Fritjof Capra ‘Speaking Nature's Language: Principles for Sustainability’

Summary Creating communities that are compatible with nature's processes for sustaining life requires basic ecological knowledge.

Exploring non-linear pedagogical approaches to ESDGC

Fritjof Capra ‘Speaking Nature's Language: Principles for Sustainability’

‘The book was Ecological Literacy: Educating Our Children for a Sustainable World, developed and edited by the Center for Ecoliteracy. … essay in particular — "Speaking Nature's Language: Principles for Sustainability," by Fritjof Capra, cofounder of the Center for Ecoliteracy and systems thinker — provided a framework that was crystal clear.

In this essay, Capra explains that in order to design sustainable societies, we must first embrace a new way of seeing the world that, in many ways, runs counter to traditional Western science and education. This way of thinking, known as systems thinking, emphasizes the qualities of relationships, connectedness, and context — in any system, whether an ecosystem or a school system.

Once these perceptual shifts are made, Capra explains, one can then begin to study sustainability in the language of nature — through eight particularly important concepts that describe the patterns and processes by which nature sustains life: networks, nested systems, interdependence, diversity, cycles, flows, development, and dynamic balance.’

"These concepts, the starting point for designing sustainable communities, may be called principles of ecology, principles of sustainability, principles of community, or even the basic facts of life," writes Capra. "We need curricula that teach our children these fundamental facts of life."

‘Creating communities that are compatible with nature's processes for sustaining life requires basic ecological knowledge.

We need, says Center for Ecoliteracy cofounder Fritjof Capra, to teach our children — and our political and corporate leaders — fundamental facts of life:

  • Matter cycles continually through the web of life.
  • Most of the energy driving the ecological cycles flows from the sun.
  • Diversity assures resilience.
  • One species' waste is another species' food.
  • Life did not take over the planet by combat but by networking.


Understanding these facts arises from understanding the patterns and processes by which nature sustains life. In its work with teachers and schools, the Center for Eco-literacy has identified several of the most important of these. It has helped teachers identify places in the curriculum where students can learn about them.

They include networks, nested systems, cycles, flows, development, and dynamic balance.

All living things in an ecosystem are interconnected through networks of relationship. They depend on this web of life to survive. For example: In a garden, a network of pollinators promotes genetic diversity; plants, in turn, provide nectar and pollen to the pollinators.

Nested Systems
Nature is made up of systems that are nested within systems. Each individual system is an integrated whole and—at the same time — part of larger systems. Changes within a system can affect the sustainability of the systems that are nested within it as well as the larger systems in which it exists. For example: Cells are nested within organs within organisms within ecosystems.

Members of an ecological community depend on the exchange of resources in continual cycles. Cycles within an ecosystem intersect with larger regional and global cycles. For example: Water cycles through a garden and is also part of the global water cycle.

Each organism needs a continual flow of energy to stay alive. The constant flow of energy from the sun to Earth sustains life and drives most ecological cycles. For example: Energy flows through a food web when a plant converts the sun's energy through photosynthesis, a mouse eats the plant, a snake eats the mouse, and a hawk eats the snake. In each transfer, some energy is lost as heat, requiring an ongoing energy flow into the system.

All life — from individual organisms to species to ecosystems — changes over time. Individuals develop and learn, species adapt and evolve, and organisms in ecosystems co-evolve. For example: Hummingbirds and honeysuckle flowers have developed in ways that benefit each other; the hummingbird's colour vision and slender bill coincide with the colours and shapes of the flowers.

Dynamic Balance
Ecological communities act as feedback loops, so that the community maintains a relatively steady state that also has continual fluctuations. This dynamic balance provides resiliency in the face of ecosystem change. For example: Ladybugs in a garden eat aphids. When the aphid population falls, some ladybugs die off, which permits the aphid population to rise again, which supports more ladybugs. The populations of the individual species rise and fall, but balance within the system allows them to thrive together.’