Interview with Fritjof Capra. Schumacher College.Thursday, 4th May 2006
I’ve had lots of very positive feedback about yesterday’s interview, so here is the second part, done a couple of days later and asking him the seven questions that were developed as part of the Skilling Up for Powerdown course currently being developed at the Cultivate Centre in Dublin. We are trying to ask as many people within the sustainability/peak oil/relocalisation movement these questions on camera, to be edited together as part of the multimedia course.
Do you see peak oil as a crisis or an opportunity?
Well I think obviously it’s a crisis. But every crisis contains in itself an opportunity. In fact its quite interesting that the new conception of life that is now emerging in science has some interesting lessons to teach us here, because what we have learnt from complexity theory and systems theory is that the crisis that we are experiencing is an integral aspect of dramatic transformation. Every emergence of novelty has an instability preceding it or a crisis preceding it. So, the crisis may lead to a breakdown, but it can also lead to a breakthrough, and we can achieve a new state of affairs, a new way of life, that can be a much higher quality of life, and it’s up to us to shape that transformation.
If the approach that you propose were to come to fruition, and you woke up 30 years from now, in that reality, what would it look like, smell like, feel like, talk us through it!
We would use Nature as a model and a mentor, and we would have designed societies and communities that are in harmony with the basic principles of organization that Nature has evolved to sustain life. Nature contains ecosystems as sustainable communities; communities of animals, plants, and microorganisms that have evolved over billions of years so as to maximize their long-term survival or sustainability. So, we would have patterned our communities after those natural communities, which means that we would use solar energy as our main energy source, including wind, biomass, and so on. We would have arranged our industries and our systems of production in such a way that matter cycles continuously, that all materials cycle between producers and consumers.
We would recognize that diversity enhances resilience in an ecosystem as well as in a human community. So, we would have diverse communities; culturally, intellectually, ethnically, and so on. We would grow our food organically, and we would shorten the distance between the farm and the table, which is now thousands of miles, and we would shorten that, produce food mainly locally. We would also shorten the distance between the home and the workplace, so that we don’t need to use cars to go to work, we can bicycle or we can use public transportation, we can walk to work. All of this would combine to create a world that has dramatically reduced pollution, where climate change has been brought under control, where there would be plenty of jobs, because these various designs are labour-intensive, and as an overall effect there will be no waste, and the quality of life would increase dramatically.
How do we get here from there?
I think it is useful to start from the concept of sustainability, because what I have been talking about it of course a sustainable society, a sustainable community, which is a community that is designed in such a way that its ways of life, its technologies, its social institutions, its physical structures, do not interfere with Nature’s ability to sustain life. The outstanding characteristic of the biosphere is that is has sustained life for billions of years.
We need to redesign our communities accordingly. In order to do so, obviously, we need to know first how Nature sustains life, we need to become, as it were, ‘ecologically literate’. We need to understand the basic principles of ecology and redesign our communities accordingly. So, to get from here to there the first step would be to become eco-literate, the second step apply this ecological knowledge to the redesigning of our technological structures, our social institutions, to make them in harmony with Nature and ecologically sustainable.
To what extent do solutions to the energy problem involve action in other, non energy, fields?
I think the solution to the energy problem has two aspects. It is very critical now because of greenhouse gases and climate change to find non-polluting renewable energy sources. I mean, we don’t have to find them, we know where they are! It is critical to use them. This is not a problem of technology or a conceptual problem, it’s a problem of values and therefore a problem of politics. So, we need to use renewable energy sources, non polluting renewable energy sources, but also in the larger picture, at the same time, we need to reduce our energy consumption, because if we had the ideal source of energy, non-polluting, cheap, let’s say free, and if we used this to fuel our current industrial systems, then everything would get worse, it wouldn’t get better, because it’s a system out of balance, and if you fuel a system out of balance it will get even more out of balance.
This neo-liberal ideal of exporting and importing everything, you know, driving everything around for thousands and thousands of miles, even with cheap, non-polluting energy, would still destroy the ecosystems, would still have us build more roads, and just wreak damage. So it is very important to reduce our dependence on energy, and that part is the part that involves the entire redesign of communities in terms of where we work, in terms of communal relationships, in terms of what we eat, how we grow it, how we eat it and so on.
What are the problems and bottlenecks?
The problems today are no longer conceptual problems, and they are no longer technological problems. We have the means today to move towards sustainability. We have the technologies, although they are not well known, but the exist, and of course human ingenuity being what it is they will be developed further and refined further, but we have the means; what we don’t have is the political will to make the shift. We don’t have the knowledge, and we don’t have the political will. So what we in the environmental movement, in civil society, need to do is to improve our communication skills, we need to communicate that the solutions are there and we need political change in order to adopt them .
What are the skills we need to learn and the training & education we need to put in place to respond to peak oil?
The skills are manifold. They are intellectual skills, they are what people call social skills of dealing with people in society, they are communication skills. My field is science and education, so I can talk a little bit about the intellectual skills… . They are becoming ecologically literate, which means understanding the basic principles of ecology that Nature has used to sustain life, and redesigning our communities accordingly, that requires a lot of intellectual skills, and it requires a new way of thinking, thinking in terms of relationships, in terms of context, in terms of processes, something that is now called ‘systems thinking’ or ‘systemic thinking’, you could also call it ‘ecological thinking’ because it’s proper to understand ecology. Then, among the social skills we need skills in building community, because sustainability is a property of a community, so we need to nurture our communities to enhance our communities and that involves a whole set of social skills, communication skills, and so on.
How can this issue be communicated to the widest possible audience?
We need to first become clear about the situation about the nature of sustainability, about how to go about building a sustainable community, learning from Nature’s ecosystems, redesigning our communities to incorporate ecological principles. We need first to understand this ourselves. When I say ‘ourselves’ I mean within civil society. We need to understand that ourselves, and we need the appropriate centres of learning, such as Schumacher College, which is the leading institution in the world of this kind, to teach this kind of knowledge.
We also need to educate the media, because the media are often very ignorant, for instance when there is a so-called natural catastrophe, a hurricane, a flooding, this is reported as an Act of God, a natural catastrophe, but it’s a human made catastrophe. Whenever the media report about something like the flooding of New Orleans, or a heatwave in Europe, they should say how it is related to climate change and how climate change is related to the kind of cars we drive. If they hammer away that message, and if the tell their readers that there are alternatives, that the problem is not technological, that we can make the shift, then this will help.
What would most help you in your work to achieve this vision?
I have worked on formulating a conceptual framework in science that would correspond to this vision of sustainability now for about 20 years. Its not an easy task, because ecology is not easy. It requires rethinking in many ways, it requires a new way of thinking. We have to shift from linear thinking to non-linear thinking, we concentrate on patterns and relationships. It also means to recognize how problems are interconnected, to see the whole, the relationships between the parts and the processes. So, I have worked on this for 20 years, I have written several books about it, and I feel that in my last book “The Hidden Connections” which has the subtitle “a science for sustainable living”. I have really outlined a coherent conceptual framework that can be used for these purposes.
And so, in a crass mode of self advertising I would say what would help me most is not to sell as many books as possible. What would help me most, is if my book ‘The Hidden Connections’ were widely used in Univeristies, colleges and in education, and it is being used. I recently gave a talk in Cambridge, to the Department of Engineers, they have a Masters programme, Engineering for Sustainable Development, and every incoming student gets a copy of ‘The Hidden Connections. So I wish that that practice were adopted, because I believe that this framework that I developed is very useful, and its not work that I have done alone, many of the leaders of civil society, like Vandana Shiva, Amory Lovins, Hazel Henderson, people like that have been my inspiration.