The Systems View of Life
(image by Oxford University Press) DMCA
It's been a long time since I've been so excited about reading a non-fiction book, let alone a text book. But this one has captivated my interest by pulling together so many ideas and threads of scientific knowledge and wisdom.
The core message of this book is that it is time to replace the mechanistic, atomistic model of science, based on Cartesian and Newtonian thinking, which has been dominant for several centuries, not only in science, as a paradigm, but in culture, as a metaphor used as a lens through which the world is viewed. This top-down mechanistic model does not work to explain ecology, ecosystems, and life, nor does it adequately explain sub-atomic particle physics. Perhaps an even bigger problem is that the mechanistic model, applied as a metaphor by people in all walks of life, has created a mindset in society that has led to non-sustainable ways of thinking about how we live, do business, even relate to each other and spiritually, one that embraces the pathological economic model of unlimited consumption.
The answer is to replace both the scientific model and the metaphor with a bottom-up, systems view based on the core idea that properties are based on relationships and manifest in interconnected networks where small actions or changes can produce big effects (another systems characteristic that is not explained in the mechanistic model.) The bottom-up system view metaphor is a much healthier, profoundly more sustainable one that it our culture must embrace if we are to transition to a future that includes bio-diversity and the continued existence of the human race. It shouldn't be that hard. That's the way humans evolved and existed for 99.99 percent of their five million years of existence. It's only a few hundred year old habit we have to let go of.
In a sense, this book feels like a Rosetta stone for me, unlocking connections and roots of a panoply of different ideas and concepts.
It starts walking us through the history of science--and how scientific models influenced most aspect of cultures. This is a wonderful section that lays out the people who came up with the ideas. I've been telling the many people I've already recommended the book too that we've lived through the most fertile time in the history of science, with an immense amount of new findings, more, in the past 60 or even 30 years than the rest of history combined. Over the decades I've been subscribing to numerous science books which have given me the pieces. This book pulls the big changes together and integrates them, across disciplines into a glorious big picture, for each field and for all of them tied together.
As I was reading the portion of the book covering the history of systems thinking, at one point, as the authors were about to begin giving a history and explanation of a concept I'd had a loose handle on, I realized that I was suddenly feeling very excited, like I was in a movie, sitting on the edge of my seat, or becoming aroused and excited. But it was a non-fiction book, on scientific theory.
This is what a great writer and a great book are supposed to do.
I particularly found the section on non-linear, dynamic, complexity and chaost theories helpful. It shows how the butterfly effect-- how small initial actions or changes-- can produce massive changes. I find that very hopeful, even more because the research earned Ilya Prigogine a Nobel prize for showing how out of chaos, higher levels of order can emerge.
I've read the whole book-- close to 500 pages. It has had a huge impact on my way of thinking about so many things. The last book that had this strong an influence on was Naomi Klein's Shock Doctrine and before that, Joseph Campbell's Hero With a Thousand Faces.
The book makes it clear that the dominant economic models, based on continual, unending growth are not only unsustainable, they are, as Capra told me in my interview with him, "grotesque," because, for example, GDP goes up when money is spent to clean up oil spills or to pay for wars.
The last third of the book explores solutions that emerge by thinking in systems terms. The solutions apply to economics, ecology, sustainable energy, architecture, farming, urban planning, healthcare and more.
While The Systems View of Life is written as a textbook, that doesn't mean it is just for classes on systems theory. Capra told me that he sees it as useful in classes on history of science, biology, physics, philosophy, agriculture, urban planning, energy and more. I hope that happens.
It doesn't matter what your area of work or interest is. This book is essential reading to face the future with eyes wide open.