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The advent of the information technology brought a revolutionary change in the way we think and apply science. Historically, inquiry in science has been based on a model that is connected point A to point B. And closely resembles occam's razor. Fritjof Capra was at the forefront of a new change -- a radical way of looking at things -- something called "systems thinking." In a way this was a long time coming. After all the defeat of the linear time and the idea of relativity had already transformed and busted many myths that had been taken to be fact. Newtonian time for one gave way to Einstein's ideas and the clock started running for linear mode of thinking. (In this respect the idea of inverting timespace continuum to enable time travel is a key element and though not directly relevant to the present idea, it does follow that humanity's approach to all disciplines has been markedly moved by the introduction of the theory of relativity.)
His book "Hidden Connections" addresses the central question i.e. whether it is possible to structure our systems to be in line with the natural ecology of our planet? It lays out in some detail what it is that we seek to copy from the eco-system as a whole- a sustainable development that would ensure some modicum of a continuity and harmony with nature. The alternative is a menacing specter because of the way the disjunctive perturbation leads to ruination and brings within the realm of discourse disjointed from reality. Those befuddled by an uncertain future, the book forms an important guide to modern problems plaguing humanity and the basic logic of the systems' response.
The book shows how our cultural political and social functions are embedded in the cellular reality that is all around us and how we can use it effectively to understand our own reality much better. Any socially generated structure is based on processes very similar to basic life processes i.e., osmosis, mutation and evolution.
A variety of physical laws generate structures in the world we are constructing both in hard physical terms and in terms of intellectual capital being accumulated. Much like the celebrated Physics unified theory and a singularity, the author's view is elegant and all encompassing unlike the mechanical alternative. The alternative simply acts according to the instructions given to it by the initiator. Therefore the author's analysis seems a system as greater than the sum of its parts. (Capra, 1997)
The author calls in no uncertain terms for a departure from Descartes and the established paradigms of existing thought. It is a noble idea -- even if it is not always practicable. He is a critic of the Cartesian thought which seeks to break down and re-construct. Instead the author favors a holistic and in toto approach to modern problems. This book in particular builds on the author's previous works which had given the paradigm and this extends it. It is important therefore to compare his work to that which is his clearest inspiration -- the work of Thomas Kuhn. (Kuhn, 1970) Kuhn had built his work around Nicholas Copernicus' monumental revolution and in a way that is what the author attempts to do here -- to give a cognizable idea of a scientific revolution which emanates from existing paradigms but so completely overhauls as to create a whole new dimension. That at least is the attempt. The stationary Earth as the center of the universe was an essential ingredient of established Physics dogma of its time, which was central to almost everything including why the cloud move slowly across the skies (Kuhn, 1957).
This plays in with the greater story in the background. Throughout our existence, life has proceeded through genetic interplay and sustained interdependence of environment and organism, producing forms of life of which are incrementally more complex and fascinating- right from the single cell amoeba to the human body- what a journey it has been. It has philosophical implications that go beyond those that manifest themselves in physical structures. Consider for example the adoption of Copernican paradigm by philosophers (Engel 1963). It was an earlier variant of the systems' approach.
Meanwhile the systems we have evolved ourselves are mechanical in nature and ignorant of these essential life processes. Herein lays the rub. It is for this reason that it is so difficult and downright impossible to change the corporate culture. The social network extracts what it wants to hear from an organizational chart. It is impossible to effect change in a closed circuit.
Genetically modified crops serve as the perfect example of how the existing model has misled the great mass of people into aiming for an inherently unstable ecological and biological model. Monsanto is a case in point. Capra says that this is an outright lie about how genetic technology works and that the outcomes of biotech experiments are never an easy thing to predict but is inherently impossible to control. Reading about Monsanto's forays into Asian Economies particularly India and Pakistan makes for a chilling read. Farmers have been committing mass suicides in India for example. (Robin, 2008)
The author blasts the rapid and unthinking deregulation of trade over the last 30 odd years -- the unholy work of unelected bodies behind closed doors. (Capra, 1997, introduction xxi) It is because of the capitalism driven regulation that terrible lapses in the field of biotechnology have occurred. Punnet squares have been misused to create new varieties of seeds, plants etc. without adequate research of the side effects of this artificial and less than sanguine manipulation of biological tools to achieve something that is a physical counterfactual which paradoxically is suddenly in the realm of reality itself.
The theoretical ideas arrived at by scientific inquiry can be applied to our social structures. Consider for example the large gains in the wealth of top corporate managers, a fact pointed out by President Obama, while millions of workers are fired in layoffs and corporate downsizing. This vitiates laws of nature. The inverted pyramid of inequality is likely to topple over and create havoc.
The author concludes the book with an authoritative and comprehensive, but still controversial, plan for designing ecologically and ethically sustainable communities and technologies as alternatives to the current economic globalization which is unbridled and unchecked. However at times it stretches believability. Two points underscore the author's antipathy to capitalism.
Capitalism is a mechanical idea. This is a main theme in his many grievances against capitalist production but what he forgets -- repeatedly -- is that it is capitalism that sustains research and development and his own work is largely dependent on the capitalist economy which has funded and supported his thesis in full measure.
Capitalism is exploitation -- the virtue of the vicious and the survival of the meanest which brings with it degradation. In many ways Tolkien's timeless character Saruman in his last days is the embodiment of this (Tolkien, 375-400). The exploitation of the shire and its utter and total destruction near the end of the Lord of the Rings is a perfect example of mechanization. The truth of the statement however is tested given that there are by-products of capitalism, admittedly the philanthropy all around the world by leading capitalists like George Soros and his Open Society Initiative or Bill Gates foundation. The examples are numerous.
Dialectical marxist analysis shows that capitalism has played an important part in demolishing existing means of production. Why is that a good thing. It is not necessarily a good thing but in pre-industrial societies it has been an important vehicle of change for it helps societies to graduate from feudal to a more modern dispensation. Even Karl Marx noted in his essay in New York Tribune in 1853.
Timur Kuran's brilliant thesis on why Muslim societies have remained backward seconds this. The reasons for decline of wealth in Muslim societies relative to the rest of world over the past 400 years has been located in the resistance by Islamic institutions and legal system to wholesale capitalist production (Kuran, 150, 2010). This argument is not without merit and constitutes a cogent counter argument to some of the more vexatious and audacious claims of the author.
That sustainable development should take into account environmental damage is a moot point but for societies at a different stage of economic and social evolution there are certain urgent issues which cannot be tackled by reinventing the wheel. Perhaps the whole argument of a systems approach is more germane to evolved societies.
Social costs/externalities have to be subsidized by a social welfare state. It is here that things like Kyoto Protocol have a role to play. Perhaps the argument is over-stretched because these devices constitute an improvement on the capitalist system. The capitalist democratic system is triumphant and ascendant. The end of history (fukuyama, 55) is already here or so it seems.
Here it is important to integrate the systems approach to inform…[continue]
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