Wednesday, September 28, 2011

The Web of Life 2


Stalactites, Dunmore Caves, 2003
If there is one thing that describes the modern thrust in the sciences - both natural and social - it is the thrust towards interconnectedness.  Hence the title of Dr Fritjof Capra's book and that of this series of posts, viz., The Web of Life.  In the last post I outlined the topics he sought to bring together within his "web" of "Mind and Matter."  Here I will treat of some of these ideas as they strike this lone reader and writer.

What's New?

We are all well aware of the famous French epigram by Jean-Baptiste Alphonse Karr  : "plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose" which translates literally as  “the more it changes, the more it’s the same thing.”  Life does tend to be like that, a veritable paradox: even though change continues irrevocably, there remains something there that is somehow perennial.  However, be that as it may, one of the striking and underlying concepts or ideas in this book is that nothing exists on its own per se, every single thing is defined and is given life within a context of other things, within a whole SYSTEM of things.  In this sensed, Dr Capra's opening sentence can be said to summarise the very core of his argument in this book, namely that there now exists "a new scientific understanding of life at all levels of living systems - organisms, social systems, and ecosystems." (Op. cit., p. 3)

Having read English literature many years ago, I was always taken with what was known as the modernist movement therein - a movement spearheaded by the complex and much misunderstood literary genius Ezra Pound who proclaimed that his goal as a literatus and poet was to "make it new," which indeed was the title of one of his critical works.  If Dr Capra and Dr James Lovelock do anything in the field of science, it is certainly to make it new.  As a reader of their books, I am always overwhelmed by the the veritable wind of freedom, of newness and of life in all its wonderful variety  that blows through them.

It's not just a new scientific understanding on the level of organisms as one would expect from biologists, or on the level of biochemical interactions as one would expect from biochemists or, indeed on the level of subatomic particles as one would expect from theoretical physicists.  No, the reach of this new scientific understanding extends to our complex social systems on all levels as it does to the very ecosystems within which we and our fellow creatures live.  This overarching sense of the myriads of interconnections that exist in all our perceived reality is the very theme of this book.

Solving Problems:

It is against this overarching backdrop that we are informed so rightly that no major problem in any of the above spheres can be solved in isolation.  After all, if the overarching thrust of reality as we perceive it, and as it is most likely to be in and of itself, then anything that goes wrong will have to have a multi-dimensional solution.  Take the international financial crisis as we are experiencing it now on a global scale.  Even our best brains and smartest experts cannot seem to get a handle on the multi-layered interconnectedness of the whole sorry mess.  As soon as one problem crops up in Greece it seems to have a domino effect on other economies both within and even outside the Euro zone.  Now, I am an economic neophyte and am singularly lost by the complexities of this situation.

Other Modern Crises

There are, of course, other crises besides the economic one.  We have the crisis of the Arab Spring or the Arabic Rebellions or the Arab Revolutions which, since 18 December 2010,  have occurred in Tunisia and Egypt, Libya, Bahrain, Syria and Yemen, along with major protests in other Arabic countries.  The cause of these rebellions are multifarious and complex, but certainly these individual revolutions were fanned into a conflagration by modern communications via Internet, mobile phones and so on and so forth.  One might say that Capra is a prophet when, in the early pages of this book, he proclaims, with respect to all and every crisis we humans experience in our ever more complex world:

Ultimately, these problems 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 of us, and especially our large social institutions, subscribe to the concept of an outdated worldview, a perception of reality inadequate for dealing with overpopulated, globally interconnected world. (Ibid., p. 2)
Towards Solutions

I have used the plural number in my subtitle above because I have long become impatient with and often inimical to persons and groups who peddle easy solutions or indeed, "an easy solution" to life's myriads of complex problems.  Likewise, I'm turned off quickly by preachers of any universal Truth with a capital letter.  In my world there are as many truths with lowercase letters as there are problems and as many problems as there are people who have them. 

In our journey towards solutions what's needed is a change in perception of these complexities.  This change in perception can be called yet another revolution of Copernican proportions.  That's essentially what Dr Thomas Kuhn meant by paradigm shifts.  Let me return once again to Dr Capra's words, and remember that these words were written as early as 1996:

Not only do our leaders fail to see how different problems are interrelated; they also refuse to recognise how their so-called solutions affect future generations.  From the systemic point of view, the only viable solutions are those that are "sustainable". The concept of sustainability has become a key concept in the ecology movement and is indeed crucial.  Lester Brown of the Worldwatch Institute has given a simple, clear and beautiful definition: "A sustainable society is one that satisfies its needs without diminishing the prospects of future generations." This, in a nutshell, is the great challenge of our times: to create sustainable communities, i.e., social and cultural environments in which we can satisfy our needs and aspirations without diminishing the chances of future generations. (Ibid., p.4)

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