Systems Thinking and System Change

ecosystem traffic cars

An interview with Fritjof Capra, the founding director of the Center for Ecoliteracy, about the emergence of systems thinking, the root causes of today’s social and environmental problems, and how to change the system itself. Fritjof Capra is a best-selling writer and leading systems thinker and author of The Systems View of Life .  Here you will find some extracts of Marjorie Kelly’s  interviews Capra of about the emergence of systems thinking and what lessons it has to offer in a world of convergent crises. Full article at


MK: Your new book, The Systems View of Life, provides an overview of systems thinking for those in a broad range of professions, from economics and politics to medicine, psychology, and law. Why do you see systems thinking as valuable in so many different settings?

FC: Systems thinking is relevant to all professions and academic disciplines that deal with life in one way or another—with living organisms, social systems, or ecosystems. Systems thinking is inherently multidisciplinary and I hope our textbook will help to create a common language for students of all disciplines.

. . .

Systems thinking thus helps us to understand how all the problems we confront are interconnected. There are no isolated solutions. We need interconnected solutions. The problem of energy cannot be solved by finding cheaper sources of energy. If we had hydrogen fusion right now, or some new energy source that was cheap and safe, all our other problems would only get worse. If you fuel a system that is out of balance, you just have the same system but on steroids. We would damage the rainforests, deplete the ecosphere, pollute the air, and increase health problems. In other words, the energy problem is also a health problem and a food problem and a water problem, and it needs to be addressed as such.

MK: Your work suggests that we need to relearn ecological thinking, which you see as the seedbed of all the changes we need—political, financial, social, economic.

Yes. Ecology is the science of the relationships between the members of an ecosystem, the relationships among the members of the Earth’s household. Systems thinking is all about relationships. If I want to understand the food web of an ecosystem, I need to draw a conceptual map that shows me which species feed on which other species. If I want to understand patterns of communication in a social network, I also have to draw a conceptual map of the relationships among the network’s members. It is the same with the relationships among chemical reactions in a cell. All these are living networks—patterns of relationships that cannot be given numerical values but need to be mapped.

. . .

MK: So what is required for deep change to come about?

In systems thinking, there is a concept of spontaneous emergence of new order. There are basic conditions that are necessary for this to happen. First, you need networks of communication. Typically, these involve feedback loops, as do all living systems. The second condition is openness to outside influence. You could have a network that is an old boys’ club, not letting in women or people of a different class. Or you could have a Swiss village in the mountains that is remote and not accessible to outsiders. So the network itself is not necessarily enough. Next, you need a disturbance from the outside, a piece of news, that travels fast. When information or a disturbance travels, it becomes amplified. And it can be amplified to such an extent that the entire network structure needs to change. This is when a new order emerges.

MK: Let me close by asking you a question which I imagine is on many people’s minds. How bad do you think things will get, and will our planet and our civilization ultimately prove resilient?

People often ask me this. I take inspiration from Vaclav Havel, who turns the question into a meditation on hope. This is how I close my textbook:

[T]he kind of hope that I often think about…I understand is a state of the mind not of the world….[I]t is a dimension of the soul….Hope is definitely not the same thing as optimism. It is not the conviction that something will turn out well, but the certainty that something makes sense, regardless of how it turns out.

I take hope in knowing that what I and a growing number of others are doing is the right thing. If I worried too much about success, it would paralyze me and prevent me from working. If we are to be successful, we need to articulate an alternative to the current system and then try to make it happen. And that is what I’m working toward.

Again, full text if tus interview is available at

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About Fritjof Capra

Fritjof Capra is a physicist, systems theorist, and a founding director of the Center for Ecoliteracy in Berkeley, California, a nonprofit that advances ecological education in K-12 schools. He spent twenty years doing research in theoretical physics and has taught at the University of California, Santa Cruz; the University of California, Berkeley; and San Francisco State University. He currently serves on the faculty at Schumacher College in the UK. Capra is the author of a number of international bestsellers, including The Tao of Physics (1975), The Web of Life (1996), The Hidden Connections (2002), and The Science of Leonardo (2007). He is also co-author, with Pier Luigi Luisi, of the new multidisciplinary textbook, The Systems View of Life: A Unifying Vision.

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About the Great Transition Initiative

The Great Transition Initiative is an online forum of ideas and an international network for the critical exploration of concepts, strategies, and visions for a transition to a future of enriched lives, human solidarity, and a resilient biosphere. By enhancing scholarly discourse and public awareness of possibilities arising from converging social, economic, and environmental crises, and by fostering a broad network of thinkers and doers, it aims to contribute to a new praxis for global transformation.

Correspondingly, GTI maintains a cosmopolitan outlook that is attuned to critical questions of scale and the ways nested systems operate across global, regional, and local levels. It gives voice to diverse contributors motivated by both ethical and pragmatic concerns about the need for revised ways of thinking, learning, acting, and being. It aims to deepen understanding of values and cultural dimensions of global change, along with social, economic, political, and scientific aspects of a Great Transition.

About World Streets Emergency Climate/Habitat/Mobility Action Plan

WORLD STREETS is betting its future over the coming two-year transition period on the ability of certain ambitious responsible cities, nations, organizations and citizens in different parts of the world to come together to break the downward pattern of climate stress — and specifically plan and execute highly aggressive near-term initiatives aimed at sharply cutting greenhouse gas emissions from the mobility sector. And doing all this while working with tools, policies and strategies that harness proven, cost-effective, readily available, measures, technologies, operational and management competence. And our job is to support them as best we can.

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About the editor:

Eric Britton
13, rue Pasteur. Courbevoie 92400 France

Bio: Founding editor of World Streets (1988), Eric Britton is an American political scientist, teacher, occasional consultant, mediator and sustainability activist who has observed, learned, taught and worked on missions and advisory assignments on all continents. In the autumn of 2019, he committed his remaining life work to the challenges of aggressively countering climate change and specifically greenhouse gas emissions emanating from the mobility sector. He is not worried about running out of work. Further background and updates: @ericbritton | | #fekbritton | | and | Contact: | +336 508 80787 (Also WhatApp) | Skype: newmobility.)

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