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'The Economy as Servant, Rather Than Master, of Nature': Fritjof Capra on Ecological Economics

Image credit: The Breakthrough

In a recent interview with author, educator and activist Fritjof Capra, we discussed the Earth Charter, an ethical framework for building a just, sustainable and peaceful global society in the 21st century. I wanted to follow up our conversation by discussing the concept of Ecological Economics - the intersection of economics, nature and society, a transdisciplinary approach to economics that myself and Maria Moraes Robinson championed in our book, Holonomics: Business Where People and Planet Matter, and which Sustainable Brands has introduced at many of their conferences around the globe through our workshops and presentations

In his new book, Transformative Ecological Economics, Professor Ove Jakobsen of Nordland University Business School argues that we need to make a shift from the green economy, which only focuses on reducing negative symptoms to save the existing neo-classic economic paradigm, to a new economic paradigm rooted in an organic worldview. Transformative Ecological Economics was a really interesting read for me, especially as - along with Maria and I - Prof. Jakobsen too has been inspired by thermodynamics, evolutionary theory, anthroposophy and Buddhism. Ecological Economics is more than just an economic discipline.

FC: Prof. Jakobsen has been researching and teaching what he calls “ecological economics” for more than twenty years, and in this book, he distills the insights he gained during those years into a coherent narrative. In doing so, Jakobsen uses two meanings of the term “ecological.” In the strict scientific sense, ecology is the science of relationships between the members of an ecological community and their environment. In this sense, ecological economics refers to an economic system that is consistent with and honors the basic principles of ecology. In a broader sense, ecology refers to a pattern of relationships that define the context for a certain phenomenon. In this broad sense, ecological economics refers to economic theory and practice that see the economy as operating within, rather than dominating, the spheres of nature, society and culture.

There is a growing interest around the world in relation to futurology, in asking the most important questions of our time and exploring our relationship with the future. This organic perspective on reality has consequences for how we gather, manage and exchange knowledge, and also for how we understand life and see ourselves as one single humanity.

FC: To convey the radical nature of ecological economics, Jakobsen introduces the contrast between ideology (a set of values and ideas that define the dominant paradigm, or status quo) and utopia (a set of values and ideas that transcend the existing order). Accordingly, he distinguishes between green economy and ecological economics. While the former attempts to reduce negative impacts within the current ideology of neo-liberalism, the latter involves fundamental changes of the dominant conceptual framework.

These fundamental changes can be seen as part of a broader change of paradigms from a mechanistic to a systemic conception of life, which has gradually been emerging over the last few decades. At the forefront of contemporary science, 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.

I like the fact that Jakobsen quotes the Chilean economist Manfred Max-Neef, who once said: "We have reached a point in our evolution as human beings in which we know very much, but understand very little." If we look at our current economic system, it is a system which undermines nature and our existence on earth. An ecological economy implies a decentralized economic system consisting of several smaller units, one that is modelled on the principles which sustain life.

FC: The new conception of life has important applications in almost every field of study and every human endeavor, because most phenomena we deal with in our professional and personal lives have to do with living systems. Indeed, the fundamental shift of perception from the mechanistic to the systemic view of life is especially relevant to economics. In Jakobsen’s words, “The only valid purpose of the economy is to serve the life processes in all kinds of social and ecological systems.”

I would like to highlight this fundamental connection between economics and life with a few examples, which are discussed extensively in this book. Throughout the living world, we find multi-leveled structures of systems nested within systems. Each individual system is an integrated whole and, at the same time, part of larger systems. For example, the human organism contains organs made of tissues which, in turn, are made of cells. On the other hand, the organism as a whole is embedded in larger social systems which, in turn, are embedded in ecosystems.

For economics, this implies that nature is superior to the economy rather than the other way around. The economy is a living system nested in other living systems — society, culture, politics, nature and ultimately Gaia, the living Earth. Thus, in ecological economics, the economy becomes the servant rather than the master of nature. The economic system is integrated into the organic network of reality, the web of life. Every economic activity is designed to contribute to the development of viable societies within resilient ecosystems.

The basic pattern of organization of a living system is the network. Ecosystems are understood in terms of food webs, i.e. networks of organisms; organisms are networks of cells, and cells are networks of molecules. More precisely, a living system is a self-generating network. Each component of the network helps to transform and replace other components, and thus the entire network continually creates, or recreates, itself.

In various sections, Jakobsen refers to your conception of the systems view of life. How does this relate to the concept of Ecological Economics?

FC: According to the systemic conception of life, neither the economy nor society can be understood as collections of objects, but only in terms of relationships between subjects. They cannot survive in an atomized state any more than an organism can survive in fragments. Moreover, the fact that the basic pattern of organization of all living systems is the network implies that an economy will be truly alive — flexible and capable of creative adaptations to changing circumstances — only if it is organized as a network, composed of smaller living networks and integrated into larger social and ecological networks. Indeed, Jakobsen argues that a new ecological economy might be best developed from a network of decentralized and globally interconnected ecovillages.

A living system is materially and energetically open and always operates far from equilibrium. There is a continual flow of energy and matter through the system. All living systems need energy and food to sustain themselves, and all living systems produce waste. But in nature, organisms form communities, the ecosystems, in which the waste of one species is food for the next, so that matter cycles continually through the ecosystem. 

In living systems, the metabolic flows of energy and matter are necessary for the continual regeneration and recycling of organic components, as well as for growth and development. However, there is a significant difference between the concepts of growth from a mechanistic and from a systemic perspective. Growth in nature is not linear, nor unlimited. While certain parts of organisms, or ecosystems, grow, others decline, releasing and recycling their components, which become resources for new growth. This kind of balanced, multi-faceted growth is well-known to biologists and ecologists, and it is in stark contrast to the concept of unlimited quantitative growth used by virtually all of today's economists.

One of the great questions of recent times is how to scale up the appreciation and understanding of Ecological Economics. With humanity facing so many systemic issues, many organisations and businesses are now realising that their current way of thinking and operating is no longer working in our volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous world. The question therefore is how to rapidly develop within people a profound capability in systems thinking, and in a manner which can be rapidly scaled up to many thousands, if not hundreds of thousands of people.

FC: When we look at the state of the world today, what is most evident is the fact that the major problems of our time — energy, environment, economy, climate change, social justice — cannot be understood in isolation. They are systemic problems, which means that they are all interconnected and interdependent, and they require corresponding systemic solutions. There are major implications for our educational system, and in particular, consequences for our universities, which are not currently structured to teach students how to solve our world problems in a systemic manner. For some years I had thought about how to address this, and so in 2015 I had the idea to create Capra Course, my online course where people from many different walks of life and academic backgrounds can come together to discuss all of these themes in a holistic manner.

I think the greatest contribution Ecological Economics can make is the way in which it can bring about the shift from quantitative growth to qualitative development.

FC: The aim is to change the economy in a direction where it is possible to create a high quality of life without material growth. Ecological economics is intrinsically dynamic and assumes continuous development without increased consumption of natural resources. Instead of using one-dimensional instrumental thinking aimed at increased growth and profits, our energy and efforts should aim at greater complexity, beauty and harmony.  This fundamental change of perspective is perhaps the most radical, but also the most urgently needed proposition of Ecological Economics.


Fritjof Capra is one of the worlds leading thinkers in systems theory and the author of many influential books, such as The Tao of Physics; The Web of Life: A New Synthesis of Mind and Matter; The Turning Point: Science, Society and the Rising Culture; The Hidden Connections: A Science for Sustainable Living; and Learning from Leonardo: Decoding the Notebooks of a Genius. The next edition of Capra Course will begin on September 6th. For more information, please visit






Simon Robinson is the co-founder of Holonomics Education and the co-author of Customer Experiences with Soul: A New Era in Design and Holonomics: Business Where People and Planet Matter. He is a member of the Emerging Future Institute, a member of the Strongly Sustainable Business… [Read more about Simon Robinson]