2013 GOLD INDIEFAB AWARD

THE UNIFICATION OF PHYSICS

PREVIEW OF MY TEXTBOOK

NEW BOOK: LEARNING FROM LEONARDO

QUALITATIVE GROWTH

SHIVA'S COSMIC DANCE AT CERN

WHERE HAVE ALL THE FLOWERS GONE?

 


 



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Learning from Leonardo Receives 2013 Gold IndieFab Award for Science
posted September 2014

Foreword Reviews is the only review magazine dedicated solely to discovering new indie books. The winners of its IndieFab Awards in over 60 categories are chosen by a panel of over 100 librarians and booksellers.

indiefab.forewardreviews.com/winners/2013

I am honored and delighted to have received this prestigious award.

 


 

The Unification of Physics
posted May 2014

(This essay was originally part of Chapter 4 of my new book, The Systems View of Life, coauthored with Pier Luigi Luisi. It had to be cut due to space restrictions, and I am posting it here because I am often asked about the latest developments in particle physics.)

The two basic theories of twentieth-century physics, quantum theory and relativity theory, transcended the principal aspects of the Cartesian worldview and of Newtonian physics. Quantum theory showed that subatomic particles are not isolated grains of matter but are probability patterns, interconnections in an inseparable cosmic web that includes the human observer and his or her consciousness. Relativity theory revealed the intrinsically dynamic character of this cosmic web by showing that its activity is the very essence of its being.

Current research in physics aims at unifying quantum theory and relativity theory into a complete theory of subatomic matter. Such a theory would need to give a full account of the four fundamental forces that operate at the subatomic level: electromagnetism (which binds electrons to the nucleus and controls all chemical processes), gravity, the strong nuclear force (which holds atomic nuclei together), and the weak nuclear force (which is responsible for radioactive decay). Physicists have not yet been able to formulate such a complete theory, but we now have several partial theories that describe some of the four fundamental forces and the phenomena associated with them very well.

The first successful "quantum-relativistic" theory was developed in the 1940s and is known as quantum electrodynamics, or QED. It involved the integration of the principles of quantum mechanics with Einstein's relativistic theory of electromagnetism (the special theory of relativity). This led to the novel concept of the quantum field, a fundamental entity that can exist in continuous form, as a field, and in discontinuous form, as particles, different kinds of particles being associated with different fields. For example, the photon is the particle version of the electromagnetic field. Because of the central role of quantum fields, QED is known as a quantum field theory. It was developed independently by Sin-Itiro Tomonaga in Japan and by Richard Feynman and Julian Schwinger in the United States.

After the completion of QED, physicists concentrated their efforts on extending the formalism of quantum field theory to the strong and weak nuclear forces, which would take another quarter century. QED owes its success to the fact that the electromagnetic interactions are relatively weak and thus make it possible, to a large extent, to maintain the classical distinction between particles and the forces acting between them. It was soon noticed that this is also true for the weak interactions, but the formulation of a corresponding field theory was anything but easy.

The crucial breakthrough occurred in the 1960s with the discovery that a certain mathematical symmetry, known as "gauge symmetry," is shared by the electromagnetic and weak interactions. Mathematical symmetries are used very widely in modern physics as fundamental principles that provide structure and coherence to the laws of nature. To a mathematician the symmetry of an object is a transformation that leaves the object looking exactly the same. For example, we can rotate a square about its center through one or more right angles, and we will always end up with an identical square. In the case of gauge symmetries, the transformation acts on the quantum fields without affecting the value of any measurable physical quantity.

The discovery of a common gauge symmetry of electromagnetic and weak interactions led to the development of a new type of quantum field theories, called gauge theories, which made it possible to unify the two interactions. In the resulting unified field theory known as the Weinberg-Salam theory after its two main architects, Steven Weinberg and Abdus Salam the two interactions remain distinct but become mathematically intertwined and are referred to collectively as "electroweak" interactions.

The extension of the gauge-theory approach to the strong interactions remained highly problematic for many years, since the forces between the so-called hadrons (protons, neutrons, and other strongly interacting particles) are so strong that the distinction between particles and forces becomes blurred. However, during the 1960s an unexpected solution to the problem emerged with the discovery that hadrons were not elementary after all. Physicists Murray Gell-Mann and Georg Zweig independently discovered that hadrons are made of smaller elementary units, called quarks. The proton and neutron each contain three quarks, while other hadrons, called mesons, are composed of two (a quark and an anti-quark, to be precise). Quarks, however, are not particles in the conventional sense. None of them has ever been observed in isolation, and yet the strong interactions between hadrons exhibit striking regularities that can be explained by the quark model. Over the years, physicists have come to accept this strange fact and to think of quarks as being permanently confined within hadrons, bound together by so-called gluons, the carriers of the strong nuclear force.

The discovery of the quark structure was an essential step toward extending the gauge-theory approach to hadrons, because now the strong interactions could be described in terms of the interactions between quarks and gluons, which are much simpler than those among hadrons. The result was a field theory called quantum chromodynamics (QCD), in which the fields are associated with quarks and gluons and "chromo" refers to three types of gluons, arbitrarily labeled "red," "green," and "blue."

The development of QCD in the 1970s completed the representation of three of the four fundamental forces within the single theoretical framework of gauge theory. Like the Weinberg-Salam quantum field theory, QCD is modeled after quantum electrodynamics. In all three theories the forces are transmitted by so-called gauge fields: the electromagnetic field (carried by the photon) in QED, two gauge fields (carried by particles labeled W and Z) in the Weinberg-Salam theory, and three gauge fields (carried by "colored" gluons) in QCD. Both the Weinberg-Salam theory of electroweak interactions and QCD, the theory of strong interactions, have been confirmed by rigorous experimental tests over more than three decades. Together these theories are known today as the standard model of particle physics. The most spectacular confirmation came with the discovery of the W and Z gauge particles, exactly as predicted by the standard model, in the early 1980s by a team of experimenters at CERN, the European center of particle physics, under the leadership of Carlo Rubbia.

In the initial formulations of the standard model, the two gauge particles W and Z needed to be massless, because an exact gauge symmetry requires that the gauge fields correspond to massless particles. This is correct for the photon, the original gauge field, but not for the W and Z, which are very massive particles. In fact, in the original formulation of the standard model all particles were massless. This was an obvious flaw, and physicists immediately set out to search for modifications of the model that would contain the massive particles observed in nature.

The challenge was to modify the standard model in such a way that the gauge symmetry would be maintained in the model's basic equations, but would be broken in their solutions (the various fields and their associated particles) in such a way that the particles could acquire their observed masses. In 1964, three teams of physicists independently proposed such a mechanism of "spontaneous symmetry breaking," which became known as the Higgs mechanism after one of the authors, the British physicist Peter Higgs, who presented the most complete formulation of the underlying mathematics.

The Higgs mechanism required an additional field, known as the Higgs field, which permeates space and interacts with all particles in such a way that their gauge symmetries are broken spontaneously and they acquire their masses. This explained not only how particles acquire mass; it also predicted the mass ratio between the W and Z masses, as well as their couplings with all particles in the standard model. These predictions were subsequently confirmed by precise measurements in large particle accelerators, which dramatically increased the physicists' confidence in the Higgs mechanism.

However, the particle corresponding to the Higgs field, the so-called Higgs boson, eluded detection for half a century, until the Large Hadron Collider, a gigantic particle accelerator at the European research center CERN with a circumference of 27 km, made it possible to analyze trillions of particle collisions at extremely high energies. In March 2012, after five decades of searching, scientists reported that the hunt for the elusive Higgs boson might finally be rewarded; and in July 2012 they announced that a "Higgs-like" particle had been discovered. If this particle indeed turns out to have all the required properties of the Higgs boson, this would represent a triumphant completion of the standard model.

The representation of all three forces as expressions of a single unifying principle the gauge principle must be ranked as one of the greatest achievements in particle physics. However, a grand unified theory (GUT), in which all subatomic particles and the forces between them are seen as different manifestations of just one kind of particle and one gauge field, still remains an elusive dream. Many physicists believe that this dream will not be realized until gravity, the fourth fundamental force, is integrated with the other three forces in a grand unification.

Integrating the force of gravity with the other three fundamental forces requires the unification of quantum theory with Einstein's general theory of relativity. In spite of more than half a century of strenuous efforts, such a unification known as quantum gravity has not been achieved so far. The most popular and most impressive approach, which is still evolving, has been that of string theory, in which all subatomic particles are represented as different states of vibrating mathematical "strings" in an abstract 9-dimensional space.

By picturing all particles, including the gauge particles, as different vibrations of the same fundamental object, string theory presents a unified picture of particles and forces, and by naturally including gravitons as vibrating closed strings it unifies quantum theory and general relativity. The mathematical elegance of the theory, as it has been developed so far, is utterly compelling. Indeed, one of the best non-technical introductions to string theory, the book by physicist Brian Greene, is titled The Elegant Universe (Norton, New York, 1999).

In spite of its conceptual elegance, however, string theory has serious deficiencies. To begin with, there are several versions with different numbers of spatial dimensions, and the process of reducing these dimensions to the 4 dimensions of our actual space-time is not unambiguous. Even more serious is the problem that the theory has not been verified experimentally. There is a large number of different string theories, none of them capable of uniquely explaining the values of the basic parameters of the standard model.

The great potential of string theory, as well as its serious problems, are analyzed in fascinating detail by physicist Lee Smolin in his provocatively titled book The Trouble With Physics (Houghton Mifflin, New York, 2006). Smolin argues that the principal weakness of string theory as a theory of quantum gravity lies in the fact that it is formulated in terms of vibrating strings moving against a fixed background of geometries of space that do not evolve in time. This is inconsistent with general relativity, which shows that the geometry of space and time is not fixed but changes as matter moves about. Hence, any theory consistent with general relativity needs to be formulated in such a way that the structure of space-time emerges from it rather than being assumed as the arena in which the physical phenomena take place. According to Smolin, the fact that string theory is not formulated in such a "background-independent" way is its most serious shortcoming.

Moreover, Smolin argues that a major obstacle standing in the way of a unifying quantum theory with general relativity may be that both are formulated in terms of continuous space-time, but that still unresolved problems in the interpretation of quantum theory (associated with the processes of observation and measurement) point to the possibility that there may be a deeper level of reality which exhibits some kind of fundamental quantum structure out of which continuous space-time emerges as a result of a unified theory of quantum gravity. In Smolin's view, the complete unification of physics will not be possible until the foundational problems of quantum theory are resolved.

 


 

Preview of My Textbook
posted January 2014

Cover of book "The Systems View of life" by Fritjof Capra

My forthcoming book is the realization of a dream I have had for many years. It is a multidisciplinary textbook, coauthored with my friend and colleague Pier Luigi Luisi, Professor of Biology at the University of Rome, and to be published by Cambridge University Press in April 2014.

In this book, titled The Systems View of Life: A Unifying Vision, we present a coherent systemic framework that integrates four dimensions of life: the biological, the cognitive, the social, and the ecological dimension; and we discuss the philosophical, social, and political implications of this unifying vision.

To write this book, I went through all my previous books, collected the relevant passages, updated and modified them as appropriate for an undergraduate textbook, and added many new passages in collaboration with my coauthor. So, for me this book is a summary of my work as a writer over the past forty years.

We believe that it will be critical for present and future generations of young students and researchers to understand the new systemic conception of life and its implications for a broad range of professions from economics, management, and politics, to medicine, psychology, and law. In addition, the book will be useful for undergraduate students in the life sciences and the humanities.

The book offers a broad sweep through the history of ideas and across scientific disciplines. Beginning with the Renaissance and the Scientific Revolution, the historical account includes the evolution of Cartesian mechanism from the seventeenth to the twentieth centuries, the rise of systems thinking, the development of complexity theory, recent discoveries at the forefront of biology, the emergence of the systems view of life at the turn of this century, and its economic, ecological, political, and spiritual implications.

 


 

New Book
Learning from Leonardo: Decoding the Notebooks of a Genius
posted December 2013

My new book, Learning from Leonardo, has now been published by Berrett-Koehler in San Francisco. For details, please visit the publisher's website.

 

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Qualitative Growth
coauthored with Hazel Henderson, posted September 2009

A conceptual framework for finding solutions to our current crisis
that are economically sound, ecologically sustainable, and socially just

© 2009 Fritjof Capra, © 2009 Hazel Henderson;
published by the Institute of Chartered Accountants in England & Wales
as part of its thought leadership series Outside Insights 

 

The current global recession has been dominating the news since the beginning of the year. Every day we hear about people buying fewer cars, factories that produced sport-utility and recreational vehicles being closed, oil consumption (and thus the price of oil) decreasing dramatically, retailers complaining about consumers spending less money on luxury items, and so on. From an ecological point of view, all of this is good news, since continuing growth of such material consumption on a finite planet can only lead to catastrophe. Yet, it poses a contradictory "paradox of thrift." For example, President Obama's $787 billion stimulus plan, including "cash for clunkers" to increase car sales, is designed to raise consumption levels in both the public and private sectors, while increased savings are also desirable to contain deficits.

At the same time, we hear day after day about companies that respond to the decrease in their sales by reducing their workforce, rather than reducing their profits or taking losses. Thus every decrease of material over-consumption, which is good news ecologically speaking, entails human hardship through increasing job losses. At the same time, over 2 billion people who do not over-consume are even further deprived by conventional economic growth, free trade, and globalization.

It seems that our key challenge is how to shift from an economic system based on the notion of unlimited growth to one that is both ecologically sustainable and socially just. "No growth" is not the answer. Growth is a central characteristic of all life; a society, or economy, that does not grow will die sooner or later. Growth in nature, however, is not linear and unlimited. While certain parts of organisms, or ecosystems, grow, others decline, releasing and recycling their components which become resources for new growth.

In this essay, we want to define and describe this kind of balanced, multi-faceted growth, well known to biologists and ecologists, and apply its principles to the economy, and in particular to the current economic crisis. We propose to use the term "qualitative growth" for this purpose in contrast to the concept of quantitative growth used by economists.

The economists' practice of equating growth with social "progress" has been critiqued by environmentalists, ecologists, and civic groups dedicated to social justice. It was first widely challenged at the second UN Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro in 1992. Over 170 governments agreed to correct the economists' quantitative view of growth. These challenges have been ignored until recently, since they included demands that companies and government agencies include on their balance sheets social and environmental costs, which they routinely "externalized" to taxpayers, the environment, and future generations. Concerns about global climate change and pollution are now focusing on "internalizing" such costs in accounting as well as in national accounts.

Gross Domestic Product (GDP)

Most economists still measure a country's wealth in terms of its GDP (the metric enshrined in the United Nations System of National Accounts, UNSNA) in which all economic activities associated with monetary values are added up indiscriminately while all non-monetary aspects of the economy are ignored. Social costs, like those of accidents, wars, litigation, and health care, are added as positive contributions to the GDP, as are "defensive expenditures" on mitigating pollution and similar externalities, and the undifferentiated growth of this crude quantitative index is considered to be the sign of a "healthy" economy. Thus, GDP measures the quantity of money-based transactions recorded in a society while omitting "underground" cash payments, barter and exchange in the informal sectors and all voluntary services within communities and families. The UN's Human Development Index (HDI) first estimated this unpaid productive work in 1995 at $16 trillion ($11 trillion by women and $5 trillion by men) simply missing from 1995's global GDP of $24 trillion. The idea that growth can be obstructive, unhealthy, or pathological is rarely entertained by economists, even though they have been criticized for decades. Yet, Simon Kuznets, creator of GDP national accounts, warned in 1934 that such a limited, one-dimensional metric should not be used as an index of overall social progress. Alas, this error of misplaced concreteness was widely adopted by governments, mass media, and academia.

The goal of most national economies is to achieve unlimited growth of their GDP through the continuing accumulation of material goods and expansion of services. The over-expansion of financial services, in particular, is parasitic on the real economy and led to the current collapse. Since human needs are finite, but human greed is not, economic growth can usually be maintained through the artificial creation of needs through advertising. The goods that are produced and sold in this way are often unneeded, and therefore are essentially waste. Moreover, the pollution and depletion of natural resources generated by this enormous waste of unnecessary goods is exacerbated by the waste of energy and materials in inefficient production processes.

The recognition of the fallacy of the conventional concept of economic growth, which was pointed out by one of us as early as 1971, is the first essential step in overcoming the economic crisis.1 Social-change activist Frances Moore Lappé adds, "Since what we call 'growth' is largely waste, let's call it that! Let's call it an economics of waste and destruction. Let's define growth as that which enhances life — as generation and regeneration — and declare that what our planet most needs is more of it."2 This notion of "growth which enhances life" is what we mean by qualitative growth — growth that enhances the quality of life. In living organisms, ecosystems and societies, qualitative growth consists in an increase of complexity, sophistication, and maturity.

Thus, the GDP remained unchallenged for decades, since an entire paradigm shift was needed (Kuhn, 1962).  Why has the ubiquitous use of GDP persisted since Agenda 21 and its Article 40 calling for an overhaul was signed by all those 170 governments in Rio de Janeiro in 1992?  Institutional inertia and conflicting interests between powerful, private sector groups, government agencies and academia hampered and skewed research on correcting GDP, while economic ideologies contested for the new intellectual territory.  Corporations and other private-sector actors had the most to lose if all those "externalities" had to be internalized in all balance sheets and annual reports.  The economics profession, with huge intellectual investments in textbooks, grants, consulting fees, in the status quo, failed to address the issue.  The few outliers who heeded Simon Kuznets' warnings were marginalized and still are.  Research grants flowed to orthodox academic programs from the strong ministries in most governments: central banks, economic development and trade-promotion agencies.  Weak ministries, usually with social welfare, education, poverty, health and environmental concerns, offered a few grants in creating "satellite accounts" to collect the additional data – ensuring its obscurity.   Media played a huge role, since most editors and journalists simply reported GDP figures, with little time or incentive to question them.

In order to gain a full understanding of the concepts of quantitative and qualitative growth, it will be useful to briefly review the roles played by quantities and qualities in the history of Western science.                      

Quantities and Qualities in Western Science

At the dawn of modern science, in the Renaissance, Leonardo da Vinci declared that the painter, "with philosophic and subtle speculation considers all the qualities of forms."3 He insisted that the "art," or skill of painting must be supported by the painter's "science," or sound knowledge, of living forms, by his intellectual understanding of their intrinsic nature and underlying principles.

Leonardo's science, like Galileo's a hundred years later, was based on the systematic observation of nature, reasoning, and mathematics — the empirical approach known today as the scientific method — but its contents were quite different from the mechanistic science developed by Galileo, Descartes, and Newton. It was a science of organic forms, of qualities, of patterns of organization and processes of transformation.4

In the 17th century, Galileo postulated that, in order to be effective in describing nature mathematically, scientists should restrict themselves to studying those properties of material bodies — shapes, numbers, and movement — which could be measured and quantified. Other properties, like color, sound, taste, or smell, were merely subjective mental projections which should be excluded from the domain of science.

Galileo's strategy of directing the scientist's attention to the quantifiable properties of matter proved extremely successful in classical physics, but it also exacted a heavy toll. During the centuries after Galileo, the focus on quantities was extended from the study of matter to all natural and social phenomena within the framework of the mechanistic worldview of Cartesian-Newtonian science. By excluding colors, sound, taste, touch, and smell — let alone more complex qualities, such as beauty, health, or ethical sensibility — the emphasis on quantification prevented scientists for several centuries to understand many essential properties of life. In the 20th century, the narrow mechanistic and quantitative approach led to major stumbling blocks in biology, psychology, and the social sciences.5

The past three decades, however, have seen a renewed attention to quality. During these decades,  a new systemic conception of life emerged at the forefront of science, which, in fact, shows many striking similarities with the views held by Leonardo 500 years ago. Today, the universe is no longer seen as a machine  composed of elementary building blocks. We have discovered that the material world, ultimately, is a network of inseparable patterns of relationships; that the planet as a whole is a living, self-regulating system. The view of the human body as a machine and of the mind as a separate entity is being replaced by one that sees not only the brain, but also the immune system, the bodily tissues, and even each cell as a living, cognitive system. Evolution is no longer seen as a competitive struggle for existence, but rather as a cooperative dance in which creativity and the constant emergence of novelty are the driving forces. And with the new emphasis on complexity, networks, and patterns of organization, a new science of qualities is slowly emerging.6

The Nature of Quality

The new systemic understanding of life makes it possible to formulate a scientific concept of quality. In fact, it seems that there are two different meanings of the term — one objective and the other subjective. In the objective sense, the qualities of a complex system refer to properties of the system that none of its parts exhibit. Quantities, like mass or energy, tell us about the properties of the parts, and their sum total is equal to the corresponding property of the whole, e.g. the total mass or energy. Qualities, like stress or health, by contrast, cannot be expressed as the sum of properties of the parts. Qualities arise from processes and patterns of relationships among the parts. Hence, we cannot understand the nature of complex systems such as organisms, ecosystems, societies, and economies if we try to describe them in purely quantitative terms. Quantities can be measured; qualities need to be mapped.

As the attention shifted from quantities to qualities in the life sciences, there has been a corresponding conceptual shift in mathematics. In fact, this began in physics during the 1960s with the strong emphasis on symmetry, which is a quality, and it intensified during the subsequent decades with the development of complexity theory, or nonlinear dynamics, which is a mathematics of patterns and relationships. The strange attractors of chaos theory and the fractals of fractal geometry are visual patterns representing the qualities of complex systems.7

In the human realm, the notion of quality always seems to include references to human experiences, which are subjective aspects. For example, the quality of a person's health can be assessed in terms of objective factors, but it includes a subjective experience of well-being as a significant element. Similarly, the quality of a human relationship derives largely from subjective mutual experiences. The aesthetic quality of a work of art, as the saying goes, is in the eye of the beholder. Since all qualities arise from processes and patterns of relationships, they will necessarily include subjective elements if these processes and relationships involve human beings.

Accordingly, many of the new indicators of a country's progress use multi-disciplinary, systemic approaches with appropriate metrics for measuring the many aspects of quality of life. For example, the Calvert-Henderson Quality of Life Indicators measure twelve such aspects and use monetary coefficients only where appropriate while rejecting the conventional macroeconomic tool of aggregating all these qualitatively different aspects into a single number, like GDP.8 Similarly, the UN's HDI, launched in 1990, which has become the principle contender in complementing GDP, brings in such qualitative measures of poverty, health, gender equity, education, social inclusion and environment – none of which can be reduced to money-coefficients or aggregated into a simple number.

Growth and Development

The previous considerations about qualities and quantities can be applied to the concept of qualitative growth and the phenomenon of development, which is related to growth. Like "growth," "development" is used today in two quite different senses — one qualitative and the other quantitative.

For biologists, development is a fundamental property of life. According to the new systemic understanding of life, every living system occasionally encounters points of instability where there is either a breakdown or, more frequently, a spontaneous emergence of new forms of order. This spontaneous emergence of novelty is one of the hallmarks of life. It has been recognized as the dynamic origin of development, learning, and evolution. In other words, creativity — the generation of new forms — is a key property of all living systems. This means that all living systems develop; life continually reaches out to create novelty.

The biological concept of development implies a sense of multi-faceted unfolding; of living organisms, ecosystems, or human communities reaching their potential. Most economists, by contrast, restrict the use of "development" to a single economic dimension, usually measured in terms of per capita GDP. The huge diversity of human existence is compressed into this linear, quantitative concept and then converted into monetary coefficients. The entire world is thus arbitrarily categorized into "developed," "developing," and “less developed" countries. Economists recognize only money and cash flows, ignoring all other forms of fundamental wealth — all ecological, social, and cultural assets.

It appears that this linear view of economic development, as used by most mainstream and corporate economists and politicians, corresponds to the narrow quantitative concept of economic growth, while the biological and ecological sense of development corresponds to the notion of qualitative growth. In fact, the biological concept of development includes both quantitative and qualitative growth.

A developing organism, or ecosystem, grows according to its stage of development. Typically, a young organism will go through periods of rapid physical growth. In ecosystems, this early phase of rapid growth is known as a pioneer ecosystem, characterized by rapid expansion and colonization of the territory. The rapid growth is always followed by slower growth, by maturation, and ultimately by decline and decay or, in ecosystems, by so-called succession. As living systems mature, their growth processes shift from quantitative to qualitative growth.

When we study nature, we can see quite clearly that unlimited quantitative growth, as promoted so vigorously by economists and politicians, is unsustainable. An instructive example is the rapid growth of cancer cells, which does not recognize boundaries and is not sustainable because the cancer cells die when the host organism dies. Similarly, unlimited quantitative economic growth on a finite planet cannot be sustainable.9 Qualitative economic growth, by contrast, can be sustainable if it involves a dynamic balance between growth, decline, and recycling, and if it also includes development in terms of learning and maturing.9a

The distinction between quantitative and qualitative economic growth also sheds some light on the widely used but problematic concept of "sustainable development." If "development" is used in the current narrow economic sense associated with the notion of unlimited quantitative growth, such economic development can never be sustainable, and the term "sustainable development" would be an oxymoron. If, however, the process of development is understood as more than a purely economic process, including social, ecological, and spiritual dimensions, and if it is associated with qualitative economic growth, then  such a multidimensional systemic process can indeed be sustainable. Many in business, government, and civic society now use the term "sustainability" to examine these issues, along with hundreds of new academic programs and consulting firms. Much work remains to be done in defining "sustainability" in all these contexts, and it must be multi-disciplinary.  Unfortunately, the economics profession is laying claim to this new field, as it has attempted to colonize other issues, including climate change and other disciplines, sociology, anthropology, psychology and most recently the neurosciences.

Qualitative Economic Growth and the Global Crisis

Let us now return to the central challenge of our economic and ecological crisis: How can we transform the global economy from a system striving for unlimited quantitative growth, which is manifestly unsustainable, to one that is ecologically sound without generating human hardship through more unemployment?

The concept of qualitative economic growth will be a crucial tool in this task. Instead of assessing the state of the economy in terms of the crude quantitative measure of GDP, we need to distinguish between "good" growth and "bad" growth and then increase the former at the expense of the latter, so that the natural and human resources tied up in wasteful and unsound production processes can be freed and recycled as resources for efficient and sustainable processes. A step forward in this direction was the "Beyond GDP" conference in the European Parliament in November 2007, spearheaded by the European Commission together with the World Wildlife Fund for Nature, the OECD, EUROSTAT (Europe's statistical agency), and the Club of Rome.10

From the ecological point of view, the distinction between "good" and "bad" economic growth is obvious. Bad growth is growth of production processes and services that externalize social and environmental costs, are based on fossil fuels, involve toxic substances, deplete our natural resources, and degrade the Earth's ecosystems. Good growth is growth of more efficient production processes and services that fully internalize costs, involve renewable energies, zero emissions, continual recycling of natural resources, and restoration of the Earth's ecosystems. Climate change and the other manifestations of our global environmental crisis make it imperative that we shift from our destructive production processes to sustainable "green," or "ecodesign" alternatives; and it so happens that these alternatives will also solve our economic crisis in ways that are socially just. We see corresponding systemic policies in the UN's Green Economy Initiative, launched in December 2008 in Geneva by the UN Environment Programme, the International Labor Organization, and the UN Development Program, and keynoted by one of us.11 Other similar initiatives are the UK-based Green New Deal and the Global Marshall Plan for a socially just green economy, based in Germany.12 In June 2009, the UN General Assembly adopted the financial reforms proposed by the Stiglitz Commission and endorsed the shift away from fossil fuels to low-carbon green growth.  Member countries of the UN also viewed this green re-industrialization as meshing with the UN Millennium Development Goals for alleviating poverty, investing in education while creating millions of new jobs.

In recent years, there has been a dramatic rise in ecologically oriented design practices and projects, all of which are now well documented.13 They include a worldwide renaissance in organic farming; the organization of different industries into ecological clusters, in which the waste of any one organization is a resource for another; the shift from a product-oriented economy to a "service-and-flow" economy, in which industrial raw materials and technical components cycle continually between manufacturers and users; buildings that are designed to produce more energy than they use, emit no waste, and monitor their own performance; hybrid-electric cars achieving fuel efficiencies of 50 mpg and more; and a dramatic rise in wind-generated electricity beyond the most optimistic projections. In fact, with the development of plug-in hybrids and wind farms, the cars of the future could run primarily on wind energy.

These ecodesign technologies and projects all incorporate basic principles of ecology and therefore have some key characteristics in common. They tend to be small-scale projects with plenty of diversity, energy efficient, non-polluting, and community oriented. Most importantly, they tend to be labor intensive, creating plenty of jobs. Indeed, the potential of creating local jobs through investment in green technologies, restoration of ecosystems, and redesigning of our infrastructure is enormous — a fact that has been clearly recognized by President Obama who has begun, together with Congress, to turn these ideas into realities in the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009.

A detailed roadmap for moving from quantitative to qualitative growth, and thus to find solutions to the global crisis that are ecologically sustainable and socially just, is beyond the scope of this essay. A few steps that seem to be critical are the following.

• Models of qualitative growth need to be formulated by multi-disciplinary teams, compared, and promoted in business, government, and the media. Accordingly, these sets of broader social/environmental indicators now need to be adopted. This will require political will, public pressure, and education of media editors and reporters.

• Tax systems need to be restructured by reducing taxes on work and raising them on various environmentally destructive activities, so as to "internalize" and incorporate all such costs into prices in the market place. Such "green taxes" are being adopted in many countries. They should include a carbon tax and a gasoline tax, which can be gradually phased in while offsetting them with reductions in income and payroll taxes. Shifting taxes from incomes and payrolls to waste, all pollution as well as  carbon and nonrenewable resources will gradually drive wasteful, harmful technologies and consumption patterns out of the market . This  will raise the shareholder value of companies producing green alternatives.

• Beyond tax shifting, companies need to reassess their production processes and services to determine which ones are ecologically destructive and thus in need of being phased out. At the same time, they should diversify in the direction of green products and services. As new accounting protocols are adopted which fully account for social, environmental, and governance (ESG) factors, companies are being steered toward these more sustainable products, services, and practices by their investors, including socially-responsible mutual funds, pension funds, labor unions, civic groups, and individual investors.14

• Reforming international finance and monetary systems is now urgent. The G-20 Summit in London, April 2nd, 2009, included debates about how to curb excessive leverage, risk-taking, pay and bonuses; and how to regulate speculation in currency markets ($3 trillion traded daily) and credit derivatives ($683 trillion now outstanding,15 as compared with global GDP of only $65 trillion). These new rules need to be global by agreements — the only way they can work in our globalized financial system. The UN members, the G-192, agreed with most of these reforms in their summit at the General Assembly in New York, June 2009.  The G-192 is now a more democratic group than the G-20, and both are rendering the G-8 obsolete.

• All these reforms will often involve shifts of perception from a product orientation to a service orientation and "dematerializing" of our productive economies. For example, an automobile company should realize that it is not necessarily in the business of selling cars but rather in the business of providing mobility, which can also be achieved, among many other things, by producing more buses and trains and by redesigning our cities. Similarly, countries, and especially the United States, should realize that fighting climate change is today's most important and most urgent security issue. The Obama Administration should reduce the Pentagon's budget accordingly, while increasing funds for diplomacy mitigating climate-related threats to global security and building the new "green" economy.

• At the individual level, a corresponding shift of perception will turn from finding satisfaction in material consumption to finding it in human relationships and community building. Such value shifts are now promoted by many civic groups as well as by some television series, such as "Ethical Markets."16 A proposal to alter the favored tax status for corporate advertising across the board aims at reducing advertising in a fair manner without jeopardizing the rights of free speech.17

Qualitative Growth Beyond Economics

The challenge of shifting from quantitative to qualitative economic growth will create new industries while downsizing others according to ecological and social criteria. As full-cost pricing, life-cycle costing, as well as social, environmental, and ethical auditing become the norm, we can see which production processes should be increased and which ones should be phased out. Any serious engagement in this endeavor will make it evident that the major problems of our time — energy, the environment, climate change, food security, and financial security — cannot be understood in isolation.  They are systemic problems, which means that they are all interconnected and interdependent.

To mention just a few of these interdependencies, demographic pressure and poverty form a vicious circle which, exacerbated by capital-intensive technologies, leads to the depletion of resources — fewer jobs, falling water tables, shrinking forests, collapsing fisheries, eroding soils, wider poverty gaps, and so on. Faulty GDP-growth economics exacerbates climate change and aggravates both resource depletion and poverty, even leading to failing states whose governments can no longer provide security for their citizens, some of whom in sheer desperation turn to terrorism.18 Even the fundamental issue of human population growth on a finite planet is now seen as crucially related to the education and empowerment of the world's women – a qualitative and ethical issue.

The fundamental interconnectedness of our major problems makes it clear that we need to go beyond economics to overcome the global economic crisis. On the other hand, such systemic understanding makes it possible to find systemic solutions — solutions that solve several problems at once. For example, changing from chemical, large-scale industrial agriculture to organic, community-oriented, sustainable farming would contribute significantly to solving three of our biggest problems: energy dependence, climate change, and the health care crisis.19

Numerous systemic solutions of this kind have recently been developed and tested around the world.20 They make it evident that the shift from quantitative to qualitative growth, using all the new quality-of-life and well-being indicators, can steer countries from environmental destruction to ecological sustainability, and from unemployment, poverty, and waste to the creation of meaningful and dignified work. This global transition to sustainability is no longer a conceptual, nor a technical problem. It is a problem of values and political will.

 

FRITJOF CAPRA, physicist and systems theorist, is a founding director of the Center for Ecoliteracy in Berkeley, California. He is the author of The Web of Life (1996) and The Hidden Connections (2002). He co-authored EcoManagement (1993) and co-edited Steering Business Toward Sustainability (1995).

HAZEL HENDERSON, author of Ethical Markets: Growing the Green Economy (2006) and co-creator with the Calvert Group of the Calvert-Henderson Quality of Life Indicators, served on the Organizing Committee for the Beyond GDP conference in the European Parliament (2007).

 

 

1 Hazel Henderson, "Ecologists versus Economists," New York Times business section, October 24, 1971.

2 Frances Moore Lappé, "Liberation Ecology," Resurgence (UK), January/February 2009.

3 Quoted in Fritjof Capra, The Science of Leonardo, Doubleday, 2007.

4 See ibid.

5 See Fritjof Capra, The Turning Point, Simon & Schuster, New York, 1982.

6 See Fritjof Capra, The Hidden Connections, Doubleday, New York, 2002.

7 See Fritjof Capra, The Web of Life, Anchor Books, New York, 1996.

8 Hazel Henderson, Jon Lickerman, and Patrice Flynn (eds.), Calvert-Henderson Quality of Life Indicators, Calvert Group, Maryland, 2000; Calvert-Henderson Quality of Life Indicators, updated regularly at www.calvert-henderson.com.

9 See, e.g., Herman Daly, Steady-State Economics, W.H. Freeman, New York, 1977; reprinted by Island Press, Washington, DC, 1991.

9a Hazel Henderson, "The Limits of Traditional Economics: New Models for Managing a Steady State Economy," Financial Analysts Journal, May-June, 1973.

10 See proceedings at www.beyond-gdp.eu.

11 Hazel Henderson, "Re-Designing Money Systems to Reduce Greeenhouse Gases and Grow the Green Economy," www.EthicalMarkets.com.

12 Towards a World in Balance, Global Marshall Plan Initiative, Hamburg, Germany, 2006; European Hope, Global Marshall Plan Initiative, Hamburg, Germany, 2006; see also Network of Spiritual Progressives (U.S.), "The Global Marshall Plan," www.spiritualprogressives.org

13 See, e.g., Paul Hawken, Amory Lovins, and Hunter Lovins, Natural Capitalism, Little  Brown, New York, 1999; see also Fritjof Capra, ref. 6. 

14 See Hazel Henderson, Ethical Markets: Growing the Green Economy, Chelsea Green, White River Junction, Vermont, 2006.

15 See Bank for International Settlements, Basel, Switzerland, December 2008.

16 Seen on PBS stations and at www.ethicalmarkets.tv.

17 See Hazel Henderson and Alan F. Kay, "The Truth in Advertising Assurance Set- Aside: A Proposal to Help Steer the U.S. Economy Toward Sustainability," United Nations Human Development Report, UNDP, New York, 1998.

18 See Lester Brown, Plan B 3.0, Norton, New York, 2008, for detailed documentation of the fundamental interconnectedness of world problems.

19 See Michael Pollan, "Farmer in Chief," New York Times Magazine, October 10, 2008; see also Michael Pollan, In Defense of Food, Penguin, 2008.

20 See Lester Brown, ref. 18.

 

 

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Shiva's Cosmic Dance at Cern
posted June 2004


photo credit: Giovanni Chierico

 

On June 18, 2004, an unusual new landmark was unveiled at CERN, the European Center for Research in Particle Physics in Geneva — a 2m tall statue of the Indian deity Shiva Nataraja, the Lord of Dance. The statue, symbolizing Shiva's cosmic dance of creation and destruction, was given to CERN by the Indian government to celebrate the research center's long association with India.

In choosing the image of Shiva Nataraja, the Indian government acknowledged the profound significance of the metaphor of Shiva's dance for the cosmic dance of subatomic particles, which is observed and analyzed by CERN's physicists. The parallel between Shiva's dance and the dance of subatomic particles was first discussed by Fritjof Capra in an article titled "The Dance of Shiva: The Hindu View of Matter in the Light of Modern Physics," published in Main Currents in Modern Thought in 1972. Shiva's cosmic dance then became a central metaphor in Capra's international bestseller The Tao of Physics, first published in 1975 and still in print in over 40 editions around the world.

A special plaque next to the Shiva statue at CERN explains the significance of the metaphor of Shiva's cosmic dance with several quotations from The Tao of Physics. Here is the text of the plaque:

Ananda K. Coomaraswamy, seeing beyond the unsurpassed rhythm, beauty, power and grace of the Nataraja, once wrote of it "It is the clearest image of the activity of God which any art or religion can boast of."

More recently, Fritjof Capra explained that "Modern physics has shown that the rhythm of creation and destruction is not only manifest in the turn of the seasons and in the birth and death of all living creatures, but is also the very essence of inorganic matter," and that "For the modern physicists, then, Shiva's dance is the dance of subatomic matter."

It is indeed as Capra concluded: "Hundreds of years ago, Indian artists created visual images of dancing Shivas in a beautiful series of bronzes. In our time, physicists have used the most advanced technology to portray the patterns of the cosmic dance. The metaphor of the cosmic dance thus unifies ancient mythology, religious art and modern physics."

 

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Where Have All the Flowers Gone?
Reflections on the Spirit and Legacy of the Sixties
posted December 2002

The 1960s were the period of my life during which I experienced the most profound and most radical personal transformation. For those of us who identify with the cultural and political movements of the sixties, that period represents not so much a decade as a state of consciousness, characterized by "transpersonal" expansion, the questioning of authority, a sense of empowerment, and the experience of sensuous beauty and community.

This state of consciousness reached well into the seventies. In fact, one could say that the sixties came to an end only in December 1980, with the shot that killed John Lennon. The immense sense of loss felt by so many of us was, to a great extent, about the loss of an era. For a few days after the fatal shooting we relived the magic of the sixties. We did so in sadness and with tears, but the same feeling of enchantment and of community was once again alive. Wherever you went during those few days — in every neighborhood, every city, every country around the world — you heard John Lennon's music, and the intense idealism that had carried us through the sixties manifested itself once again:

You may say I'm a dreamer,
but I'm not the only one.
I hope some day you'll join us
and the world will live as one.

In this essay, I shall try to evoke the spirit of that remarkable period, identify its defining characteristics, and provide an answer to some questions that are often asked nowadays: What happened to the cultural movements of the sixties? What did they achieve, and what, if any, is their legacy?

expansion of consciousness

The era of the sixties was dominated by an expansion of consciousness in two directions. One movement, in reaction to the increasing materialism and secularism of Western society, embraced a new kind of spirituality akin to the mystical traditions of the East. This involved an expansion of consciousness toward experiences involving nonordinary modes of awareness, which are traditionally achieved through meditation but may also occur in various other contexts, and which psychologists at the time began to call "transpersonal." Psychedelic drugs played a significant role in that movement, as did the human potential movement's promotion of expanded sensory awareness, expressed in its exhortation, "Get out of your head and into your senses!"

The first expansion of consciousness, then, was a movement beyond materialism and toward a new spirituality, beyond ordinary reality via meditative and psychedelic experiences, and beyond rationality through expanded sensory awareness. The combined effect was a continual sense of magic, awe, and wonder that for many of us will forever be associated with the sixties.

questioning of authority

The other movement was an expansion of social consciousness, triggered by a radical questioning of authority. This happened independently in several areas. While the American civil rights movement demanded that Black citizens be included in the political process, the free speech movement at Berkeley and student movements at other universities throughout the United States and Europe demanded the same for students.

In Europe, these movements culminated in the memorable revolt of French university students that is still known simply as "May '68." During that time, all research and teaching activities came to a complete halt at most French universities when the students, led by Daniel Cohn-Bendit, extended their critique to society as a whole and sought the solidarity of the French labor movement to change the entire social order. For three weeks, the administrations of Paris and other French cities, public transport, and businesses of every kind were paralyzed by a general strike. In Paris, people spent most of their time discussing politics in the streets, while the students held strategic discussions at the Sorbonne and other universities. In addition, they occupied the Odéon, the spacious theater of the Comédie Française, and transformed it into a twenty-four-hour "people's parliament," where they discussed their stimulating, albeit highly idealistic, visions of a future social order.

1968 was also the year of the celebrated "Prague Spring," during which Czech citizens, led by Alexander Dubcek, questioned the authority of the Soviet regime, which alarmed the Soviet Communist party to such an extent that, a few months later, it crushed the democratization processes initiated in Prague in its brutal invasion of Czechoslovakia.

In the United States, opposition to the Vietnam war became a political rallying point for the student movement and the counterculture. It sparked a huge anti-war movement, which exerted a major influence on the American political scene and led to many memorable events, including the decision by President Johnson not to seek reelection, the turbulent 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago, the Watergate scandal, and the resignation of President Nixon.

a new sense of community

While the civil rights movement questioned the authority of white society and the student movements questioned the authority of their universities on political issues, the women's movement began to question patriarchal authority; humanistic psychologists undermined the authority of doctors and therapists; and the sexual revolution, triggered by the availability of birth control pills, broke down the puritan attitudes toward sexuality that were typical of American culture.

The radical questioning of authority and the expansion of social and transpersonal consciousness gave rise to a whole new culture — a "counterculture" — that defined itself in opposition to the dominant "straight" culture by embracing a different set of values. The members of this alternative culture, who were called "hippies" by outsiders but rarely used that term themselves, were held together by a strong sense of community. To distinguish ourselves from the crew cuts and polyester suits of that era's business executives, we wore long hair, colorful and individualistic clothes, flowers, beads, and other jewelry. Many of us were vegetarians who often baked our own bread, practiced yoga or some other form of meditation, and learned to work with our hands in various crafts.

Our subculture was immediately identifiable and tightly bound together. It had its own rituals, music, poetry, and literature; a common fascination with spirituality and the occult; and the shared vision of a peaceful and beautiful society. Rock music and psychedelic drugs were powerful bonds that strongly influenced the art and lifestyle of the hippie culture. In addition, the closeness, peacefulness, and trust of the hippie communities were expressed in casual communal nudity and freely shared sexuality. In our homes we would frequently burn incense and keep little altars with eclectic collections of statues of Indian gods and goddesses, meditating Buddhas, yarrow stalks or coins for consulting the I Ching, and various personal "sacred" objects.

Although different branches of the sixties movement arose independently and often remained distinct movements with little overlap for several years, they eventually became aware of one another, expressed mutual solidarity, and, during the 1970s, merged more or less into a single subculture. By that time, psychedelic drugs, rock music, and the hippie fashion had transcended national boundaries and had forged strong ties among the international counterculture. Multinational hippie tribes gathered in several countercultural centers — London, Amsterdam, San Francisco, Greenwich Village — as well as in more remote and exotic cities like Marrakech and Katmandu. These frequent cross-cultural exchanges gave rise to an "alternative global awareness" long before the onset of economic globalization.

the sixties' music

The zeitgeist of the sixties found expression in many art forms that often involved radical innovations, absorbed various facets of the counterculture, and strengthened the multiple relationships among the international alternative community.

Rock music was the strongest among these artistic bonds. The Beatles broke down the authority of studios and songwriters by writing their own music and lyrics, creating new musical genres, and setting up their own production company. While doing so, they incorporated many facets of the period's characteristic expansion of consciousness into their songs and lifestyles.

Bob Dylan expressed the spirit of the political protests in powerful poetry and music that became anthems of the sixties. The Rolling Stones represented the counterculture's irreverence, exuberance, and sexual energy, while San Francisco's "acid rock" scene gave expression to its psychedelic experiences.

At the same time, the "free jazz" of John Coltrane, Ornette Coleman, Sun Ra, Archie Shepp, and others shattered conventional forms of jazz improvisation and gave expression to spirituality, radical political poetry, street theater, and other elements of the counterculture. Like the jazz musicians, classical composers, such as Karlheinz Stockhausen in Germany and John Cage in the United States, broke down conventional musical forms and incorporated much of the sixties' spontaneity and expanded awareness into their music.

The fascination of the hippies with Indian religious philosophies, art, and culture led to a great popularity of Indian music. Most record collections in those days contained albums of Ravi Shankar, Ali Akbar Khan, and other masters of classical Indian music along with rock and folk music, jazz and blues.

The rock and drug culture of the sixties found its visual expressions in the psychedelic posters of the era's legendary rock concerts, especially in San Francisco, and in album covers of ever increasing sophistication, which became lasting icons of the sixties' subculture. Many rock concerts also featured "light shows" — a novel form of psychedelic art in which images of multicolored, pulsating, and ever changing shapes were projected onto walls and ceilings. Together with the loud rock music, these visual images created highly effective simulations of psychedelic experiences.

new literary forms

The main expressions of sixties' poetry were in the lyrics of rock and folk music. In addition, the "beat poetry" of Allen Ginsberg, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Gary Snyder, and others, which had originated a decade earlier and shared many characteristics with the sixties' art forms, remained popular in the counterculture.

One of the major new literary forms was the "magical realism" of Latin American literature. In their short stories and novels, writers like Jorges Luis Borges and Gabriel García Márquez blended descriptions of realistic scenes with fantastic and dreamlike elements, metaphysical allegories, and mythical images. This was a perfect genre for the counterculture's fascination with altered states of consciousness and pervasive sense of magic.

In addition to the Latin American magical realism, science fiction, especially the complex series of Dune novels by Frank Herbert, exerted great fascination on the sixties' youth, as did the fantasy writings of J. R. R. Tolkien and Kurt Vonnegut. Many of us also turned to literary works of the past, such as the romantic novels of Hermann Hesse, in which we saw reflections of our own experiences.

Of equal, if not greater, popularity were the semi-fictional shamanistic writings of Carlos Castaneda, which satisfied the hippies' yearning for spirituality and "separate realities" mediated by psychedelic drugs. In addition, the dramatic encounters between Carlos and the Yaqui sorcerer Don Juan symbolized in a powerful way the clashes between the rational approach of modern industrial societies and the wisdom of traditional cultures.

film and the performing arts

In the sixties, the performing arts experienced radical innovations that broke every imaginable tradition of theater and dance. In fact, in companies like the Living Theater, the Judson Dance Theater, and the San Francisco Mime Troupe, theater and dance were often fused and combined with other forms of art. The performances involved trained actors and dancers as well as visual artists, musicians, poets, filmmakers, and even members of the audience.

Men and women often enjoyed equal status; nudity was frequent. Performances, often with strong political content, took place not only in theaters but also in museums, churches, parks, and in the streets. All these elements combined to create the dramatic expansion of experience and strong sense of community that was typical of the counterculture.

Film, too, was an important medium for expressing the zeitgeist of the sixties. Like the performing artists, the sixties' filmmakers, beginning with the pioneers of the French New Wave cinema, broke with the traditional techniques of their art, introducing multi-media approaches, often abandoning narratives altogether, and using their films to give a powerful voice to social critique.

With their innovative styles, these filmmakers expressed many key characteristics of the counterculture. For example, we can find the sixties' irreverence and political protest in the films of Godard; the questioning of materialism and a pervasive sense of alienation in Antonioni; questioning of the social order and transcendence of ordinary reality in Fellini; the exposure of class hypocrisy in Buñuel; social critique and utopian visions in Kubrik; the breaking down of sexual and gender stereotypes in Warhol; and the portrayal of altered states of consciousness in the works of experimental filmmakers like Kenneth Anger and John Whitney. In addition, the films of these directors are characterized by a strong sense of magical realism.

the legacy of the sixties

Many of the cultural expressions that were radical and subversive in the sixties have been accepted by broad segments of mainstream culture during the subsequent three decades. Examples would be the long hair and sixties fashion, the practice of Eastern forms of meditation and spirituality, recreational use of marijuana, increased sexual freedom, rejection of sexual and gender stereotypes, and the use of rock (and more recently rap) music to express alternative cultural values. All of these were once expressions of the counterculture that were ridiculed, suppressed, and even persecuted by the dominant mainstream society.

Beyond these contemporary expressions of values and esthetics that were shared by the sixties' counterculture, the most important and enduring legacy of that era has been the creation and subsequent flourishing of a global alternative culture that shares a set of core values. Although many of these values — e.g. environmentalism, feminism, gay rights, global justice — were shaped by cultural movements in the seventies, eighties, and nineties, their essential core was first expressed by the sixties' counterculture. In addition, many of today's senior progressive political activists, writers, and community leaders trace the roots of their original inspiration back to the sixties.

Green politics

In the sixties we questioned the dominant society and lived according to different values, but we did not formulate our critique in a coherent, systematic way. We did have concrete criticisms on single issues, such as the Vietnam war, but we did not develop any comprehensive alternative system of values and ideas. Our critique was based on intuitive feeling; we lived and embodied our protest rather than verbalizing and systematizing it.

The seventies brought consolidation of our views. As the magic of the sixties gradually faded, the initial excitement gave way to a period of focusing, digesting, and integrating. Two new cultural movements, the ecology movement and the feminist movement, emerged during the seventies and together provided the much-needed broad framework for our critique and alternative ideas.

The European student movement, which was largely Marxist oriented, was not able to turn its idealistic visions into realities during the sixties. But it kept its social concerns alive during the subsequent decade, while many of its members went through profound personal transformations. Influenced by the two major political themes of the seventies, feminism and ecology, these members of the "new left" broadened their horizons without losing their social consciousness. At the end of the decade, many of them became the leaders of transformed socialist parties. In Germany, these "young socialists" formed coalitions with ecologists, feminists, and peace activists, out of which emerged the Green Party — a new political party whose members confidently declared: "We are neither left nor right; we are in front."

During the 1980s and 1990s, the Green movement became a permanent feature of the European political landscape, and Greens now hold seats in numerous national and regional parliaments around the world. They are the political embodiment of the core values of the sixties.

the end of the Cold War

During the 1970s and 1980s, the American anti-war movement expanded into the anti-nuclear and peace movements, in solidarity with corresponding movements in Europe, especially those in the UK and West Germany. This, in turn, sparked a powerful peace movement in East Germany, led by the Protestant churches, which maintained regular contacts with the West German peace movement, and in particular with Petra Kelly, the charismatic leader of the German Greens.

When Mikhail Gorbachev came to power in the Soviet Union in 1985, he was well aware of the strength of the Western peace movement and accepted our argument that a nuclear war cannot be won and should never be fought. This realization played an important part in Gorbachev's "new thinking" and his restructuring (perestroika) of the Soviet regime, which would lead, eventually, to the fall of the Berlin Wall, the Velvet Revolution in Czechoslovakia, and the end of Soviet Communism.

All social and political systems are highly nonlinear and do not lend themselves to being analyzed in terms of linear chains of cause and effect. Nevertheless, careful study of our recent history shows that the key ingredient in creating the climate that led to the end of the Cold War was not the hard-line strategy of the Reagan administration, as the conservative mythology would have it, but the international peace movement. This movement clearly had its political and cultural roots in the student movements and counterculture of the sixties.

the information technology revolution

The last decade of the twentieth century brought a global phenomenon that took most cultural observers by surprise. A new world emerged, shaped by new technologies, new social structures, a new economy, and a new culture. "Globalization" became the term used to summarize the extraordinary changes and the seemingly irresistible momentum that were now felt by millions of people.

A common characteristic of the multiple aspects of globalization is a global information and communications network based on revolutionary new technologies. The information technology revolution is the result of a complex dynamic of technological and human interactions, which produced synergistic effects in three major areas of electronics — computers, microelectronics, and telecommunications. The key innovations that created the radically new electronic environment of the 1990s all took place 20 years earlier, during the 1970s.

It may be surprising to many that, like so many other recent cultural movements, the information technology revolution has important roots in the sixties' counterculture. It was triggered by a dramatic technological development — a shift from data storage and processing in large, isolated machines to the interactive use of microcomputers and the sharing of computer power in electronic networks. This shift was spearheaded by young technology enthusiasts who embraced many aspects of the counterculture, which was still very much alive at that time.

The first commercially successful microcomputer was built in 1976 by two college dropouts, Steve Wosniak and Steve Jobs, in their now legendary garage in Silicon Valley. These young innovators and others like them brought the irreverent attitudes, freewheeling lifestyles, and strong sense of community they had adopted in the counterculture to their working environments. In doing so, they created the relatively informal, open, decentralized, and cooperative working styles that became characteristic of the new information technologies.

global capitalism

However, the ideals of the young technology pioneers of the seventies were not reflected in the new global economy that emerged from the information technology revolution 20 years later. On the contrary, what emerged was a new materialism, excessive corporate greed, and a dramatic rise of unethical behavior among our corporate and political leaders. These harmful and destructive attitudes are direct consequences of a new form of global capitalism, structured largely around electronic networks of financial and informational flows. The so-called "global market" is a network of machines programmed according to the fundamental principle that money-making should take precedence over human rights, democracy, environmental protection, or any other value.

Since the new economy is organized according to this quintessential capitalist principle, it is not surprising that it has produced a multitude of interconnected harmful consequences that are in sharp contradiction to the ideals of the global Green movement: rising social inequality and social exclusion, a breakdown of democracy, more rapid and extensive deterioration of the natural environment, and increasing poverty and alienation. The new global capitalism has threatened and destroyed local communities around the world; and with the pursuit of an ill-conceived biotechnology, it has invaded the sanctity of life by attempting to turn diversity into monoculture, ecology into engineering, and life itself into a commodity.

It has become increasingly clear that global capitalism in its present form is unsustainable and needs to be fundamentally redesigned. Indeed, scholars, community leaders, and grassroots activists around the world are now raising their voices, demanding that we must "change the game" and suggesting concrete ways of doing so.

the global civil society

At the turn of this century, an impressive global coalition of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), many of them led by men and women with deep personal roots in the sixties, formed around the core values of human dignity and ecological sustainability. In 1999, hundreds of these grassroots organizations interlinked electronically for several months to prepare for joint protest actions at the meeting of the World Trade Organization (WTO) in Seattle. The "Seattle Coalition," as it is now called, was extremely successful in derailing the WTO meeting and in making its views known to the world. Its concerted actions have permanently changed the political climate around the issue of economic globalization.

Since that time, the Seattle Coalition, or "global justice movement," has not only organized further protests but has also held several World Social Forum meetings in Porto Alegre, Brazil. At the second of these meetings, the NGOs proposed a whole set of alternative trade policies, including concrete and radical proposals for restructuring global financial institutions, which would profoundly change the nature of globalization.

The global justice movement exemplifies a new kind of political movement that is typical of our Information Age. Because of their skillful use of the Internet, the NGOs in the coalition are able to network with each other, share information, and mobilize their members with unprecedented speed. As a result, the new global NGOs have emerged as effective political actors who are independent of traditional national or international institutions. They constitute a new kind of global civil society.

This new form of alternative global community, sharing core values and making extensive use of electronic networks in addition to frequent human contacts, is one of the most important legacies of the sixties. If it succeeds in reshaping economic globalization so as to make it compatible with the values of human dignity and ecological sustainability, the dreams of the "sixties revolution" will have been realized:

Imagine no possessions,
I wonder if you can,
no need for greed or hunger,
a brotherhood of man.
Imagine all the people
sharing all the world...
You may say I'm a dreamer,
but I'm not the only one.
I hope some day you'll join us
and the world will live as one.

 

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