Sustaining the web of life

spider web

Courtesy Kaat Hennen

 

By Fritjof Capra

                  
A sustainable community is usually defined as “one that is able to satisfy its needs and aspirations without diminishing the chances of future generations.” This is an important moral exhortation. It reminds us of our responsibility to pass on to our children and grandchildren a world with as many opportunities as the ones we inherited.

However, this definition does not tell us anything about how to build a sustainable community. What we need is an operational definition of ecological sustainability.

The key to such an operational definition, the good news for anyone committed to sustainability, is the realization that we do not need to invent sustainable human communities from scratch. We can learn from societies that have sustained themselves for centuries. We can also model human societies after nature’s ecosystems, which are sustainable communities of plants, animals, and microorganisms. Since the outstanding characteristic of the biosphere is an inherent ability to sustain life, a sustainable human community must be designed in such a manner that its ways of life, technologies, and social institutions honor, support, and cooperate with nature’s inherent ability to sustain life.

A first step in the endeavor must be to understand in some detail how nature sustains the web of life. How have ecosystems organized themselves to sustain the basic life processes over billions of years of evolution? How can they flourish with an abundance of energy and without waste? How does nature manufacture surfaces (in abalone shells) that are harder than our hardest high-tech ceramics and silk threads (spun by spiders) that, ounce for ounce, are five times stronger than steel? And how are these miracle materials produced silently, at ambient temperatures, and without any toxic by-products?

A conflict between industry and ecology arises because nature is cyclical, while industrial processes are linear. Business transforms resources into products plus waste, and sells those products to consumers, who discard more waste after consuming the products. But an ecosystem generates no waste. One species’ waste becomes another species’ food. The ecological principle “waste equals food” means that—for an industrial system to be sustainable—all manufactured products and materials, as well as all the wastes generated in the manufacturing processes, must eventually provide nourishment for something new. In such a sustainable industrial system, the outflow of each organization—its products and wastes—would be perceived and treated as resources cycling through the system.

The systemic understanding of life that is now emerging at the forefront of science is based on three fundamental insights: life’s basic pattern of organization is the network; matter cycles continually through the web of life; all ecological cycles are sustained by the continual flow of energy from the sun.

These three phenomena—the web of life, the cycles of nature, and the flow of energy—are exactly the phenomena that we can explore and understand through direct experiences in the natural world. Through these experiences, we become aware of how we ourselves are part of the web of life, and over time the experience of ecology in nature gives us a sense of place. We become aware of how we are embedded in an ecosystem; in a landscape with particular flora and fauna; in a particular social system and culture.

The sustainability of individual populations and the sustainability of the entire ecosystem are interdependent. No individual organism can exist in isolation. Animals depend on the photosynthesis of plants for their energy needs; plants depend on the carbon dioxide produced by animals and on the nitrogen fixed by bacteria at their roots. Together, plants, animals, and microorganisms regulate the entire biosphere and maintain the conditions conducive to life.

Sustainability always involves a whole community. This is the profound lesson we need to learn from nature. The exchanges of energy and resources in an ecosystem are sustained by pervasive cooperation. Just as animals depend on photosynthesis of plants for their energy needs; plants depend on the carbon dioxide produced by animals and the nitrogen fixed by bacteria at their roots. Together, plants, animals, and microorganisms regulate the entire biosphere and maintain the conditions conducive to life.  Life did not take over the planet by combat but by cooperation, partnership, and networking. Communities of organisms have evolved over billions of years, using and recycling the same molecules of minerals, water, and air.

It is no exaggeration to say that the survival of humanity will depend on our ability in the coming decades to understand these principles of ecology and to live accordingly. Nature demonstrates that sustainable systems are possible. The best of modern science is teaching us to recognize the processes by with the systems maintain themselves. It is up to us to learn to apply these principles and to create systems of education through which coming generations can learn the principles and learn to design societies that honor and complement them.

Fritjof Capra is a founding director of the Center for Ecoliteracy in Berkeley, California and the author of five international bestsellers.

Published November 2007