[Please start the video at 3:06 as there is interference].
On 9th December I joined Fritjof Capra and Benjamin J Butler in a webinar, hosted by the Emerging Future Institute, exploring the future of society, the environment, economics and the fourth industrial revolution. With the overall theme of planetary transformation, the conversation was wide-ranging, including a look at the major political events across the globe, especially the US, Europe and Brazil. Benjamin began the conversation by noting that Stephen Hawking had recently published an article in The Guardian stating that this was “most dangerous time for our planet”, and asking us if we were optimistic. While Fritjof did consider us to be in a crisis, he still remains hopeful:
“I think we are in a state of planetary crisis, which I identified as, essentially, a crisis of perception thirty years ago. Since then the crisis has become more acute — just think of global climate change and economic inequality. At the same time there is much greater awareness of the crisis, and there are actually effective solutions to all the major problems of our time, which have been developed and tested all over the world. This is why I am hopeful.”
I am based in São Paulo, Brazil, and have been viewing the US elections and Brexit from afar. I do feel that we have to use words such as ‘crisis’ with care, since it can invoke fear and negativity in people. Times of crisis can also be times of opportunity for transformation. Benjamin continued, describing this period as “the ‘Great Paradox’. We are actually in a time of great change or transformation. But sometimes the its darkest before the dawn. We are actually on track. I expect we will be out of the financial and social crisis by 2025. Already I see lots of green shoots”. We discussed indigenous wisdom, with Fritjof highlighting the achievements of the tribes at Standing Rock in the US which he described as “an amazing power of vision of power and spirituality at this moment”.
Continuing the theme of perception in systems thinking, Fritjof explained how he came to see the world more holistically:
“I think it all started when I read Heisenberg’s ‘Physics and Philosophy’ as a young student. One passage of this book stands out in my memory. ‘The Cartesian partition’, wrote Heisenberg, ‘has penetrated deeply into the human mind during the three centuries following Descartes, and it will take a long time for it to be replaced by a really different attitude toward the problem of reality’. Looking back to that time, I now can see that this statement, and Heisenberg’s book as a whole, determined the trajectory of my entire career as a scientist and writer.”
It has now been a year since COP21, the climate conference held in Paris last year. We are facing major questions to ask in relation to climate change and sustainability in relation to a Trump presidency. Fritjof sees much more awareness about these issues, but that we also have to make much faster progress in implementing solutions:
“The Paris agreement on climate change, which entered into force last month, certainly can give us hope. Just think that the Kyoto Protocol took eight years to be ratified; the Paris agreement took just eleven months. The goal is to hold global warming to no more than 2ºC above pre-industrial levels. This is what climate scientists tell us we have to do. But the actual actions around the world are still woefully slow. And the impacts of global warming are now happening much faster than scientists had predicted. So the urgency to act is extreme.”
Benjamin discussed the need for systemic solutions:
“Personally I think the route out of the environmental challenges is a holistic one. Focusing just on carbon and global warming is an over-simplification. The collapse in biodiversity is just as important. I also think that focusing on negative campaigning is not effective. I think it’s better to focus on the connection to Earth.”
One of the main messages of Fritjof’s work is that none of these problems can be solved in isolation. They are all interconnected and interdependent. They are all systemic problems and this is why we need systemic thinking which means that we need to think in terms of patterns, relationships and context. An example of a systemic problem which Fritjof gave was that of economic inequality:
“Next to climate change, economic inequality is our most urgent global problem. The gap between the rich and the poor has grown significantly, both internationally and within countries. Among advanced industrial countries, the United States has by far the highest level of inequality. This was brought about by the rise of global capitalism, also known as economic globalisation, and also by specific government policies in favour of the 1% rather than the 99%, to use the phrase introduced by the Occupy movement. Tax cuts and other favourable economic conditions for the rich are being implemented at the expense of social services, education, health care, etc. for everybody else. This is possible politically because we live in an oligarchy, rather than a democracy, where most politicians are utterly corrupt. So you see, this is how the problems of climate change, economic inequality, health care, education, and ethics are all interconnected. They are all systemic problems.”
Benjamin and his colleagues at the Emerging Future Institute predicted both Brexit and a Trump presidency twelve months in advance, and the the reason for this was their systemic analysis. Rather than simply doing desk research, the team spoke with a wide spectrum of voters to gain first-hand knowledge of their thinking and motivations. While Fritjof also agreed that votes for Trump and Brexit were votes against the elites, the alternative path now being taken would only increase inequality:
“Now, the two recent shocking elections — the referendum on Brexit in the UK and the U.S. presidential election — were to a large extent protest votes by frustrated citizens who are suffering under the effects of neoliberal policies of deregulation, privatisation, austerity, and corporate trade. They voted against the political and financial elites, and for alternatives they were told would come to their rescue — independence from Brussels in the case of Brexit, and populist policies promised by Donald Trump. The tragedy is that these promises were false. It is already becoming clear that the poor in the UK will suffer most from Brexit, and in the meantime President-elect Trump is filling his cabinet with billionaires and Wall Street insiders who plan to make economic inequality much worse.”
In our conversation we then moved on to a look at the future, and our thoughts on the ‘Fourth Industrial Revolution’. Recently there has been a shift in certain business communities towards a desire to achieve ‘exponential growth’. The problem is that ’exponential’ is not the same as ‘non-linear’. This narrow focus on exponential economic growth can be contrasted with the new understanding of life that is now emerging both in science and in communities around the world. As Fritjof explained, this new understanding can be seen as a change of paradigms from seeing the world as a machine to understanding it not just as networks but as “networks within networks — biological, ecological and social networks”. Fritjof describes a network as “a particular pattern of links, of relationships”. This means that to understand networks, “we need to learn how to think in terms of relationships, in terms of patterns, in terms of context”. One of the major implications therefore is the need to change our definition and understanding of growth, which sees unlimited growth on a finite planet as being possible. We need to switch from quantitative to qualitative growth, which Fritjof defines as that which “enhances the quality of life through generation and regeneration”.
We finished by discussing Fritjof’s most recent project, Capra Course, in which all of the key ideas from our webinar are discussed in detail: the nature of systems thinking; the systemic nature of our global problems; the numerous existing systemic solutions; the harmful consequences of global capitalism and of neoliberalism; the nature of ethics and the need for a new leadership. The course consists of twelve pre-recorded lectures and a discussion forum bringing participants together from countries all over the world.
This is the first time that Fritjof has taught on-line, describing the daily discussions in which he participates as “extremely rewarding” finding them “much more substantial than discussions in a classroom”. Students do not have to ask a question right away, they can take their time and mull over it for a couple of hours. For Fritjof “it is the same. I can go to my library, have a discussion with friends, I can go on the internet and really formulate a very substantial answer with links to videos, to literature and so on”. Given that systems thinking as Fritjof earlier noted was a crisis of perception, Capra Course is a new resource not just for individuals, but also for organisations and businesses looking to introduce systems thinking and who wish to develop systemic practices.
At this point in our global economic, environmental, and now also our political crisis, we urgently need a new kind of leadership. The new leaders need to be capable of thinking systemically, of understanding the interconnectedness of our global problems and recognising the already existing systemic solutions; and they need to have a “moral compass”, a strong sense of ethics and values in the memorable phrase of Vaclav Havel.
The Spring 2017 edition of Capra Course will start on March 1st. To learn more about Capra Course, watch a trailer, and to register, please visit the course website, capracourse.net.
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