Steering Business Toward Sustainability

 

Fritjof Capra
Fritjof Capra

Edited with Wolfgang Pauli, New York: United Nations University Press, 1995

Steering Business Toward Sustainability is a book of high practical value for leaders and organizations who are conscious of the need for deep ecology and the challenge we presently face to update most of our basic business routines and procedures in order to build sustainable organizations.

Quite simply, our business practices are destroying life on earth. Given current corporate practices, not one wildlife reserve, wilderness, or indigenous culture will survive the global market economy. /1

Capra’s idea of ecology has developed over many years. It is rooted in the insights he exposed in his previous four books, and thus we can say this present book is solidly grounded in research. In addition, Capra leaves no doubt that it’s not just a technocratic idea, but an intrinsically spiritual concept. He also credits those, religions and peoples, who have practiced ecological thinking long before the birth of the United States of America:

When the concept of the human spirit is understood as the mode of consciousness in which the individual feels connected to the cosmos as a whole, it becomes clear that ecological awareness is spiritual in its deepest essence. It is therefore not surprising that the emerging new vision of reality, based on deep ecological awareness, is consistent with the so-called perennial philosophy of spiritual traditions, whether we talk about the spirituality of Christian mystics, that of Buddhists, or the philosophy and cosmology underlying the American Indian traditions. /3

Capra reminds us of the fact that when restructuring our economies, we should learn from nature, instead of feeling superior over nature. Ecoliteracy is one of the notions Capra is currently lecturing about, and Gunter Pauli, the co-editor of this reader is one of Capra’s truest collaborators, himself an authority on ecology in Germany. Within the concept of ecological literacy, Capra seems to give the highest importance to the term sustainability, and he comprehensively explains what this term means:

In our attempts to build and nurture sustainable communities we can learn valuable lessons from ecosystems, because ecosystems are sustainable communities of plants, animals, and microorganisms. To understand these lessons, we need to learn nature’s language. We need to become ecologically literate. (…) Being ecologically literate means understanding how ecosystems organize themselves so as to maximize sustainability./4

Many of us have yet to understand why our modern technologies are so much in conflict with nature’s setup, and this is a fact that is barely elucidated in the mass media. Non-educated people, and even entrepreneurs who have not been exposed to academic study are usually at pains with understanding the deeper reasons of this conflict. Capra, referencing Paul Hawken, The Ecology of Commerce, Harper, 1993, elucidates it:

The present clash between business and nature, between economics and ecology, is mainly due to the fact that nature is cyclical, whereas our industrial systems are linear, taking up energy and resources from the earth, transforming them into products plus waste, discarding the waste, and finally throwing away also the products after they have been used. Sustainable patterns of production and consumption need to be cyclical, imitating the processes in ecosystems./5

Back in Antiquity, there was barely a need for people to learn systems thinking because they were naturally aligned with the logic of nature, as they were living with nature, and not on top of nature, as we do today. We can also say that we as modern city dwellers have lost our continuum, as it was expressed with much emphasis by Jean Liedloff in The Continuum Concept. Besides, Capra informs us about how we should apply ecology in our daily lives, and what it teaches us. There are seven principles to learn that Capra calls Principles of Ecology and that he explains one by one:

Interdependence
All members of an ecosystem are interconnected in a web of relationships, in which all life processes depend on one another.

Ecological Cycles
The interdependencies among the members of an ecosystem involve the exchange of energy and resources in continual cycles.

Energy Flow
Solar Energy, transformed into chemical energy by the photosynthesis of green plants, drives all ecological cycles.

Partnership
All living members of an ecosystem are engaged in a subtle interplay of competition and cooperation, involving countless forms of partnership.

Flexibility
Ecological cycles have the tendency to maintain themselves in a flexible state, characterized by interdependent fluctuations of their variables.

Diversity
The stability of an ecosystem depends on the degree of complexity of its network of relationships; in other words, on the diversity of the ecosystem.

Coevolution
Most species in an ecosystem coevolve through an interplay of creation and mutual adaptation.

Sustainability
The long-term survival of each species in an ecosystem depends on a limited resource base. Ecosystems organize themselves according to the principles summarized above so as to maintain sustainability. /6

Capra also explains very well the feedback-looping that we find is a typical feature of living systems. The understanding of feedbacking by constant parameter change as a response to a given stimulus is crucial for the understanding of the cyclic nature of all life. This is one of the points modern scientists are really at pains with because their thought structure simply is too linear. Capra explains:

When changing environmental conditions disturb one link in an ecological cycle, the entire cycle acts as a self-regulating feedback loop and soon brings the situation back into balance. And since these disturbances happen all the time, the variables in an ecological cycle fluctuate continually. These fluctuations represent the ecosystem’s flexibility. Lack of flexibility manifests itself as stress. In particular, stress will occur when one or more variables of the system are pushed to their extreme values, which induces increased rigidity throughout the system. Temporary stress is an essential aspect of life, but prolonged stress is harmful and destructive to the system./7

It’s exactly this widely unpredictable feedback-looping that is inherent in the current paradigm of ecological destruction. This dangerous situation is worsened by the general lack of ecological literacy regarding the possible effects of large disturbances, such as ozone hole, deforestation, global warming and desertification.

Our knowledge also is insufficient to make ecological solutions work effectively even once ecology-friendly policies are implemented by governments and organizations. It is not enough to see the dangers and implement good new laws for protecting nature, we also need to see how the damage already done will interact with our new policies; this is so because it’s not taken for granted that our best-intended tactics of healing nature are going to work. For insuring this, we have to learn much more about feedback-looping in natural systems, and we need to learn how nature heals herself.

For example, it has been shown that the planting of new trees does not per see heal the damage that deforestation has done to our planet. It’s all in the why and how of planting trees, where, how many, and in what mixture of species that the wisdom lies. On the other hand, it has been seen in Indonesia, one of the worst hit countries by deforestation, that huge areas that were deforested began to grow trees without anybody doing anything about it! Later research showed that the conditions had been ideal for trees to grow again, but nobody really knew why in other places, where at first sight conditions were very similar, this was not the case.

We definitely have to develop humility, given our dreadful ignorance in the face of the complexity level of nature, at all phases of evolution.

We are simply not trained in complexity thinking, and our schools and universities destroy the little of complexity we have developed naturally as children as a result of free play. It is freedom that is at the basis of building complexity, not discipline, it is permissiveness, not repression. Here is where our morality clearly stares grimly in nature’s face because nature is amoral. If theologians will ever grasp this dimension is not my concern, but as scientists we should definitely do away with our projections upon nature and at the same time get all our senses and our emotional intelligence ready for receiving the messages of nature. Nature communicates when we are ready to listen, and it will tell us how we can help healing the damage we have done to her over the last five thousand years of patriarchal ignorance.

This book together with Hidden Connections (2002) and The Web of Life (1997) teaches the basics of understanding nature’s complexity. It also teaches us the importance of diversity, a concept that at present is rather shunned by mainstream politics, while liberal phases, as it was the case through the 1970s, foster higher levels of cultural diversity.

Nature shows us that this is not just a random development but that it’s diversity on which side is intelligent and life-fostering behavior, and not uniformity. This is so, inter alia, because diversity fosters flexibility, and vice versa, while uniformity entails rigidity. What does loss of biodiversity on the planet mean for our future as a human race? The regard here is rather dim, and Capra leaves no doubt about it:

In ecosystems, flexibility through fluctuations does not always work, because there can be very severe disturbances that actually wipe out an entire species. In other words, one of the links in the ecosystem’s network is destroyed. An ecological community will be resilient when this link is not the only one of its kind; when there are other connections that can at least partially fulfill its functions. In other words, the more complex the network, the greater the diversity of its interconnections, the more resilient it will be. The same is true in human communities. Diversity means many different relationships, many different approaches to the same problem. A diverse community is a resilient community, capable of adapting easily to changing situations./8

The loss of biodiversity, i.e. the daily loss of species, is in the long run one of our most several global environmental problems. And because of the close integration of tribal indigenous people into their ecosystems, the loss of biodiversity is closely tied to the loss of cultural diversity, the extinction of traditional tribal cultures. This is especially important today. As the beliefs and practices of the industrial culture are being recognized as part of the global ecological crisis, there is an urgent need for a wider understanding of cultural patterns that are sustainable. The vast folk wisdom of American Indian, African, and Asian traditions has been viewed as inferior and backward by the industrial culture. It is time to reverse this Euro-centric arrogance and to recognize that many of these traditions – their ways of knowing, technologies, knowledge of foods and medicines, forms of aesthetic expression, patterns of social interaction, communal relationships, etc.—embody the ecological wisdom we so urgently need today./8

This is what I am saying since about twenty years, having founded, back in 1994, Ayuda International Foundation for the protection of tribal people’s wisdom about life, and their high cultural diversity, and wistful traditions for living in alignment with the laws of nature.

Yet it’s a fact that in most developing countries technologies for recycling and for healing the badly afflicted metropoles are costly and not as accessible and readily available as in wealthy high-tech nations. Only truly supportive cultural and technological exchange between rich and poor countries can help changing this dim picture. Whatever our personal opinions are in the face of these huge global problems, that also our next generations will be burdened with, we have to keep an open mind and learn, and change our rigid positions.

Fritjof Capra and Wolfgang Pauli have given in this reader very useful suggestions that can be taken as starting points for deeper study, as the field of investigation is huge, and never-ending. Nature’s complexity is perhaps the single most important topic of study for 21st century science, and I hope I can contribute a little to it by my own efforts. As for the authors of this book, they surely have done their very substantial contributions!


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