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How to Live with Ecological Intelligence

ScientificAmerican.com chats with Daniel Goleman, author of the book Ecological Intelligence: How Knowing the Hidden Impacts of What We Buy Can Change Everything
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Trying to be "green" quickly becomes tricky. A simple question like "Paper or plastic?" can lead to a complicated analysis of deforestation and water use versus peak oil and persistent pollution.

That's why Daniel Goleman, best-selling author of Emotional Intelligence in 1995, has returned to the subject, but with an environmental angle.

In an effort to better understand "ecological intelligence" and its implications, ScientificAmerican.com's David Biello spoke with Goleman about his new book.

[An edited transcript of the interview follows.]


What is ecological intelligence?
Ecological intelligence, in the sense that I use it, refers to our collective ability to understand the human impact on ecosystems and to act in ways that improve them.

Why do we need it?

Because the net impact of human activity is a disaster.

How, specifically?
Global warming is an obvious case in point. That's only one example in a huge span of problems that are building and have been building probably since the start of the Industrial Revolution. Development over the last two centuries has produced huge material benefit for us all but without any regard for the impact on nature. Now that we have the science to understand those impacts we have a way to reevaluate all industrial processes and to see what we need to improve the most.

Another example: there are by some estimates 100,000 industrial chemicals in use regularly in everything we buy and use. These are not molecules that have natural analogues. These are things nature has never seen but happens to have receptors for. Something that is dusted on electronic circuit boards to keep it from catching fire, a flame retardant, could end up in our bodies causing cancer. There are myriad cases of this and it's far more complex than our science can handle.

The conventional model of toxicology for chemicals is that a large dose of a given chemical creates a certain disease. That's pretty much the way that chemicals are evaluated. The new understanding comes from neurotoxicity: the brain is a complicated chemical machine. We're exposed and carry in our bodies multiple chemicals and we have to understand how they interact. Both how they individually interact and the thousands of effects they can produce when they interact with the receptors that run our bodies.

This chemical brew creates an inflammatory syndrome—the immune system reacting to all these foreign substances. This is a prior stage for every major disease: diabetes, heart disease, all the diseases of civilization. We have this puzzling jump in incidence of these diseases as societies become industrially developed but it may be because we have actually been poisoning ourselves.

Other chemicals like BPA [bisphenol A] turn out to be endocrine disruptors. They feminize fish but they also create havoc in humans.

This is the dilemma. Our sentry system through evolution has been designed to spot dangers in a certain range, like a snarling animal. We have no perceptual system for subtle molecular level impacts on nature or temperature change on a global scale. We literally don't know the consequences of what we do. We need to grow our ecological intelligence so we can begin to deal with the problems we've created.

Tell me about radical transparency and industrial ecologists.
The good news is that within the last decade or two, there has been the emergence of a new field called industrial ecology, in which industrial engineers, chemists, physicists, biologists, ecologists—what have you—have gotten together to answer one question: What is the actual impact precisely of a given single step in an industrial process on ecosystems.

In industrial ecology, they look at industry as an ecosystem of sorts. Inputs, outputs, metabolism; it has by-products, it excretes. They look at industrial systems in relation to natural systems. They do it with a fine lens.

For example, when you make glass, you have to heat silica and soda ash at 2,000 degrees [Fahrenheit, or 1,100 degrees Celsius] in order to make it into glass. What's being emitted to the air? What chemicals are people being exposed to? What is the net energy use and, thereby, what is the contribution to global warming of this glass in your hand? … Some now are also looking at social impacts.

This is of great use to industry. Some companies have looked at their entire product array to see what's our biggest contribution to global warming and, once identified, examined what they can do to mitigate that. When P&G did that, they found that their biggest contribution was that you had to heat water to use their detergent. So they went back to [research and development] and came up with a cold water detergent that washed just as well.

The key is life cycle analysis. Look at a single product from the time you start extracting materials, the industrial processes that make a product, packaging, transporting, time in store, even what happens while you use it, and then disposal. It gives a diagnostic in multiple domains at every stage in the life cycle of a product. That information had been proprietary and now it's becoming open.

Software called Good Guide draws on 200 databases, including life cycle analyses, to help shoppers know when they're going to get baby wash—which has chemicals of concern and which is safe. … Any product of tens of thousands of products, you can now make those comparisons.

That produces what I call radical transparency. Before companies could market to us, perhaps knowing the impacts but not telling us. Now we can know impacts without depending on companies to disclose them. Goods in the store are going naked from an ecological point of view. The good and the bad is information that is available to any one of us.

Won't we be overwhelmed by information?
The good news is that the Good Guide has been smart enough to boil it all down for us. It sums it all up: environmental, health and social impacts, and gives a number on a 10-point rating scale and compares it to comparable products. There are 70,000 products rated, and more every day.

If you really want to know the numbers, they also show the basis for their ratings. There's a hidden layer and then there's the layer that faces us. Luckily, the layer facing us is friendly.

What are some of what you call in the book "vital lies" you see in the world today when it comes to green?
The most vital lie is that a given product is green. "Green" is an illusion once you understand life cycle analysis. Anything made has impacts all along its way. You can make a T-shirt from organic cotton and then you call it green. Maybe out of 1,000 ecological impacts you've improved one. What about the other 999?

The way we think about green is just the beginning. We need to expand our lens on the material world. It's not that any given thing is green. One thing may be better in its ecological impacts and we should favor that. If we all do that, if enough people start making well-informed ecological decisions in the marketplace, it tips market share and companies spot a trend. That can create a virtuous cycle where you and me shopping can ripple through to companies and reach down into the supply chain and improve things that need improving the most because we don't like it. We're letting them know by buying or not buying. We can create a process for becoming greener perpetually. I see that as a great hope for improving the human footprint on the planet.

How are companies acting or not acting to achieve "green"?
Many companies are ahead of the curve. The person in charge of private house brands at Wal-Mart—they have 4,000 house brands—used to be in charge of sustainability. He was in charge of sustainability and moved to private brands because he can have more of a direct impact in stimulating the suppliers of Wal-Mart to upgrade ecologically if he's buying their stuff. They hear Wal-Mart is using [life cycle analysis] of their products and they start to upgrade their process.

Or think about sporting goods. Nike, Adidas and REI, they formed an association to pressure suppliers to change how they operate. For decades, when you bought a running shoe, the bottom sole was glued to the middle sole with a solvent that is highly toxic to workers. The people who make those shoes didn't want to change solvents. … The people buying the shoes banded together and so they shifted.

There are sectors of business, industry and commerce where people are already asking for changes even though customers have not started to create pressure with buying decisions. Good Guide will accelerate a process that is beginning to get traction in business already.

How can we achieve the kind of "compassionate consumption" you're advocating?
There are three principles that, if each of us followed them, would make the marketplace an arena for compassionate consumption. The first is to know impacts. The second is to favor improvements, and the third is to share what you know. If we do all these, there will be enormous pressure on companies to improve impacts on ecosystems, on us and on the people making our stuff. That's what I call a compassionate consumer.

This relies heavily on ratings like the Good Guide but who polices the police, as it were?
There are two things you have to do to be trustworthy. One is transparency: What is the rating based on? Who made it? How was it arrived at? The second is verifiability. Those are ideals towards which we strive. We're not there yet.

Ask us and we'll tell you, that's essential. The big challenge out there for companies in their supply chains is establishing reliable ways to verify what's going on. In China, when business was booming, sometimes the suppliers that sell stuff to our stores would have two factories. One was a factory that had very good working conditions, people paid well, only operated certain hours, and had safety standards. Then there was a shadow factory with no sign that made most of the stuff. Operated 18 to 24 hours a day, a sweatshop filled with recent immigrants [from other parts of China] and no safety standards. These were secret operations covered over with factories that welcome inspectors. Companies like Wal-Mart and Tesco, who use these supply chains are working on these problems right now. They want to know they are getting goods that are made the way people say they are made.

What kind of life cycle analysis did you do on your own book?

I asked my publisher what they do. They said we have a program for environmentally sound books. I haven't seen the data. But a page in the book will say we used this process—there's no chlorine in the paper. But I don't yet know. I asked for the best they could do. Ask any publisher, it's a work in progress. There are a lot of different problems in getting dyes that are not carcinogenic and paper problems.

How are you practicing "ecological intelligence" in your own life?
I'm starting to do small things. When I started this exploration I was completely clueless. I'm still relatively clueless. But one thing, I told my lecture agent instead of me running around the world giving lectures, I give the lecture, video it and send it to them. They show it on a big screen. I do a live [question and answer] on the Web or by phone. I've done this in half a dozen venues and it works well. It cuts down enormously on my carbon footprint.

I'm working that out in detail and buying offsets. I will do that routinely for all my activities. I've [also] gotten rid of plastic containers we had for storing leftover food that seem to leach BPA. My wife has gotten us some stainless steel water bottles instead of buying bottled water.

I'm really just at the beginning of a long, rich journey into this.

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