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The Web of Life: A Book Review

The Web of Life: A New Scientific Understanding of Living Systems. Fritjof Capra. New York: Anchor Books, 1996. Xix+346

The Web of Life is a speculative idea of an attempt to read the history of the development of science portrayed in its distant possibilities. This book, as stated by Capra in the preface, is a continuation and extension of a chapter in The Turning Point (1982) entitled “The Systems View of Life.” Thus, it can be simply understood that what Capra promises through this book is nothing but an offer of a new perspective on life in the framework of systems theory. Consequently, many discussions about the intellectual tradition of systems thinking and theories of living systems will be found in this book.

The idea of a paradigm shift is the main interest of this book. Capra sees that dramatic changes in concepts and ideas that have taken place in the development of physics in the last few decades require a new perspective on reality. The attempts to explore the atomic and subatomic worlds has brought physicists to an unexpected reality. Difficulties in explaining and describing the phenomenon lead to an intellectual or even existential crisis. Until finally all these efforts led to a deep conclusion about the relationship of the nature of matter and the human mind (p.5).

The paradigm shift that occurred in science led Capra to generalize the definition of a scientific paradigm given by Thomas Kuhn to a social paradigm for the sake of analyzing cultural transformation. The social paradigm that is defined by Capra as “a constellation of concepts, values, perceptions, and practices shared by a community, which forms a particular vision of reality that is the basis of the way the community organizes itself” has dominated our culture during hundreds of years (p.6). The paradigm as a constellation only presupposes an alien life, separate from one another, and endless competition of existence.

Therefore, Capra states that we need a new paradigm to end the cultural crisis caused by a mechanistic view. The new paradigm is called a holistic worldview, which is “seeing the world as an integrated whole rather than a dissociated collection of parts.” However, Capra sees that the use of ‘holistic’ seems inaccurate because it only presupposes the functional unity of all parts, while the ecological view adds a perception of how unity is embedded in its natural and social environment (p.6).

Thus, Capra prefers to use the term ‘deep ecology’, which was first proposed by Arne Naess, as a new paradigm. ‘Deep ecology’ is distinguished by Naess from ‘shallow ecology’ by referring to the distinction of contemporary environmental thought. If shallow ecology places human beings above or outside of nature as the source of all values, then deep ecology sees the whole as a network of phenomena that are basically interconnected and interdependent (p.7).

With this in mind, deep ecology as explained by Capra quoting Naess can then be understood in its essence to question all aspects of the old paradigm. Not to discard entirely, but to question “the very foundations of our modern, scientific, industrial, growth-oriented, materialistic worldview and way of life.” The question will be drawn into the ecological view of the relationship with each other, future generations, and the web of life we are part of (p.8).

The main purpose of this paradigm shift is none other than for the sake of a sustainable life. Therefore, Capra then proposes some basic principles of ecology as part of what Capra calls ecological literacy in which “being ecologically literate, or ecoliterate, means understanding the principles of organizations of ecological communities and using those principles for creating sustainable human communities (p.297).”

Those principles are: 1) Interdependence, which is an interconnection of all members of the ecological community. Interdependence, according to Capra, is the essence of all ecological relations. This principle presupposes a mutual dependence on the whole process of living on one another where the behavior of each member is very dependent on the behavior of others. Therefore, understanding the principle of interdependence is about understanding relationships. That, according to Capra, presupposes a change in perception from object-oriented towards relationship-oriented. So that there is no longer a perception of separate parts, only a pattern of the whole (p.298); 2) The cyclical nature of ecological processes, that is, an ecosystem’s feedback loops that are continuously recycled. It means that everything has to work in a recycling process. With this principle we must redesign our entire business and economic systems which tend to be linear; production-consumption-waste. The only way to build a system according to this principle is to use energy and materials that are environmentally friendly so that there is no more waste left from the production and consumption process (p.299); 3) Partnership is a model of how cyclical exchanges of energy and resources in an ecosystem are sustained. This is a principle derived from the first principle on which all community members depend on each other. Metaphorically this principle can be called coevolution, which is a shared change in which the change is influenced by other changes (p.301).

There are still two more principles given by Capra, but both are consequences or derived from other principles, such as the principle of diversity which is a consequence of the principle of interdependence; without diversity, the scale of dependency becomes very narrow. The other principle is flexibility as a consequence of the principle of recycling; without flexibility the concept of recycling becomes impossible.

After deep ecology: what is the locus of existential meaning?

The Web of Life, as far as I can tell, seems to be a total affirmation of the scientific revolution theory proposed by Thomas Kuhn. Capra, with his background as a physicist, managed to explain well how the crisis of perception that occurs in the construction of physics, especially in the case of quantum physics, also occurs on a broader scale, namely in the context of cultural transformation. Apparently, this idea was later expanded again in his book, The Hidden Connection, where Capra proposed a perspective of meaning to see social phenomena.

However, it seems to me that some of Capra’s argumentations are still problematic. For instance, Capra doesn’t realize that his argumentation about multiple feedback loops has a big consequence. He gives a strange example of temperature during the summer which does not normally make algae growth in a lake to be increased, thus making algae-eating fish also grow more. When the fish overpopulate will eventually drain the amount of algae population as a food source, and consequently many fish will die. The death of these fish then gives a place for algae to grow again. Does it make sense?

Indeed, it does make sense and I totally agree with the example given by Capra to argue about the principle of feedback loops. The problem is, such a logical framework can be drawn further in a question: what if the ecological crisis that we are experiencing and witnessing today is an obvious example of the feedback loops principle? Such rich natural resources and the discovery of ways to exploit these resources encourage overpopulation of human beings. And when these resources start to decrease and maybe even run out, a crisis occurs and humans must pay the debt. The ironic question that arises as a logical consequence of this reasoning framework is what if the global ecological crisis is one of the mechanisms and principles of ecological balance itself?

Such an implicative question is certainly valid to ask. However, I argue that such a problem does not then mean that efforts to overcome the ecological crisis are meaningless. The evidence about the interconnectivity of life that Capra has proposed at least has made us aware enough to re-assess the accuracy of the paradigm that we have been using to see the world; because in fact, such a paradigm has major consequences for the sustainability of life itself.

Deep ecology succeeded in explaining how the entire ecosystem is related to one another, but it failed to legitimize the meaningful meaning of human existence as part of the web of life. Seeing life as a network connected to one another leads us to the fatalistic view that human existence has no meaning in itself. At its extreme, deep ecology can be a legitimacy that the environmental crisis is something that is supposed to occur as a manifestation of the principle of flexibility. Human extinction due to the environmental crises may be a necessary thing in the framework of the rebalancing process. What is the locus of human existential meaning in deep ecology?

Risalatul Hukmi
Post-Nietzschean free thinker

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