levels of perceiving effects of an action and activities to counter that action. Some are personal, others are to restore damage to people or ecosystems. Others are institutional. Still others affect the transformation of an entire system. What level are we considering, both in defining the effects of an activity and in formulating a response to it -- personal, restorative, institutional reform, or transformation of the system? The latter level includes looking at the basic assumptions by which the system operates and challenging the paradigm.

B. If the world as we know it is, as some believe, in the process of changing paradigms from a modern industrial society to one that enhances its social information gathering processes to live in better accord with the earth, or to sustain the web of life, how does the proposed action accelerate or deny the process of paradigm change?

C. Where does responsibility for an activity lie? Nation state? Company? Individual? UN? Trade Association? Local community? How adequate are present governing authorities to deal with cross boundary effects? How do we facilitate cross boundary consultation and agreement? Chemicals, like any other matter, tend to disperse, not recognizing artificial political and institutional boundaries or natural boundaries.


A. Responsibility for action - Who or what is responsible? How is that responsibility assumed or assigned?

B. Accountability of actors to communities – local, national, bioregional, international, ecological – How are measures of accountability defined and instituted?

C. Participation, democracy in decision-making, informed consent - Who makes what decisions? How are they affected by their decisions? How are others affected by their decisions? Who is excluded? How are decisions reviewed?

To address the questions and values raised above a reformulation of the precautionary principle is necessary. I suggest:

In order to sustain the web of life and build living economies a holistic precautionary approach within a framework of public accountability shall be widely applied in decision-making. Where there are threats of serious or irreversible damage to the patterns, structures and cognitive systems of life, lack of knowledge through existing information gathering processes shall not be used to postpone measures to prevent harm.

Within any system, questions arise which cannot be answered in that system but need a larger system to provide the answer. All human systems, and therefore all processes of ethical decision—making, are ultimately part of the largest system, the universe. Relationship to the universe and its web of life is the ultimate value-creating entity. Nothing can avoid this judgment. The universe provides a model, a mentor and a measure for any actions that a precautionary principle would embrace.

J. Andy Smith III

Revised January 4, 2002

Ecological Economics

Robert Costanza, John Cumberland, Herman Daly, Robert Goodland, and Richard Norgard, An Introduction to Ecological Economics (St. Lucie Press 1997)

Humanity is at a tuning point where the activities of our species are so large that they are affecting the ecological life systems themselves. Economic growth needs to be rethought so that qualitative improvement without growth in resources occurs and the interrelatedness and interdependence of all aspects of life is recognized. We need to move from an economics that ignores interdependence to one that acknowledges and builds on it. To do this is to return to the classical roots of economics where economics and the other sciences were integrated. Ecological economics is an attempt to transcend narrow disciplinary boundaries to bring our full intellectual capital to bear on the huge problems we face. (Synopsis of review in The Future Survey Super Seventy: Best Books of 1996-2000, World Future Society, 2001)

Sunday, September 28, 2008

Green Wiki

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683 articles since March 2008


Project: Green Living, Tips For Living An Eco-friendly Lifestyle

From - Blog

Will the last person to leave please turn off the lights! That was the sarcastic headline by a right wing paper in Britain before the 1992 elections when a Labor party victory seemed imminent. It just goes to show you that in the west even sarcasm reminds you about conserving energy!

In this day and age of spiraling electricity costs what can we do to save energy and help the environment? There are simple things that can be done. Have you ever for example noticed how the older homes made in the 1950’s and earlier seem to be cooler in summers? That’s because the old architects understood the weather of the country they were building in, they were not trying to duplicate Spanish villas and American state houses in Pakistan. They understood that houses had to be designed to protect from heat in the summer and conserve it in winters. The focus was on good insulation and good ventilation. Our supposed “modern” architects could do to learn from those people who built houses with their minds and pieces of paper and not on pre prepared cd from the west!

In addition to design, it’s the common sense things that I first hinted at, which are the most important, switching of lights when you leave the room, switching computers and TV’s of and not leaving them on standby. Switching to low voltage bulbs and investing in switches that automatically power down after a length of time.

All these things may sound silly but it’s that discipline which saves people money and makes life more comfortable in the long run.

For more tips on living an eco-conscious lifestyle visit Project: Green Living.

Friday, September 26, 2008

Becoming a Unit of Peace Consciousness

International Day of Peace, September 21st is devoted to commemorating and strengthening the ideals of peace both within and among all nations and peoples.

Join the International Day of Peace - September 21

The United Nations' International Day of Peace - marked every year on September 21 - is a global holiday when individuals, communities, nations and governments highlight efforts to end conflict and promote peace.

Established by U.N. resolution in 1982, "Peace Day" has grown to include millions of people around the world who participate in all kinds of events, large and small.

The new resolution, a living instrument in the service of peace "declares that the International Day of Peace shall henceforth be observed as a day of global ceasefire and non-violence, an invitation to all nations and people to honour a cessation of hostilities for the duration of the invites all Member States, organizations of the United Nations system, and non-governmental organizations and individuals to commemorate, in an appropriate manner, the International Day of Peace, including through education and public awareness, and to cooperate with the United Nations in the establishment of the global ceasefire.”

Every year on the morning of International Day of Peace at United Nations Headquarters the Peace Bell is rung by the Secretary General of the UN. This bell was a gift by Japan. It is cast in coins donated by children on all continents, and considered a symbol of global solidarity to “reminder of the human cost of war.” The inscription reads: “Long live absolute world peace.”

UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon recently said: “Peace is one of humanity’s most precious needs. It is also the United Nations highest calling.”

Everyone is welcome to participate in and celebrate this global day by joining in peace with millions of people from around the world. Celebrations now take place in every country. l

Remember you can commemorate International Day of Peace in a personal way as well by spending time on September 21st to reflect and meditate on how to cultivate more peace in your life…both inner and outer peace…through peaceful thoughts, words and actions.

May Peace Prevail On Earth!

by Diane Williams


War is the plague that human beings bring upon themselves. It is also a plague we might be able to end. On any given day since you and I were born, some part of the world has been at war–in 2003 the total number of open conflicts was thirty. In the twentieth century at least 108 million people died in wars. Of the 20 largest military budgets on earth, 14 belong to developing countries. The United States spends more on its military than the next 16 countries combined.

That war is the major problem in the world is undeniable.
The need for a new idea is just as undeniable.
The new idea is to bring peace one person at a time until the world reaches a critical mass of peacemakers instead of warmakers.

“There is no way to peace. Peace is the way.” – AJ Muste

Why Ending War Hasn’t Worked

Peace movements have tried three ways for bringing war to an end:
Activism, the approach of putting political pressure on governments that wage war. Activism involves protests and public demonstrations, lobbying and political commitment. Almost every war creates some kind of peace movement opposed to it.
Why has it failed.
Because the protesters are not heard.
Because they are worn down by frustration and resistance.
Because they are far outnumbered by the war interests in society.
Because their idealism turns to anger and violence.
Activism has left us with the ironic picture of outraged peacemakers who wind up contributing to the total sum of violence in the world.

Humanitarianism, the approach of helping the victims of war. Bringing relief to victims is an act of kindness and compassion. As embodied by the International Red Cross, this effort is ongoing and attracts thousands of volunteers worldwide. Every nation on earth approves of humanitarianism.

Why has it failed?

Because humanitarians are wildly outnumbered by soldiers and warmakers.

Because of finances. The International Red Cross’s annual budget of $1.8 billion dollars is a tiny fraction of military budgets around the world.

Because the same countries that wage war also conduct humanitarian efforts, keeping the two activities very separate.

Because humanitarians show up on the scene after the war has already begun.

Personal transformation, the approach of ending war one person at a time. The prevailing idea is that war begins in each human heart and can only end there. The religious tradition of praying for peace is the closest most people will ever come to ending war in their own hearts. Most people have actually never heard of this approach.

Why has it failed?

Because nobody has really tried it.

“Can you be the change that you wish to see in the world?” – Mahatma Gandhi

Why War Ends With You

The approach of personal transformation is the idea of the future for ending war. It depends on the only advantage that people of peace have over warmakers: sheer numbers. If enough people in the world transformed themselves into peacemakers, war could end. The leading idea here is critical mass. It took a critical mass of human beings to embrace electricity and fossil fuels, to teach evolution and adopt every major religion. When the time is right and enough people participate, critical mass can change the world.
Can it end war?

There is precedent to believe that it might. The ancient Indian ideal of Ahimsa, or non-violence, gave Gandhi his guiding principle of reverence for life. In every spiritual tradition it is believed that peace must exist in one’s heart before it can exist in the outer world.

Personal transformation deserves chance.

“When a person is established in non-violence, those in his vicinity cease to feel hostility.” – Patanjali, ancient Indian sage

The Best Reason to Become a Peacemaker

If you transform yourself into a peacemaker, you won’t become an activist marching in the streets. You will not be “anti” anything. No money is required. All you are asked to do is to go within and dedicate yourself to peace.

It just might work.

Even if you don’t immediately see a decline in violence around the world, you will know in your heart that you have dedicated your own life to peace.

But the single best reason to become a peacemaker is that every other approach has failed.

We don't know what number the critical mass is--the best we can hope is to bring about change by personal transformation. Isn't it worth a few moments of your day to end 30 wars around the world and perhaps every future war that is certain to break out?

Seven Practices for Peace

The program for peacemakers asks you to follow a specific practice every day, each one centered on the theme of peace.

Sunday: Being for Peace

Monday: Thinking for Peace

Tuesday: Feeling for Peace

Wednesday: Speaking for Peace

Thursday: Acting for Peace

Friday: Creating for Peace

Saturday: Sharing for Peace

Our hope is that you will create peace on every level of your life. Each practice takes only a few minutes. You can be as private or outspoken as you wish. But those around you will know that you are for peace, not just through good intentions but by the way you conduct your life on a daily basis.

Being for Peace

Today, take 5 minutes to meditate for peace. Sit quietly with your eyes closed. Put your attention on your heart and inwardly repeat these four words: Peace, Harmony, Laughter, Love. Allow these words to radiate from your heart's stillness out into your body.

As you end your meditation, say to yourself, "Today I will relinquish all resentments and grievances." Bring into your mind anyone against whom you have a grievance and let it go. Send that person your forgiveness.

Thinking for Peace

Thinking has power when it is backed by intention. Today, introduce the intention of peace in your thoughts. Take a few moments of silence, then repeat this ancient prayer:

Let me be loved, let me be happy, let me be peaceful.

Let my friends be happy, loved, and peaceful.

Let my perceived enemies be happy, loved, and peaceful.

Let all beings be happy, loved, and peaceful.

Let the whole world experience these things.

Any time during the day if you are overshadowed by fear or anger, repeat these intentions. Use this prayer to get back on center.

Feeling for Peace

This is the day to experience the emotions of peace. The emotions of peace are compassion, understanding, and love.

Compassion is the feeling of shared suffering. When you feel someone else's suffering, there is the birth of understanding.

Understanding is the knowledge that suffering is shared by everyone. When you understand that you aren't alone in your suffering, there is the birth of love.

When there is love there is the opportunity for peace.

As your practice, observe a stranger some time during your day. Silently say to yourself, "This person is just like me.. Like me, this person has experienced joy and sorrow, despair and hope, fear and love. Like me, this person has people in his or her life who deeply care and love them. Like me, this person's life is impermanent and will one day end. This person's peace is as important as my peace. I want peace, harmony, laughter, and love in their life and the life of all beings."

Creating for Peace

Today, come up with at least one creative idea to resolve a conflict, either in your personal life or your family circle or among friends. If you can, try and create an idea that applies to your community, the nation, or the whole world.

You may change an old habit that isn't working, look at someone a new way, offer words you never offered before, or think of an activity that brings people together in good feeling and laughter.

Second, invite a family member or friend to come up with one creative idea of this kind on their own. Creativity feels best when you are the one thinking up the new idea or approach. Make it known that you accept and enjoy creativity. Be loose and easy. Let the ideas flow and try out anything that has appeal. The purpose here is to bond, because only when you bond with others can there be mutual trust. When you trust, there is no need for hidden hostility and suspicion, which are the two great enemies of peace.

Sharing for Peace

Today, share your practice of peacemaking with two people. Give them this information and invite them to begin the daily practice. As more of us participate in this sharing, our practice will expand into a critical mass.

Today joyfully celebrate your own peace consciousness with at least one other peace-conscious person. Connect either trough e-mail or phone.

Share your experience of growing peace.

Share your gratitude that someone else is as serious about peace as you are.

Share your ideas for helping the world move closer to critical mass.

Do whatever you can, in small or large ways, to assist anyone who wants to become a peacemaker.

by Deepak Chopra

Friday, September 19, 2008

The New Facts of Life

Connecting the Dots on Food, Health, and the Environment
By Fritjof Capra

Fritjof Capra is the bestselling author of The Tao of Physics, The Web of Life, and other books. A physicist best known for his work in systems thinking, Capra is also cofounder and chair of the board of the Center for Ecoliteracy.

A discussion of the interrelations between food, health, and the environment is extremely topical today. Rising food prices together with the price of oil and a series of so-called "natural" catastrophes dominate the news every day. At the same time, there is a lot of confusion. Why are world food prices increasing so quickly and dramatically? Why is world hunger rising again after a long steady decline? What do food prices have to do with the price of oil? Why is it so important to grow food locally and organically? In this brief talk, I shall try to show that a full understanding of these issues requires a new ecological understanding of life (a new "ecological literacy") as well as a new kind of "systemic" thinking – thinking in terms of relationships, patterns, and context.
Indeed, over the last 25 years, such a new understanding of life has emerged at the forefront of science. I want to illustrate this new understanding by asking the age-old question, what is life? What's the difference between a rock and a plant, animal, or microorganism? To understand the nature of life, it is not enough to understand DNA, proteins, and the other molecular structures that are the building blocks of living organisms, because these structures also exist in dead organisms, for example, in a dead piece of wood or bone.
The difference between a living organism and a dead organism lies in the basic process of life – in what sages and poets throughout the ages have called the "breath of life." In modern scientific language, this process of life is called "metabolism." It is the ceaseless flow of energy and matter through a network of chemical reactions, which enables a living organism to continually generate, repair, and perpetuate itself. In other words, metabolism involves the intake, digestion, and transformation of food.
Metabolism is the central characteristic of biological life. But understanding metabolism is not enough to understand life. When we study the structures, metabolic processes, and evolution of the myriads of species on the planet, we notice that the outstanding characteristic of our biosphere is that it has sustained life for billions of years. How does the Earth do that? How does nature sustain life?
Ecological literacyTo understand how nature sustains life, we need to move from biology to ecology, because sustained life is a property of an ecosystem rather than a single organism or species. 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, is what we mean by "ecological literacy."
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.
We need to teach our children, our students, and our corporate and political leaders, the fundamental facts of life – that one species' waste is another species' food; that matter cycles continually through the web of life; that the energy driving the ecological cycles flows from the sun; that diversity assures resilience; that life, from its beginning more than three billion years ago, did not take over the planet by combat but by networking.
All these principles of ecology are closely interrelated. They are just different aspects of a single fundamental pattern of organization that has enabled nature to sustain life for billions of years. In a nutshell: nature sustains life by creating and nurturing communities. No individual organism can exist in isolation. Animals depend on the photosynthesis of plants for their energy needs; plants depend on the carbon dioxide produced by animals, as well as on the nitrogen fixed by bacteria at their roots; and together plants, animals, and microorganisms regulate the entire biosphere and maintain the conditions conducive to life.
Sustainability, then, is not an individual property but a property of an entire web of relationships. It always involves a whole community. This is the profound lesson we need to learn from nature. The way to sustain life is to build and nurture community. A sustainable human community interacts with other communities – human and nonhuman – in ways that enable them to live and develop according to their nature. Sustainability does not mean that things do not change. It is a dynamic process of co-evolution rather than a static state.
Systems thinkingThe fact that ecological sustainability is a property of a web of relationships means that in order to understand it properly, in order to become ecologically literate, we need to learn how to think in terms of relationships, in terms of interconnections, patterns, context. In science, this type of thinking is known as systemic thinking or "systems thinking." It is crucial for understanding ecology, because ecology – derived from the Greek word oikos ("household") – is the science of relationships among the various members of the Earth Household.
Systems thinking emerged from a series of interdisciplinary dialogues among biologists, psychologists, and ecologists, in the 1920s and '30s. In all these fields, scientists realized that a living system – organism, ecosystem, or social system – is an integrated whole whose properties cannot be reduced to those of smaller parts. The "systemic" properties are properties of the whole, which none of its parts have. So, systems thinking involves a shift of perspective from the parts to the whole. The early systems thinkers coined the phrase, "The whole is more than the sum of its parts."
What exactly does this mean? In what sense is the whole more than the sum of its parts? The answer is: relationships. All the essential properties of a living system depend on the relationships among the system's components. Systems thinking means thinking in terms of relationships. Understanding life requires a shift of focus from objects to relationships.
For example, each species in an ecosystem helps to sustain the entire food web. If one species is decimated by some natural catastrophe, the ecosystem will still be resilient if there are other species that can fulfill similar functions. In other words, the stability of an ecosystem depends on its biodiversity, on the complexity of its network of relationships. This is how we can understand stability and resilience by understanding the relationships within the ecosystem.
Understanding relationships is not easy for us, because it is something that goes counter to the traditional scientific enterprise in Western culture. In science, we have been told, things need to be measured and weighed. But relationships cannot be measured and weighed; relationships need to be mapped. So there is another shift: from measuring to mapping.
In biology, a recent dramatic example of this shift happened in the Human Genome Project. Scientists became acutely aware that, in order to understand the functioning of genes it is not enough to know their sequence on the DNA; we need to be able to also map their mutual relationships and interactions.
Now, when you map relationships, you will find certain configurations that occur repeatedly. This is what we call a pattern. Networks, cycles, feedback loops, are examples of patterns of organization that are characteristic of life. Systems thinking involves a shift of perspective from contents to patterns.
I also want to emphasize that mapping relationships and studying patterns is not a quantitative but a qualitative approach. Systems thinking implies a shift from quantity to quality. A pattern is not a list of numbers but a visual image.
The study of relationships concerns not only the relationships among the system's components, but also those between the system as a whole and surrounding larger systems. Those relationships between the system and its environment are what we mean by context.
For example, the shape of a plant, or the colors of a bird, depend on their environment – on the vegetation, climate, etc. – and also on the evolutionary history of the species, on the historical context. Systems thinking is always contextual thinking. It implies a shift from objective knowledge to contextual knowledge.
Finally, we need to understand that living form is more than a shape, more than a static configuration of components in a whole. There is a continual flow of matter through a living system, while its form is maintained; there is development, and there is evolution. The understanding of living structure is inextricably linked to the understanding of metabolic and developmental processes. So, systems thinking includes a shift of emphasis from structure to process.
All these shifts of emphasis are really just different ways of saying the same thing. Systems thinking means a shift of perception from material objects and structures to the nonmaterial processes and patterns of organization that represent the very essence of life.
Current world problemsOnce we become ecologically literate, once we understand the processes and patterns of relationships that enable ecosystems to sustain life, we will also understand the many ways in which our human civilization, especially since the Industrial Revolution, has ignored these ecological patterns and processes and has interfered with them. And we will realize that these interferences are the fundamental causes of many of our current world problems.
It is now becoming more and more evident that the major problems of our time cannot be understood in isolation. They are systemic problems, which means that they are all interconnected and interdependent. One of the most detailed and masterful documentations of the fundamental interconnectedness of world problems is the new book by Lester Brown, Plan B (Norton, 2008). Brown, founder of the Worldwatch Institute, demonstrates in this book with impeccable clarity how the vicious circle of demographic pressure and poverty leads to the depletion of resources – falling water tables, wells going dry, shrinking forests, collapsing fisheries, eroding soils, grasslands turning into desert, and so on – and how this resource depletion, exacerbated by climate change, produces failing states whose governments can no longer provide security for their citizens, some of whom in sheer desperation turn to terrorism.
When you read this book, you will understand how virtually all our environmental problems are threats to our food security – falling water tables; increasing conversion of cropland to non-farm uses; more extreme climate events, such as heat waves, droughts, and floods; and, most recently, increasing diversion of grains to biofuel.
A critical factor in all this is the fact that world oil production is reaching its peak. This means that, from now on, oil production will begin to decrease worldwide, extraction of the remaining oil will be more and more costly, and hence the price of oil will continue to rise. Most affected will be the oil-intensive segments of the global economy, in particular the automobile, food, and airline industries.
The search for alternative energy sources has recently led to increased production of ethanol and other biofuels, especially in the United States, Brazil, and China. And since the fuel-value of grain is higher on the markets than its food-value, more and more grain is diverted from food to producing fuels. At the same time, the price of grain is moving up toward the oil-equivalent value. This is one of the main reasons for the recent sharp rise of food prices. Another reason, of course, is that a petrochemical, mechanized, and centralized system of agriculture is highly dependent on oil and will produce more expensive food as the price of oil increases. Indeed, industrial farming uses 10 times more energy than sustainable, organic farming.
The fact that the price of grain is now keyed to the price of oil is only possible because our global economic system has no ethical dimension. In such a system, the question, "Shall we use grain to fuel cars or to feed people?" has a clear answer. The market says, "Let's fuel the cars."
This is even more perverse in view of the fact that 20 percent of our grain harvest will supply less than 4 percent of automotive fuel. Indeed, the entire ethanol production in this country could easily be replaced by raising average fuel efficiency by 20 percent (i.e. from 21 mpg to 25 mpg), which is nothing, given the technologies available today.
The recent sharp increase in grain prices has wreaked havoc in the world's grain markets, and world hunger is now on the rise again after a long steady decline. In addition, increased fuel consumption accelerates global warming, which results in crop losses in heat waves that make crops wither, and from the loss of glaciers that feed rivers essential to irrigation. When we think systemically and understand how all these processes are interrelated, we realize that the vehicles we drive, and other consumer choices we make, have a major impact on the food supply to large populations in Asia and Africa.
All these problems, ultimately, must be seen as just different facets of one single crisis, which is largely a crisis of perception. It derives from the fact that most people in our society, and especially our political and corporate leaders, subscribe to the concepts of an outdated worldview, a perception of reality inadequate for dealing with our overpopulated, globally interconnected world.
The main message of Lester Brown's Plan B, is that there are solutions to the major problems of our time; some of them even simple. But they require a radical shift in our perceptions, our thinking, our values. And, indeed, we are now at the beginning of such a fundamental change of worldview, a change of paradigms as radical as the Copernican Revolution. Systems thinking and ecological literacy are two key elements of the new paradigm, and very helpful for understanding the interconnections between food, health, and the environment, but also for understanding the profound transformation that is needed globally for humanity to survive.

This essay is adapted from a speech Fritjof Capra delivered at a professional development institute, "Linking Food, Health, and the Environment," hosted by the Center for Ecoliteracy and Teachers College Columbia University in the summer of 2008.