Reason Reviews: THE WEB OF LIFE by Fritjof Capra

by Reason Wilken

A New Scientific Understanding of Living Systems

The book Web of Life is an attempt to synthesize philosophies from various areas of science into a coherent plan for improving human social structures. Author Fritjof Capra ( a theoretical physicist) refers to theories of quantum physics, mathematics, cybernetics and ecology in making his case for change. Peppered throughout Capra’s summation and analysis of classical theories (such as Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection and Descartes’ method of analytic geometry) are more recent and less-known prophecies.

Prominent among these are the “Gaia (Living Earth) Theory” and the notion of “Deep Ecology”. Development of these theories through reference to other fields of science makes up the bulk of this novel. It is due to this extensive exploration of scientific theory that Web of Life reads more like a science textbook than the story that it truly is. This is definitely not a Sunday-by-the-pool approach to scientific writing, and thus may not hold mass appeal.

Capra begins by enumerating some of the problems facing humanity today—such as global warming, pollution, and depletion of natural resources—to motivate change. He calls for a “paradigm shift” that would mold the current anthropocentric view of humanity into a more realistic one. Capra proposes that this new paradigm should be based upon the theory of deep ecology. Capra defines deep ecology as a “holistic worldview” that emphasizes humanity’s connection to the rest of the universe. Capra proposes that the current incarnation of “ecology” is really quite shallow, and is based on a human perspective and emphasizes the “use-value of nature”. Deep ecology goes beyond the respect and understanding of natural processes, and fosters a deep spiritual connection with the universe. As Capra puts it, deep ecology “views humans as just one particular strand in the web of life”.

The notion of the universe as a web of interconnected elements leads naturally to the discussion of Gaia theory. Gaia theory states that the Earth is a dynamic, vital, self-regulating entity that functions more like a living being than a chunk of rock. Elements such as the temperature and salinity of the oceans are carefully regulated through processes called “feedback loops”. Capra uses the CO2 cycle as an example of temperature regulation. He describes how an increase in temperature increases the activity of soil bacteria, thus accelerating the process of rock weathering (by which rocks combine with water and atmospheric CO2 and break down). This process forms chemicals known as carbonates, which wash into oceans and are taken up by algae to make their shells. When algae die, their shells fall to the ocean floor, build up and are eventually sink into the mantle of the earth and are incorporated into lava. Of course, the lava eventually erupts out of a volcano, releasing atmospheric CO2 and cooling the planet.

An even more vivid illustration of the Gaia self-regulation concept comes in the form of the “Daisyworld Theory”. Proposed by James Lovelock, “Daisyworld” uses a simpler model to show the ‘living earth’. This model is based on the condition of increasing temperature over time for a world with only two species: black (heat-absorbing) and white (heat-reflecting) daisies. Each daisy has a certain temperature range in which it can flourish. As the earth begins to warm up at the equator, black daisies are able to absorb enough heat to grow. But as the temperature increases further, the equator becomes too hot for the black daisies and the heat-reflecting white variety begin to take over. Eventually, the temperature rises to the point that no daisies are able to exist near the equator, and only the white variety can grow at the poles. The increase in white daisies with increasing temperature helps reflect heat and cool the planet. Thus by changing the distribution of the daisies, the earth’s temperature is regulated.

Deep Ecology and Gaia Theory are only two of the numerous scientific arguments (among them the disciplines of mathematics, physics, chemistry, biology and so on) put forth in this book. The end goal of the extensive treatment of these scientific phenomena is quite simple. Capra aims to increase each human’s degree of “ecological literacy”in an attempt to restructure humanity to be closer to reality. Although Capra does not outline any detailed proposals (that, after all, would be another book), he does provide argument for doing so.

All of the parts of the earth once considered to be inanimate—rocks, soil, atmospheric gases—have a demonstrated roles to the contrary. The planet on which we live—which we had assumed to be a mere caterer to the wants and needs of humanity—is in fact a life force. This necessitates policies that are based on this reality that incorporate ecological principles into the rules of life. One of the most important principles is the interdependence of living systems.

Life is based on a horizontal network of relationships and cycles, while the current structure of humanity is mostly linear. Humanity does not recycle most of the things we depend on for modern life: oil, minerals, land. We burn the oil, mine the minerals and populate the land without giving appropriate thought to the consequences. To remedy this over-consumption, Capra proposes a slow (in order to allow invention of alternative environmentally-friendly processes), long-term “ecological tax reform”. This measure would employ taxes to make ecologically damaging processes “reflect their true cost”, eventually making them prohibitively expensive. Hopefully, by the time this measure achieved its intended purpose it would not be too late.

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