I would like to begin by introducing myself and my work to you. For the past thirty years, my professional life has had two sides. I am a scientist and science writer, and I also work as an environmental educator and activist. I would like to tell you a little about both of these sides and show you how they are in fact interrelated.
I was trained as a physicist and spent twenty years, from 1965-85, doing research in theoretical high energy physics. From my early student years, I was fascinated by the dramatic changes of concepts and ideas that occurred in physics during the first three decades of the twentieth century. In my first book, The Tao of Physics (1975), I discussed the profound change in our worldview that was brought about by the conceptual revolution in physics — a change from the mechanistic worldview of Descartes and Newton to a holistic and ecological view.
In my subsequent research and writing, I engaged in a systematic exploration of a central theme: the fundamental change of world view, or change of paradigms, that is now also occurring in the other sciences and in society; the unfolding of a new vision of reality, and the social implications of this cultural transformation.
To connect the conceptual changes in science with the broader change of worldview and values in society, I had to go beyond physics and look for a broader conceptual framework. In doing so, I realized that our major social issues — health, education, human rights, social justice, political power, protection of the environment, the management of business enterprises, the economy, and so on — all have to do with living systems; with individual human beings, social systems, and ecosystems.
With this realization, my research interests shifted from physics to the life sciences, and I began to put together the conceptual framework I was looking for, using insights from the theory of living systems, complexity theory, and ecology.
At the same time, during the 1980s, I became involved in environmental activism. In 1984, I founded an ecological think tank, called the Elmwood Institute, and over the next ten years we built up an international network of thinkers and activists from many fields and in many parts of the world. In 1994, we transformed the Institute into an organization called Center for Ecoliteracy, which promotes “education for sustainable living” in primary and secondary schools.
Having worked as an environmental educator and activist for twenty years, I now have many personal contacts in the global network of NGOs — of scholars, activists, and institutions — that forms what is often called the global civil society.
Over the years I have realized more and more that the two sides of my professional life are, in fact, closely interrelated. This has been a very happy realization, because it allows me to pursue my intellectual interests as a scientist in a way that is fully consistent with my values, and thus to maintain my personal integrity.
The main focus of my environmental education and activism is to help build and nurture sustainable communities — communities in which we can satisfy our needs and aspirations without diminishing the chances of future generations. To build sustainable communities, we can learn valuable lessons from the study of ecosystems, which are sustainable communities of plants, animals, and microorganisms. So, the quest for ecological sustainability naturally leads to the question, how do ecosystems work? How do they organize themselves to sustain their life processes over time? And this question, in turn, leads to the more general question, how do living systems — organisms, ecosystems, and social systems — organize themselves? In other words, what is the nature of life? And this is the focus of my theoretical work.
During the last ten years I developed a conceptual framework that integrates three dimensions of life: the biological, the cognitive, and the social. I presented this framework in my book The Hidden Connections. My aim in this book is not only to offer a unified view of life, mind, and society, but also to develop a coherent systematic approach to some of the critical issues of our time.
The title the book is taken from a speech by the Czech playwright and statesman Václav Havel, in which he said: “Education today is the ability to perceive the hidden connections between phenomena.” In science, we refer to this ability as systemic thinking, or “systems thinking.” It means thinking in terms of relationships, patterns, and context. Over the past twenty years, systems thinking has been raised to a new level with the development of complexity theory, technically known as nonlinear dynamics. This is a new mathematical language and a new set of concepts to describe complex nonlinear systems. In my book I use systemic thinking and some of the key concepts of complexity theory to develop a unified view of life, mind, and society. I extend the systems approach to the social and cultural domain and apply it to some of the major issues of our time.
During the last six years I have been involved in a new research and writing project, a book about the science of Leonardo da Vinci, titled The Science of Leonardo. It was published 2007 and is now out in paperback. Leonardo’s science is a fascinating subject, which is surprisingly little known. He developed the empirical approach now known as the scientific method 100 years before Galileo, but his science was very different from the mechanistic science of Galileo and Newton. Leonardo’s science is a science of living forms, of patterns of organization and processes of transformation that often foreshadows our modern systems and complexity theories.