The Systems View of Life: A Unifying Vision

An excerpt from Capra's and Luisi's book, which integrates the ideas, models, and theories underlying the systems view of life into a single coherent framework.

The Systems View of Life: A Unifying Vision

The essay is excerpted from The Systems View of Life: A Unifying Vision, by Fritjof Capra and Pier Luigi Luisi (2014, Cambridge University Press). The book integrates the ideas, models, and theories underlying the systems view of life into a single coherent framework, exploring its implications for a broad range of endeavors, from economics and politics to medicine, psychology, and law.

From Quantitative to Qualitative Growth
It seems, then, that our key challenge is to shift from an economic system based on the notion of unlimited growth to one that is both ecologically sustainable and socially just. From the perspective of the systems view of life, "no growth" cannot be 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.

This kind of balanced, multifaceted growth is well known to biologists and ecologists. Capra and Henderson (2009) have proposed to call it "qualitative growth" to contrast it to the concept of quantitative growth used by today's economists. The recognition of the fallacy of the conventional concept of growth, the two authors suggest, is the first essential step to overcoming our economic crisis. In the words of social-change activist Frances Moore Lappé (2009):

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 needs is more of it.

The notion of "growth which enhances life" is what is meant by qualitative growth — growth that enhances the quality of life. In living organisms, ecosystems, and societies, qualitative growth includes an increase in complexity, sophistication, and maturity. Unlimited quantitative growth on a finite planet is clearly unsustainable, but qualitative economic growth can be sustained if it involves a dynamic balance between growth, decline, and recycling, and if it also includes the inner growth of learning and maturing.

The focus on qualitative growth is fully consistent with the systems view of life. As we have emphasized several times in this book, the new science of life is essentially a science of qualities. This is relevant in particular to the understanding of ecological sustainability, since the basic principles of ecology — principles like interdependence or the cyclical nature of ecological processes — are expressed in terms of patterns of relationships, or qualities.

In fact, the new systemic conception of life makes it possible to formulate a scientific concept of quality. 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 the properties of the system that none of its parts exhibit. Quantities like mass and 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 qualitative terms. Quantities can be measured; qualities need to be mapped (see Section 4.3).

With the recent emphasis on complexity, networks, and patterns of organization, the attention of scientists in the life sciences has begun to shift from quantities to qualities, and there has been a corresponding conceptual shift in mathematics. In fact, this began in physics during the 1960s with the strong emphasis on symmetry (see Section 8.4.3), 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 (see Sections 6.3 and 6.4).

In the human realm, the notion of quality seems always to include references to human experiences, which are subjective aspects. This should not be surprising. Since all qualities arise from processes and patterns of relationships, they will necessarily include subjective elements if these processes and relationships involve human beings.

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 (see Section 15.2). Similarly, the quality of a human relationship derives largely from subjective mutual experiences. To describe and explain the qualities of such subjective experiences within a scientific framework is known as the "hard problem" of consciousness studies, as we discussed in Chapter 12.

These considerations imply that, to properly assess the health of an economy, we need qualitative indicators of poverty, health, equity, education, social inclusion, and the state of the natural environment — none of which can be reduced to money coefficients or aggregated into a simple number. Indeed several economic indicators of this kind have recently been proposed. They include the United Nations (UN) Human Development Index (HDI), launched in 1990, and the Calvert-Henderson Quality of Life Indicators, which assess twelve criteria and use monetary coefficients only where appropriate (see Capra and Henderson, 2009).

Growth and Development
…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 (see Section 16.1). As living systems mature, their growth processes shift from quantitative to qualitative growth.

The distinction between the biological and the current economic sense of "development," and the association of qualitative economic growth with former and purely quantitative growth with the latter, help to clarify 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 growth can never be sustainable, and the term "sustainable development" would thus be an oxymoron. If, however, the process of development is understood as more than a purely economic process, including social, ecological, cultural, and spiritual dimensions, and if it is associated with qualitative economic growth, then such a multidimensional systemic processes can indeed be sustainable.

Such a broad, alternative view of development is advocated today by a number of scholars and activists, who see development as a creative process of increasing one's capabilities — as characteristic of all life — which requires, first and foremost, control over local resources (see Escobar, 1995; Esteva and Prakash, 1998; W. Sachs, 1992). In this view, development is not purely an economic process, but includes social, ecological, cultural, and ethical dimensions. It is a multidimensional and systemic process, in which the primary actors of development are the institutions of civil society — the NGOs based on kin, neighborhood, or common interests.

Because people are different and the places in which they live are different, we can expect development to produce cultural diversity of all kinds. The processes whereby it happens will be very different from the current global trading system. It will be based on the mobilization of local resources to satisfy local needs, and informed by the values of human dignity and ecological sustainability. Such truly sustainable development is based on the recognition that we are an inseparable part of the web of life, of human and nonhuman communities, and that enhancing the dignity and sustainability of any one of them will enhance all the others.


Capra, F. and H. Henderson (2009). Qualitative growth, in Outside Insights. London: Institute of Chartered Accountants in England and Wales. October; posted on

Escobar, A. (1995). Encountering Development. Princeton University Press.

Esteva, G. and M.S. Prakash (1998). Beyond development, what? Development in Practice, 8(3): 280-96.

Lappé. F.M. (2009). Liberation ecology. Resurgence (UK), January/February.

Sachs, W., ed. (1992). The Development Dictionary. London: Zed Books.