February 17, 2011

Do We Need More Ecological Intelligence?

Daniel Goleman, the author of the bestselling Emotional Intelligence, says that the growing field of industrial ecology can give us simple ways to evaluate the relative environmental impacts of consumer products—and help us restore a lost capacity for understanding our surroundings.

Q: You've written books on emotional intelligence, social intelligence, and now ecological intelligence. Would you talk about the idea of multiple intelligences?
The big idea is that, although while we're in school it seems that the only intelligence that counts is the academic sort, as you live your life, it's clear that there are other abilities that matter immensely, for personal happiness, for relationships, for success, for teamwork, for leadership. The rubric "emotional intelligence” was conceived by Peter Salovey, who is now the provost at Yale, with Jack Mayer, who is now at the University of New Hampshire. At that time I was working with the New York Times, doing science writing, although I'm a psychologist. I saw that concept and I thought, wow, that really organizes a lot of understanding.

Ecological intelligence is a completely theoretical construct. It's one that I developed to explain why it is that we have entered the Anthropocene Age. The Anthropocene Age, geologists tell us, began with the Industrial Revolution and is the first geological era in which the activity of one species, humans, is driving biogeochemical systems that sustain global life—unfortunately in the wrong direction.

It struck me that in order to have survived, any human group needed to understand and have an exquisite attunement to its local ecosystem. This is what ecological intelligence is. It's the way native peoples everywhere have survived, wherever they lived, whether the desert or the tundra. And with the Industrial Revolution, we began a huge disconnect between what sustains us and its origins. We have only the vaguest idea what transpired in order for us to get the things that we now depend on to live. And so there has been an enormous, species-wide de-skilling in ecological intelligence, and to our detriment.

Q: So we have ecological intelligence, but it was designed for another context?
We have the capacity for ecological intelligence. It's stunted in modern societies because we don't grow up learning, for example, what's poisonous and what's nutritious. We have specialists who know it. A mycologist can tell you this mushroom will kill you and that one is good to fry. But now it's specialized information.

Q: Do we need to train our brains to have ecological intelligence? How do we do that?
I think what we need is an information prosthetic. And luckily those systems have just been developed.
We need to understand how our daily activities, the things we do and the things we buy, impact the major systems that sustain life. And industrial ecology is a new field that connects those dots. It studies how human systems like energy systems, transportation systems, and industry impact natural systems. And it does it in a very fine-grained way, using life-cycle assessments [LCA].

It would, say, take this tape recorder and break it down into the 1,000-plus discreet steps over its entire life cycle, from when you started to extract the chrome ore you're going to mix with pig iron to make the stainless steel, or the trace amount of rare metals that are in it that are mined in parts of Africa that are run by warlords who use child labor in the mines. LCA can measure a wide array of environmental, health, and social consequences of every single step in the life cycle. And you can aggregate all that data and give this item a score vis-à-vis another tape recorder you might buy.

Those scores are now becoming transparent at point of purchase. This is the big, disruptive technology moment. There is now a system called GoodGuide.com, which has an iPhone app. It aggregates about 200 databases and gives a single score to about 65,000 products on their eco-virtue—10 being the best, 1 being the worst—and you can unpack it and get the details. It's really just a proof of concept—it shows that it can be done. The state of the art would base those scores on LCAs done by the companies. But we're not there yet.

Walmart, actually, is driving its suppliers in that direction. They’re asking 100,000 suppliers to provide data such as energy footprint; partially diminished fractions of an ecosystem; disability-adjusted life-years, which is a public health unit. If this happens, it's going to create an entirely new metric that will, in turn, create a competitive battlefield for companies. And the only way to win will be to perpetually find ways to become more sustainable in operations.

Q: Do you see a movement toward a common metric, or are there going to be a bunch of different ones?
It's too early to tell. I know, for example, that Walmart has co-founded a sustainability consortium to develop an eco-index that they plan to use in their stores in five years. Best Buy and some other big-box stores are in it, as well as some suppliers. And there's, I understand, an internal debate over whether to use a system called Earthster, which is an LCA-based, open-sourced, supply-chain management tool. Since it's open-source, it lets companies see what their sector average is and then, in turn, answer a question like, if we made this change in this supplier—say, if we no longer got palm oil that was from forests in Indonesia that had been clear cut but rather from more sustainable providers—how much will it improve our score?

I don't know how it's going to work out. But I do think that, in order for the system to work at all, whatever becomes the standard has to be credible. It needs to be LCA-based and done by experts. It needs to be certifiable, independently audited, and transparent.

Q: And do you imagine the result would be a single index number? Or a series of scores?
I imagine a single index number that is transparent, so you can dig down and see how that was arrived at.

Q: And that might involve new forms of information technology where you could run your iPhone over a product and the breakdown would show up?
Yes, at the consumer end you can go shopping with it and use a GoodGuide-like app. You put it on the Webkinz Pink Pony, and you see that, on a scale of 10, it got a 3.5. Why is that? It's because of the chemicals in the Pink Pony, so you don't buy the Pink Pony. You buy another Webkinz toy which got an 8.3. And you do that right on the spot, just looking at your iPhone.

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