Thursday, May 14, 2009

Book Review: Ecological Intelligence

I just finished reading Daniel Goleman's Ecological Intelligence: How Knowing the Hidden Impacts of What We Buy Can Change Everything . Goleman is also the author of the books Emotional Intelligence and Social Intelligence. You have probably heard about the former, considering how prevalent "EQ (or Emotional IQ/Quotient) tests" appear online.

Ecological intelligence, considered by Time Magazine to be one of the ten ideas changing the world right now, is a very new and very powerful concept. Ecological intelligence refers to the knowledge and understanding of the histories of the products we buy and the decisions we buy. When you go to the supermarket, for instance, you only see products on shelves; you do not know about how much water, how much energy, and how many miles went into their creation. When you choose paper or plastic, how do you know which bag has a less effect on the environment? And how do you know how much of an offset that reusable tote is? Goleman explores these questions and the role of INFORMATION and RADICAL TRANSPARENCY in this discourse...

One would hope that, given full information on two equivalent products, the consumer would opt for the one that has a better social and environmental history; however, greenwashing (common in marketing campaigns today--just think of some ads in the metro stations) is far from a carbon footprint label.

The Good Guide is one of many innovations Goleman discusses. One of my friends recently told me about the Good Guide when he had been thinking about such an idea himself. Founded by students in Berkeley, it is a cell phone- and Internet-based service that rates consumer goods on their health, environmental, and social impacts, letting you know the product's and company's history with just a snapshot (for the cell phone) or a click (for the Internet). Essentially, it compiles and condenses all of this data for you in the moment in takes to make that shopping decision. The Guide is only in its beta version now but could have a lot of potential.

Likewise, Goleman speaks a lot about the idea of RADICAL TRANSPARENCY. With new technological advances, consumers are able to find out more about companies, and more info can come out through the press as well. Radical transparency, then, can be the best of defenses: businesses should make all of their information available to consumers and position themselves for innovation and openness.

The ideas in this book are akin to those in the online web video The Story of Stuff by former Greenpeace activist Annie Leonard. Leonard's video has come into the news recently under accusations that it is an attack on capitalism. However, in my firm opinion, it is not an attack on capitalism itself, but rather a misguided manifestation of it. In the economic model of PERFECT COMPETITION, both consumers and producers have full knowledge of the product. With the lack of information that exists today for so many of the goods we buy, this "perfect knowledge" is noticeably missing. Such a lack of shared knowledge also prohibits the innovation provided by a competitive market; if consumers had all of the information about their purchases right in front of them at the store, then companies would probably be much more likely to innovate, a lesson that needs to be learned from the current problems in the automobile industry.

I think that the last lines of Goleman's book are perhaps the most powerful and most telling. He quotes Ian McCallum, a South African physician and naturalist who writes about ecological intelligence, saying, "We have to stop speaking about the Earth being in need of healing..the Earth doesn't need healing. We do" (247).

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1 comment:

  1. Hi, I thought you might be interested in the dialogue series Ecological Awareness ( where Goleman speaks further and pushes these issues in conversation with Dara O'Rourke of Goodguide, Greg Norris of Sylvatica, and Michael Lerner of Commonweal.