Tikkun Magazine, January/February 2000

The Challenge of the Twenty-First Century

By Fritjof Capra

As our century draws to a close, we are facing a whole series of global problems which are harming the biosphere and human life in alarming ways that may soon become irreversible. Concern with the environment is no longer one of many "single issues"; it is the context of everything else--of our lives, our businesses, our politics. The great challenge of our time is to build and nurture sustainable communities--social, cultural, and physical environments in which we can satisfy our needs and aspirations without diminishing the chances of future generations.

Since its introduction in the early 1980s, the concept of sustainability has often been distorted, co-opted, and even trivialized by being used without the ecological context that gives it its proper meaning. In its correct usage, what is sustained in a sustainable community is not economic growth or development but the entire web of life on which our long-term survival depends. In other words, a sustainable community is designed in such a way that its ways of life, business, economy, physical structures, and technologies do not interfere with nature's inherent ability to sustain life. The first step in this endeavor, naturally, must be to become "ecologically literate," i.e., to understand the principles of organization that ecosystems have developed to sustain the web of life. To do so, we must learn to think systemically--in terms of connectedness, context, and processes.

When systems thinking is applied to the study of the Earth Household--which is the literal meaning of "ecology"--we discover several basic principles of organization:

* that an ecosystem generates no waste, one species' waste being another species' food;

* that matter cycles continually through the web of life;

* that the energy driving these ecological cycles flows from the sun;

* that diversity increases resilience;

* that life, from its beginning more than 3 billion years ago, did not take over the planet by combat but by cooperation, partnership, and networking.

The main task in the next century will be to apply our ecological knowledge and systemic thinking to the fundamental redesign of our technologies and social institutions, so as to bridge the current gap between human design and the ecologically sustainable systems of nature. Fortunately, this is already taking place. In recent years, there has been a burst of optimism about the dramatic rise of ecologically oriented design practices, in which our human purposes are carefully meshed with the larger patterns and flows of the natural world (see, for example, Paul Hawken, Amory Lovins, and Hunter Lovins' Natural Capitalism). In other words, ecodesign reflects the principles of organization that nature has evolved to sustain the web of life.

For example, the principle "waste equals food" means that all the products and materials manufactured by industry, as well as the wastes generated in the manufacturing processes, must eventually provide nourishment for something new. A sustainable business organization would be embedded in an "ecology of organizations," in which the waste of any one organization would be a resource for another. In such a sustainable industrial system, the total outflow of each organization--its products and wastes--would be perceived and treated as resources cycling through the system. Such "ecological clusters" of industries have recently been initiated in several parts of the world (for examples see Gunter Pauli's UpSizing).

In fact, ecodesigners like William McDonough and Michael Braungart speak of two kinds of metabolism--a biological metabolism and a "technical metabolism" (as described in their article "The Next Industrial Revolution," Atlantic Monthly October 1998). Things that are part of the biological metabolism--agriculture and food systems, clothing, cosmetics, etc.--should not contain persistent toxic substances. Things that go into the technical metabolism-- machines, physical structures, etc.--should be kept well apart from the biological metabolism.

Eventually, all products, materials, and wastes will be either biological or "technical" nutrients. Biological nutrients will be designed to return to the ecological cycles--to be literally consumed by microorganisms and other creatures in the soil. Technical nutrients will be designed to go back into "technical cycles." This means that customers will not own these products but will merely buy their services. When they have finished with the products, the manufacturer will take them back, break them down, and use their complex materials in new products.

Today, the obstacles that stand in the way of ecological sustainability are no longer conceptual, nor technical. They lie in the dominant values of our society, and in particular in the dominant corporate values. Corporate values and choices are determined, to a large extent, by flows of information, power, and wealth in the global financial networks that shape societies today.

During the past three decades, the information technology revolution has given rise to a new type of global capitalism, which is structured around networks of financial flows. In what Manuel Castells calls "informational capitalism," the movements of capital do not follow a market logic. Rather, capital operates as if in a global casino, using information technology to scan the planet for investment opportunities and to move from one option to another in a matter of seconds. The market is twisted, manipulated, and transformed by a combination of computer-enacted strategic maneuvers and unexpected turbulences caused by the complex interactions of capital flows themselves in a highly nonlinear system.

As a result, money is almost entirely independent of production and services. Thus labor has become fragmented in its performance, organization, and collective action. At the same time, information technology has transformed the core processes of knowledge generation, economic productivity, political and military power, and media communication. As a result, presence or absence in the network is a critical source of power. The rise of this "Network Society" has thus become intertwined with rising social inequality, polarization, and social exclusion (see Manuel Castells' The Information Age).

At the close of this century, then, we can observe two developments that will have major impacts on the well-being and ways of life of humanity in the next century. Both of these developments have to do with networks, and both involve radically new technologies. One of them is the rise of global capitalism and the Network Society; the other is the creation of sustainable communities, involving ecoliteracy and ecodesign practices.

Whereas global capitalism is concerned with electronic networks of financial and information flows, ecoliteracy and ecodesign are concerned with ecological networks of energy and material flows. The goal of the global economy is to maximize the wealth and power of the elites in the Network Society; the goal of ecodesign to maximize the sustainability of the web of life.

These two scenarios--each involving complex networks and special advanced technologies--are currently on a collision course. The Network Society is destructive of local communities and thus inherently unsustainable. It is based on the central value of capitalism--money-making for the sake of making money--at the exclusion of other values. However, human values can change; they are not natural laws. The same electronic networks of financial and informational flows could have other values built into them. The challenge of the twenty-first century will be to change the value system of the Network Society, so as to make it compatible with the demands of ecological sustainability.

Fritjof Capra, Ph.D., physicist and systems theorist, is the author of The Tao of Physics, The Turning Point, and most recently The Web of Life. This article is based on his talk at "Forum 2000" in Prague, October 1999.

Source Citation

Capra, Fritjof. 2000. The Challenge of the Twenty-First Century. Tikkun 15(1): 49.

tags: Environment, Environmental Activism  
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