Ecology and Community

A quiet revolution in the way that we view relationships in the natural world - from microorganisms to whales to human society - underlies all modern conversations about ecology and the environment.

by Fritjof Capra, reprinted with permission from Elmwood Quarterly
This talk was given by Fritjof Capra, founder president of the Elmwood Institute, at an Ecoliteracy retreat for Mill Valley faculty at Walker Creek Ranch in rural Mann County, California, on April 23-24, 1994. Mill Valley School District, led by Superintendent John Harter and Curriculum Director Barbara Young, is collaborating with the Institute in applying Ecoliteracy as a context for school innovation and reform.
oday, the link between ecology and community is the very essence of our concern. I want to encourage you to really pay attention to that link, even if it requires time and new ways of thinking, and even if it means overcoming various obstacles in your community, because this is by no means a side issue. It is the issue of our time.
This was brought home to me recently when I read an article in The Atlantic Monthly which you may have seen, "The Coming Anarchy." I recommend it to you very highly, although it is grim reading. In this article, Robert Kaplan documents his impressions from his travels around the world, and especially in Africa, showing in chilling detail how the degradation of the natural environment inevitably leads to the breakdown of local communities and, as a consequence, to violence and war. He shows that the ethnic and tribal violence, which has become the key characteristic of the post-Cold War period around the world, very clearly has ecological roots. Many ecologists and systems thinkers have said that for over ten years now, but hardly anybody in government has listened. This article made a lot of noise in Washington, and there have been many discussions about it.
What we are doing here is sort of the flip side of the same coin. We are looking at the positive side of this link between environment and community. Kaplan concludes that the environment will be the main foreign policy issue in the early 21st century. For us, the environment, or nature, is not just a key foreign policy issue but also a very wise teacher. And we are trying to learn her language, so as to understand her teachings. The main challenge of our time is to create and nurture sustainable communities. If we care about the fate of our children and grandchildren and future generations, this is what we need to do. The article in the Atlantic Monthly shows that this is not just the long term challenge but also the key challenge for politics in the immediate future.
We can learn from nature how to create sustainable communities, because ecosystems are sustainable communities of plants, animals, and microorganisms. In over four billion years of evolution, ecosystems have developed the most intricate and subtle ways of organizing themselves so as to maximize sustainability. This is what we can learn.

It's the law

There are laws of sustainability which are natural laws, just as the law of gravity is a natural law. In our science in past centuries, we have learned a lot about the law of gravity and similar laws of physics, but we have not learned very much about the laws of sustainability. If you go up to a high cliff and step out over the cliff, disregarding the law of gravity, you will surely die. If we live in a community, disregarding the laws of sustainability, we will just as surely die in the long run as a community. These laws are just as stringent as the laws of physics, but until recently they've not been studied.
The law of gravity, as you know, was formalized by Galileo and by Newton. Of course, people knew about not stepping off a cliff long before Galileo and Newton. Similarly, people have known about the laws of sustainability long before ecologists in the twentieth century began to discover them. In fact, what I'm going to talk about today is nothing that a ten-year-old Navajo boy, or Hopi girl, who grew up in a traditional Native American community would not understand and know. In preparing this presentation, I discovered that if you really try to distill the essence of the laws of sustainability, it's very simple. The more you go to the essence, the simpler it is.
What I want you to understand is the essence of how ecosystems organize themselves. You can abstract certain principles of organization, and you can call those the principles of ecology; but it is not a list of principles that I want you to learn. It's a pattern of organization I want you to understand; and you will see that whenever you formalize it and say, "This is a key principle, and this is a key principle," you don't really know where to start, because they all hang together. You have to understand all of them at the same time. So, when you teach them in school, you can't say, "In third grade we do interdependence and then in fourth grade we do cooperation." One cannot be taught or practiced without the other.
What I'm going to do, then, is to show you in an abstract way how ecosystems organize themselves. I'll present to you the very essence of their principles of organization.
Interdependence and organization
When you look at an ecosystem - say at this meadow outside - when you study it and try to understand what it is, the first thing you will recognize is that there are many species there. There are many plants, many animals, many microorganisms. And they're not just an assemblage or collection of species. They are a community, which means that they are interdependent; they depend on one another. They depend on one another in many ways, but the most important way in which they depend on one another is a very existential way, because they eat one another. That's the most existential interdependence you can imagine.
Indeed, when ecology was developed in the 1920s, one of the first things people studied were feeding relationships. That's what struck them: feeding relationships. At first, ecologists formulated the concept of food chains. They studied the bigger fish eating the smaller fish, which eat still smaller fish, and so on. Soon these scientists discovered that these are not linear chains but cycles. So then they studied food cycles. The concept shifted from food chains to food cycles.
And then they found out that various food cycles are actually interlinked, so the focus again shifted from food cycles to food webs, to networks. In ecology, this is what people are now talking about. They're talking about food webs, networks of feeding relationships.
These are not the only examples of interdependence. The members of an ecological community, for example, also give shelter to one another. You have birds nesting in trees and fleas nesting in dogs and bacteria attaching themselves to the roots of plants. Shelter is another important kind of interdependent relationship.
Understanding ecosystems, then, leads us to understanding relationships. That's a key aspect of the new thinking we need to understand ecosystems, and to understand communities. Always keep in the back of your minds that when I talk about ecosystems I'm talking about communities. The reason we're studying ecosystems is that we can learn about building sustainable human communities.
So, we need to understand relationships, and this is something that goes counter to the traditional scientific enterprise in Western culture. Traditionally in science, we have tried to measure and weigh things, but relationships cannot be measured and weighed. Relationships need to be mapped. You can draw a map of relationships, interconnecting different elements or different members of the community. When you do that, you will discover that certain configurations of relationships appear again and again. This is what we call patterns. The study of relationships leads you to the study of patterns. A pattern is a configuration of relationships appearing repeatedly.

Form and substance

So, the study of ecosystems leads us to the study of relationships, which leads us to the notion of pattern. And here we discover a tension that has been characteristic in Western science and philosophy throughout the ages. It is a tension between the study of substance and the study of form. The study of substance starts with the question, "What is it made of?" The study of form starts with the question, "What is its pattern?" Those are two very different approaches. Both of them have existed throughout our scientific and philosophical tradition. The study of pattern began with the Pythagoreans in Greek antiquity, and the study of substance began at the same time with Parmenides, Democritus, and with various philosophers who asked: What is matter made of? What is reality made of? What are the ultimate constituents? What is its essence?
In asking this question, the Greeks came up with the idea of four fundamental elements: earth, fire, air, and water. In modern times, these were recast into the chemical elements; many more than four, but still ultimate elements of which all matter was thought to be made. Then Dalton identified the elements with atoms, and with the rise of atomic physics the atoms were further reduced to nuclei and electrons; and then the nuclei to other subatomic particles.
Similarly, in biology the basic elements first were organisms, or species. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries you had very complex classification schemes of species. Then, with the discovery of cells as the common elements in all organisms, the focus shifted from organisms to cells. Cellular biology was at the forefront of biology. Then the cell was broken down into its macromolecules, into the enzymes and proteins and amino acids and so on, and molecular biology was the new frontier. In all this endeavor, the question always was: What is it made of? What is the ultimate substance?
At the same time, throughout the same history of science, the study of pattern was always there, and at various times it came to the forefront, but most times it was neglected, suppressed, or sidelined by the study of substance. As I said, when you study pattern, you need to map the pattern, whereas the study of substance is the study of quantities that can be measured. The study of pattern, or of form, is the study of quality, which requires visualizing and mapping. Form and pattern must be visualized.
This is a very important aspect of studying patterns, and it is the reason why, every time the study of pattern was in the forefront, artists contributed significantly to the advance of science. Perhaps the two most famous examples are Leonardo da Vinci, whose whole scientific life was a study of pattern, and the German poet Goethe in the eighteenth century, who made significant contributions to biology through his study of pattern.
This is very important to us, because this is what comes naturally to kids. When my daughter, who is now eight, does her homework she always includes a drawing, whether it's math, or spelling, or whatever. She always puts a drawing on it. This is typical of kids. The study of patterns is natural to them; to visualize patterns, to draw patterns, is natural. In traditional schooling this has not been encouraged. Art was sort of on the side. We can make this a central feature of ecoliteracy: the visualization and study of pattern through the arts.

The Pattern of Life

Now, recognizing that the study of pattern is central to ecology, we can then ask the crucial question: What is the pattern of life? At all levels of life - organisms, parts of organisms, and communities of organisms - we have patterns, and we can ask: What is the characteristic pattern of life? I'm actually working on a book now to answer this question, so I could give you a fairly technical description of the characteristics of the pattern of life; but here I want to concentrate on the very essence.
The first step in answering this question, and perhaps the most important step, is a very easy and obvious one: the pattern of life is a network pattern. Whenever you see the phenomenon of life, you observe networks. This was brought into science with ecology in the 1920s when people studied food webs - networks of feeding relationships. They began to concentrate on the network pattern. Later on, in mathematics, a whole set of tools was developed to study networks. So from ecology, scientists then realized that the network pattern is not only true of ecological communities but of ever member of that community. Every organism is a network of organs, of cells, of various components; and every cell is a network of smaller components. So what you have is networks within networks. Whenever you look at life, you look at networks.
Then you can ask: what is a network and what can we say about networks? The first thing you see when you draw a network is that it is nonlinear; it goes in all directions. So, the relationships in a network pattern are nonlinear relationships. Because of this nonlinearity, an influence, or message, may travel around a loop and come back to its origin.
In a network, you have cycles and you have closed loops; and these loops are feedback loops. The very important concept of feedback which was discovered in the 1940s, in cybernetics, is intimately connected with the network pattern. Because you have feedback in networks, because an influence travels around a loop and comes back to you, you can have self-regulation; not only self-regulation, but self-organization. When you have a network, for instance a community, the community can regulate itself. It can learn from its mistakes, because the mistakes will travel and come back along these feedback loops. Then you can learn, and next time around you can do it differently. Then the effect will come back again and you can learn again, in steps.
So, the community can organize itself and can learn. It does not need an outside authority to tell it, "You guys did something wrong." A community has its own intelligence, its own learning capability. In fact, every living community is always a learning community. Development and learning are always part of the very essence of life because of this network pattern. As soon as you understand that life is networks, you understand that the key characteristic of life is self-organization.
So, when somebody asks you, "What is the essence of life? What is a living organism all about?" you could say, "It is a network and because it is a network it organizes itself." This answer is simple, but at the same time it's at the very forefront of science today. And it is not generally known. When you go around in academic departments, this is not the answer you will hear. What you will hear is "amino acids," "enzymes," "catalytic chains," and things like that; very complex information, because that is the inquiry into substance: what is it made of?
It is important to understand that, in spite of the great triumphs of molecular biology, biologists still do not know how we breathe or how a wound heals or how an embryo develops into an organism. All these coordinating activities of life can only be understood when you understand life as a self-organizing network. So self-organization is the very essence of life, and it's connected with the network pattern.
When you look at the network of an ecosystem, at all these feedback loops, another way of seeing this, of course, is as recycling. Energy and matter are passed along in cyclical flows. The cyclical flows of energy and matter - that's another principle of ecology. In fact, you can define an ecosystem as a community where there is no waste.
Of course, this is an extremely important lesson we must learn from nature. This is what I focus on when I talk to business people about introducing ecoliteracy into business. The key challenge is to redesign our businesses, which are now designed in a linear way consuming resources, producing goods, and throwing them away; creating waste. We need to redesign our businesses so as to imitate the cyclical processes of nature. Paul Hawken has recently written about this very eloquently in his book The Ecology of Commerce.

Cooperation and partnership

So, we have interdependence, network relationships, feedback loops; we have cyclical flows, and we have many species in a community. When you take all this together, this implies cooperation and partnership. As the various nutrients are passed along through the ecosystem, the relationships we observe are various forms of partnership, of cooperation. In the nineteenth century, the Darwinists and Social Darwinists talked about the competition in nature, the fight - "Nature red in tooth and claw." In the twentieth century, ecologists discovered that in the self-organization of ecosystems cooperation is actually much more important than competition. We constantly observe partnerships, linkages, associations; species living inside one another, depending on one another for survival. Partnership is a key characteristic of life. Self organization is a collective enterprise.
We see that these principles - interdependence, network patterns, feedback loops, the cyclical flows of energy and matter, recycling, cooperation, partnership - are all different aspects, different perspectives on one and the same phenomenon. This is how ecosystems organize themselves in a sustainable way.
Once you have established that, then you can ask more detailed questions, such as: What is the resilience of such an organization? How does it react to outside disturbances? In this way, you will discover two further principles that enable ecological communities to survive disturbances, to adapt to changing conditions. One is flexibility. Flexibility manifests itself in the network structure, because this is not a rigid network, it is a fluctuating network. Whenever you have these feedback loops, if there is a deviation, the system brings itself back into balance. Technically, this is called negative feedback, whereas a runaway loop is called positive feedback.
So the negative feedback brings things back into balance. And since these disturbances happen all the time, because things in the environment change all the time, the net effect is a continual fluctuation. Everything in an ecosystem fluctuates: the population densities, the various occupations of habitat, whatever you can observe in an ecosystem fluctuates. And that is true also for an individual organism. Whatever we observe in our body our body temperature, our hormonal balance, our skin humidity, our brain waves, our breathing patterns all that fluctuates. This is how we can be flexible and adapt, because these fluctuations can be disturbed and then will come back again to a healthy fluctuating state. So flexibility through fluctuations is the way ecosystems remain resilient.
Of course, this does not always work, because there can be very severe disturbances that will actually kill a particular species, just wipe it out. What you have then, in this network, is that one of its links will be destroyed. An ecosystem, or any kind of community, will be resilient when this destroyed link is not the only one of its kind; when there are other links, different connections. So when one link is wiped out, the other ones can at least partially fulfill its function. In other words, the more complex the network is, the more complex all these connecting links are, the more resilient it will be, because it can afford to lose some of the links. There will still be plenty there, fulfilling the same function.


This, my friends, translates into diversity. Diversity means many links, many different approaches to the same problem. So a diverse community is a resilient community. A diverse community is one that can adapt to changing situations, and therefore diversity is another very important principle of ecology.
Now, we have to be careful when we talk about diversity because we all know it's politically correct to celebrate diversity and to say it's a great advantage. But it's not always a great advantage and this is what we can learn from ecosystems. Diversity is a strategic advantage for a community if, and only if, there is a network of relationships, if there is a flow of information through all the links of the network. Then diversity will be a tremendous strategic advantage. However, if there is fragmentation, if there are subgroups in the network, or individuals which are not really part of the network, then diversity will generate prejudice, it will generate friction, and as we know well from our inner cities, it will generate violence.
So diversity is great if the other principles of sustainable organization are fulfilled. If they are not, diversity is a hassle.
If I'm on top of a hierarchy and I want everybody to do what I say, I don't want diversity. I want all people to understand what I'm saying in my language, in the way I speak, and to carry out my orders. In such a system, diversity is a hindrance. We need to see that very clearly. But if we have a network structure with feedback loops, and if different kinds of people make different mistakes, and if information about these different kinds of mistakes is shared and travels through the network, then very quickly the community will figure out the smartest ways to go about certain problems or the smartest ways to adapt to changes. All the research about diverse learning styles and diverse intelligences, and all that, will be extremely useful if - and only if - there is a vibrant community where you have interdependence; a vibrant network of relationships, cyclical flows of energy and information. When the flows are restricted, then you will create suspicion and distrust, and diversity will be a hindrance. But when the flows are open, then diversity will be a great advantage. In an ecosystem, of course, the flows are always open. All the doors are always open in an ecosystem. Everything exchanges energy, matter, and information with everything else, so diversity is one of the key strategies of nature for survival and for evolution.
So these are some of the basic principles of ecology - interdependence, recycling, partnership, flexibility, diversity, and, as a consequence of all those, sustainability. As our century comes to a close and we go toward the beginning of a new millennium, the survival of humanity will depend on our ecological literacy, on our ability to understand these principles of ecology and live accordingly.