“Science does not need mysticism and mysticism does not need science,” wrote Fritjof Capra in “The Tao of Physics,” his 1975 bestseller. “But man needs both.”
Capra recognized this early on. The Austrian American physicist recalls reading “Physics and Philosophy: The Revolution in Modern Science” by Werner Heisenberg, one of the founders of quantum physics, as a young student in Vienna in the 1950s.
“A handful of physicists saw themselves confronted with the reality of the atomic world, which forced them to change their basic concepts, language and worldview,” Capra told The Chronicle by phone from his home in Berkeley. “That book was technical, but also quite vivid and emotional.” In retrospect, says the author, “It determined the entire trajectory of my career.”
“Patterns of Connection: Essential Essays From Five Decades,” published Oct. 1, charts that trajectory in a chronological series of essays from a man who continues to be a seeker of ideas. At 82, he has published more than a half-dozen books since “Tao.” A longtime educator and activist, Capra is also a founding director of the Center for Ecoliteracy in Berkeley, and he continues to disseminate his ideas globally through a series of online classes called the Capra Course.
Ahead of his virtual event at the Commonwealth Club on Thursday, Oct. 21, Capra spoke about the evolution of his work and worldview.
Q: How did “The Tao of Physics,” a book about physics and spirituality, become a runaway bestseller?
A: I didn’t write a dry book about physics. I gave it an interesting philosophical and historical perspective. When people read “The Tao of Physics,” they realized that a change of worldview had not only happened in physics but in other fields. People told me, “You have said in your book what I always felt but was unable to express.” It came at the right time; it connected at the zeitgeist.
This new book emerged as I collected all my papers and books in preparation for giving them to the Bancroft Library. I spent several months going through my archives and rediscovered all these essays, (which) reflect not only my career but the history of social change.
Q: Writing in the 1980s, you describe “a crisis of perception, an outdated worldview, a perception of reality inadequate for dealing with our overpopulated, globally interconnected world.” Can you talk about the paradigm you hoped would replace it?
A: The formative years of my life were really the 1960s. It was an era of protest and of questioning authority, and the so-called counterculture didn’t really have an alternative, no coherent vision.
In the ’70s, ecology and second-wave feminism began to provide a conceptual framework for an alternative. At the very beginning of the ’80s, this was expressed by green politics in various countries. And then, in the late ’80s, the Gorbachev phenomenon. There, in the Soviet Union, in the most opaque political bloc, there was a young politician talking about a new way of thinking, of perestroika. I was fascinated by Gorbachev. There was great excitement then. At the end of the ’80s, we really thought it was a turning point.
But what happened then took everyone by surprise … the information technology revolution and a new global economy mostly oriented toward corporations. This introduced a new materialism, a great lack of ethics in the business world. This took place in the ’90s, and it took the alternative movements a decade to absorb these new developments.
I’d point to the 1999 World Trade Organization conference in Seattle. It signaled the emergence of a new global civil society, one that continued where we’d left off at the end of the ’80s. As I say in my epilogue, the change from the mechanistic to the holistic is not a smooth process. It goes back and forth. There are backlashes and pendulum swings.
Q: You’ve long advocated for the abandonment of linear thought and mechanistic views of Descartes. Can you point to efforts that are succeeding in this shift?
A: Linear, mechanistic science has been very successful from the time of the scientific revolution in the 17th century (Bacon, Newton). This has provided a successful basis for scientific inquiry. But at the same time, the world got more populated and more interconnected. As this happened, it became more evident that we are all living in networks within networks. We discovered 100 years ago the network structure of ecosystems, and subsequently the importance of networks in all living systems.
Today, everybody knows that social networks are very important. … A network is a certain pattern of links and relationships, and it is nonlinear. In order to understand networks we need to learn to think in patterns and relationships. But this nonlinear way of thinking and acting is something that we are not used to, as most of us have been educated in this nonlinear way. It’s difficult to overcome.
Q: You wrote in the 1990s that the decade would be “critical … as the survival of humanity and the survival of the planet are at stake,” and that “The ’90s will be the decade of the environment.” Alas, things have only gotten worse for the climate, and our collective response seems even more woefully inadequate. What will it take for us to pay attention?
A: We need an increase of the climate movement that we have now. All these youth movements — Sunrise Movement, Greta Thunberg, all these movements of very passionate young people — are expanding, and they already are in contact with a new generation of politicians like AOC (Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y.) and Jacinda (Ardern, the prime minister of New Zealand). My hope is that together they can effect change.
I realized some time ago that arguing about climate change and what we need to do is not going to take us there. It is necessary to have a science-based view and to have good arguments. (But) the conceptual level is not the whole story. There is the question of values and ethics. When people have a certain value system, you can’t change it with arguments. The anti-vaxxers’ rhetoric of “you can’t tell me what to do” is a perfect example. If we go on like this, your children and grandchildren won’t have a livable world. We need to get them at an ethical level.
Q: With Gorbachev and perestroika, your writing begins to focus more on the crisis of political leadership. How would you assess the current leadership — or lack thereof?
A: What sharpened my thinking is when I realized that one, the major problems of our time are all interconnected. These are systemic problems that can’t be solved in isolation. And two, we need systemic solutions.
For years I investigated the systemic solutions that have been proposed by researchers and members of the global civic society. “The Systems View of Life” (published in 2014 with co-author Pier Luigi Luisi) summarizes that new paradigm. We could move toward a sustainable future. We have all the ingredients today. Why don’t we do it? That made me realize we need political will and leadership.
A couple of years ago a group of scientists in Switzerland investigated how many trees could be planted on the Earth without infringing on living space or agricultural land. They took photographs from outer space, analyzed where trees could be planted and what type, and how much carbon they would absorb. They determined that we have space for 1.3 trillion trees, and if we did that it would remove two-thirds of all the carbon put out into the atmosphere. Tree planting is not that difficult.
Corruption is endemic. Fossil fuels, pharma — the (leaders of these industries) know very well what is at stake, but they have different values and prefer short-term profits.
Q: What do you make of the recent re-emergence of interest in psychedelics?
A: I’ve stayed away from it. I did it 40, 50 years ago. I stopped in the 1980s and haven’t gone back. I’m personally not interested in the subject, though it has been important in my life. I’ve recognized the importance of psychedelic therapies. My basic view is that humanity has used consciousness-altering drugs at all times, in all periods and in all cultures. That’s part of who we are. The question is which drugs and how to use them wisely.
Q: In your essay on COVID, written early in the pandemic, you pointed to positive consequences like decreased traffic congestion, cleaner air and flourishing wildlife. But most of these were fleeting. Are we destined to not learn from our mistakes, or do you remain hopeful that we can?
In this essay, I asked “Are we going to learn the lessons that Gaia, our living planet, has presented us with? Are we going to shift from quantitative to qualitative growth?”
Quoting Bob Dylan: “The answer, my friend, is blowing in the wind.”
Patterns of Connection: Essential Essays From Five Decades
By Fritjof Capra
(University of New Mexico Press; 344 pages; $34.95)
Commonwealth Club presents Fritjof Capra in conversation with George Hammond: Virtual event. 10 a.m. Thursday, Oct. 21. $5 general admission; $35 for book and admission; free for Commonwealth Club members. Preregistration required. www.commonwealthclub.org