A review of The Hidden Connections: A Science for Sustainable Living

Written by Fritjof Capra, published by Flamingo, 2003, ISBN 0006551580

Bill Godfrey

This is a valuable successor to Capra’s earlier books, all of which seek to discuss matters of critical societal and ecological concern within the framework of scientific analysis and understanding.

The book is in two parts. The first three chapters provide a brilliant summary of current thinking about the nature of life, mind and consciousness, and social reality as an emergent property of social organization seen as a complex adaptive system. It’s very good but not easy to read. The remaining four chapters and epilogue can be read separately, although they rely on the theories in the first part. They form a wide-ranging critique of the current governance of organizations and of globalization, with what amounts to a very detailed case study of how these structures produce the fundamentally dishonest and very dangerous commercial drive to GM foods. The final chapter offers broad guidelines for reshaping the current political and economic framework to bring economic incentive s into harmony with the needs of society and the natural world.


Part 1: Life, Mind and Society

Ch. 1 The Nature of Life Ch. 2 Mind and Consciousness Ch. 3 Social Reality

Part 2: The Challenges of the Twenty First Century

Ch. 4 Life and Leadership in Organizations Ch. 5 The Networks of Global Capitalism Ch. 6 Biotechnology at a Turning Point Ch. 7 Changing the Game.

Epilogue: Making Sense

The first three chapters discuss life, consciousness and society, demonstrating the continuity of connection from the simplest to the most complex structures and the fact that all operate within the framework of complexity (Capra’s preferred phrase is ‘nonlinear dynamics’) and self-organization.

In Chapter 1, Capra offers a fascinating overview of historical and current theories of the origin of life, together with a detailed description of the structure of the cell.

In Chapter 2, he builds a picture of mind, consciousness and communication that is based very largely on the work of Maturana and Varela (see The Tree of Knowledge) known as the Santiago Theory of Cognition.

In Chapter 3, he extends his synthesis to the social domain explaining culture, power and social structure in terms of the same principles of complexity theory or nonlinear dynamics. Crucial to the argument is the thesis that phenomena such as human communication are emergent at a particular level of complexity - they can not be explained in linear reductionist terms.

These chapters provide the dense and tightly argued platform from which he discusses issues of organizational leadership, globalization and some of their consequences in the rest of the book. In the last chapter he develop s a broad prescription for overcoming evident problems of mismatch between our policy framework and the needs of people, society and the physical environment.

Chapter 4 on life and leadership of organizations rests heavily on the work of Wheatley and Kellner-Rogers (see Leadership and the New Science and A Simpler Way) and on principles of knowledge management, particularly those on the concept of communities of practice (see Wenger: Cultivating Communities of Practice). The theme is the need to build meaning by reconciling the ‘mechanical’ aspects of organization, which tend to be the main focus of profit oriented management, with the human or living element which is expressed in networks of informal communication and communities of practice.

A similar analysis of globalization in Chapter 5 builds on Castells: The Information Age, Economy, Society and Culture, a three volume analysis of the fundamental processes underlying globalization, which contains the conclusion, in Capra’s words:

“...this new capitalism is profoundly different from the one formed during the Industrial revolution... It is characterized by three fundamental features; its core economic activities are global; the main sources of productivity and competitiveness are innovation; and it is structured largely around networks of financial flows.”

Capra gives an overview of the drivers of these developments - including the growing dominance of the global casino of financial markets - and the impacts on poverty, culture, society and the environment. It is a useful summary of the issues, with the same message of the severity of the mismatch between the mechanistic drives of the world economy and societal and environmental needs and methods of operating.

Chapter 6 is a devastating detailed case study of the effects of a biotechnology industry driven by profit to misrepresent both the rationale and the effects of genetic engineering. The description that he gives of the realities of genetic engineering is in stark contrast to the rosy picture painted by the biotechnology industry.

Chapter 7 is concerned with ‘Changing the Game’ which, to Capra, means changing

“the basic principle of unfettered capitalism: that money-making should always be valued higher than democracy, environmental protection or any other value.”

In this he is wrong in an important way. To the true believers, unfettered money-making is by definition the best way of achieving these other values, through reliance on the much vaunted and, in today’s world at least, entirely fictitious ‘invisible hand’. But whether based on a value or a belief, he is right in arguing that it must change. He also argues, after Castells, that

“change flows from the ability to use symbols and cultural codes effectively for framing political discourse.”

The Internet and spontaneous groupings of concerned citizens can make a difference. Capra argues that a powerful coalition is emerging around three issues:

He expands on each of these issues to identify growing points available to meet human needs sustainably.