Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Is there such a thing as ecological intelligence? And would it help matters if there was?

The Financial Times recently reviewed Daniel Goleman's Ecological Intelligence," a follow-up to his Emotional Intelligence of a few years back.

Now I haven't actually read the book yet, so it's distinctly presumptuous of me to sound off about it. But I'm going to, because from everything I've read about it, I think the book is wrong-headed in two directions at once.

The subtitle of Goleman's book, to me, gives it all away. "
How Knowing the Hidden Impacts of What We Buy Can Change Everything." Goleman's argument, according to the FT, is that if they knew the effects of the products they buy, "shoppers in Berlin or Brooklyn or Beijing could make informed choices that would speed the conversion of China’s power grid from coal-belching plants to alternate sources ... or enhance the health of miners in Africa."

There are two problems here. First off, knowing the hidden impacts of what we buy doesn't necessarily change our behavior. I challenge you to find one SUV-owner in the United States who isn't, in at least a part of her brain, perfectly aware of the by now not-so-hidden impacts of her gas-guzzler, and who doesn't feel both guilty and defensive about them. None of which stops her from driving that sucker.

If Goleman is saying that all it takes for that SUV-owner to change her behavior is to tell her about the terrible consequences of the stuff she's spewing into the atmosphere, then he's simply asking for more environmental nagging. And I think we've already had quite enough of that. I was turned off of nagging as an effective way to change behavior some 30 years ago, when in a burst of well-meaningness, I tried shopping using a little
guide called "Shopping for a Better World" (now out of print), which ranked companies on a variety of social issues and then told you what products each of them made. That effort didn't last more than a month. I wanted some of the stuff that the nastiest companies made, and I didn't like the purer substitutes, and the only difference it made in my life was to stop me even trying for many years.

But just for argument, let's say that he's right - that, if informed about the result of their buying choices, consumers will do their best to use their buying power to clean up the Chinese power grid or improve the health of African miners. Just how, exactly, should they go about it? Should they buy only Chinese products manufactured using renewable energy? How will they know? So maybe they'll just stop buying anything made in China. If falling consumer demand pushes the Chinese economy into collapse, will that clean up its power grid? Has Goleman never heard of the law of unintended consequences?

What I suspect Goleman means by environmental intelligence is the desire to save the world from environmental collapse. But it's one thing to want that, and quite another to understand - much less agree - how to get there. On a listserve of the Society of Environmental Journalists, there's a passionate debate going on right now over biodiversity and poverty. To one camp, what is often hailed as biodiversity in desperately poor communities is actually the result of poverty so deep that it robs people of the ability to farm efficiently. To another, it is an ancient and freely chosen practice of great wisdom.

And - by the way - all parties in this debate are commited environmentalists.

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