The new facts of life

Fritjof Capra

A discussion of the interrelations between food, health, and the environment is extremely topical today.
Rising food prices together with the price of oil and a series of so-called “natural” catastrophes dominate the news every day. At the same time, there is confusion. Why are world food prices increasing so quickly and dramatically? Why is world hunger rising after a long steady decline? What do food prices have to do with the price of oil? Why is it so important to grow food locally and organically? In this brief talk, I shall try to show that a full understanding of these issues requires a new ecological understanding of life (a new “ecological literacy”) as well as a new kind of “systemic” thinking – thinking in terms of relationships, patterns, and context.

Indeed, over the last 25 years, a new understanding of life has emerged at the forefront of science. I want to illustrate this new understanding by asking the age-old question, what is life? What’s the difference between a rock and a plant, animal, or microorganism? To understand the nature of life, it is not enough to understand DNA, proteins, and the other molecular structures that are the building blocks of living organisms, because these structures also exist in dead organisms, for example, in a dead piece of wood or bone.

The difference between a living organism and a dead organism lies in the basic process of life – in what sages and poets throughout the ages have called the “breath of life.” In modern scientific language, this process of life is called “metabolism.” It is the ceaseless flow of energy and matter through a network of chemical reactions, which enables a living organism to continually generate, repair, and perpetuate itself. In other words, metabolism involves the intake, digestion, and transformation of food.

Metabolism is the central characteristic of biological life. But understanding metabolism is not enough to understand life. When we study the structures, metabolic processes, and evolution of the myriads of species on the planet, we notice that the outstanding characteristic of our biosphere is that it has sustained life for billions of years. How does the Earth do that? How does nature sustain life?

“The New Facts of Life” by Fritjof Capra was originally published by the Center for Ecoliteracy. © Copyright 2004-2011 Center for Ecoliteracy. Reprinted with permission. All rights reserved. For more information, visit www.ecoliteracy.org.

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