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Ecological Intelligence—The Coming Age of Radical Transparency

Book Review By Yoginder Sikand

16 December, 2012

Name of the Book: Ecological Intelligence—The Coming Age of Radical Transparency

Author: Daniel Goleman

Publisher: Penguin, London

Year: 2010

Pages: 276

ISBN: 978-0-141-03909-1

The ecological crisis that contemporary humanity collectively faces is truly of frightening proportions, as study after study testifies. Yet, it has not really sent the alarm bells ringing. With the exception perhaps of a relatively small circle of environmentally-conscious people, most of us still turn a deaf ear to warning signs of looming ecological disaster. Some of us might readily acknowledge the fact that the environments that we inhabit have definitely undergone a sharp degradation in just a few years. The streets are palpably more clogged with rubbish and vehicles, and the air is obviously thicker with dust and smoke. But, just as we find all of this deeply distressing, we feel there is absolutely nothing that we, as individuals, can do to change it. And so, we are led to a benumbing passivity, as if the unchecked destruction of the environment is something that we just have to put up with, and that there is no way out at all.

That attitude, as Daniel Goleman explains in this brilliantly-researched and timely work, may indeed be widespread but it needs to be challenged if we are at all serious about the possibility of a sustainable future for humanity and the planet we inhabit. We cannot, Goleman reprimands us, blame just irresponsible governments and greedy corporates for the rape of the environment. Nor can we expect to save the environment simply by reigning in governments and corporates. In fact, suggests Goleman, every individual across the world is actively involved in the destruction of Nature, particularly through the consumption choices he or she makes, although this is something that we are rarely aware of. And so, if these choices we make are altered, every individual can play a major role in saving Nature from further destruction. No longer can we, as individuals, continue to evade our own culpability in the degradation of the environment and, in addition, our responsibility to salvage it.

Goleman builds up an impressive case for individual producers and consumers to play their respective roles in saving their environment, or at least minimizing their destruction of it, based on an awareness of the environmental consequences of the production and consumption choices that they make. Every article produced contains a combination of elements extracted from Nature, and every act of production represents a depletion of natural resources. In addition, the production, packaging and delivery of consumer products and waste disposal all have crucial, though often not widely recognized, ecological impacts. Furthermore, many manufactured goods have frightening long-term consequences for consumers’ physical and mental health. Scores of industries are based on heavily-exploited cheap labour, and some on pain inflicted on animals on a massive scale. All these must be factored in, Goleman argues, to arrive at a rough idea of the environmental cost of a particular product. Consumers must be encouraged to purchase and consume with more awareness—almost meditatively, if you like—basing their decisions not simply on product price and appearance but also on the ecological costs of the items they buy.

Presently, Goleman notes, most consumers have little or no idea of these hidden costs, which, obviously, most producers hate to admit exist. In other words, most of us are characterized by a woeful lack of ‘ecological intelligence’. What concerns most consumers is simply the price that they have to pay for a product they want. Only a small minority of eco-conscious consumers seem passionately concerned about the ecological costs and consequences of the products they buy. And that is one reason why industries in many countries can continue to despoil the environment with impunity, driven solely by the desire for maximizing their profits and lacking concern for the impact of their production choices on the environment.

The more ‘ecologically intelligent’ individual consumers become, the more aware they are of the ecological consequences of their consumption choices, the more effectively will they be able to reign in most producers’ fundamental lack of concern for ecological devastation, Goleman writes. Ideally, he says, producers must supply every prospective consumer with details of the ecological costs and consequences of their products—not just information about their chemical composition and, in the case of food products, their calorific value, but such facts as the amount of energy and other resources used in producing them, the wages and working conditions of employees at every stage of the production chain, the amount of waste produced, the method of waste disposal used by production units and the impact of this on the environment and so on. If consumers are provided with this information for all available products, they can choose between competing brands of the same item not just on the basis of price and appearance but also on the basis of their ecological costs. As ‘ecological intelligence’ spreads across society, people will be motivated to make more ecologically sensible choices, preferring to buy those products that have lesser environmental costs than rival brands. In this way, Goleman contends, ecologically intelligent individuals’ consumption patterns will have less devastating consequences for the environment than those of ecologically un-intelligent buyers.

But what would make producers feel obliged to share embarrassing details of the ecological costs of their products with prospective consumers? The answer lies in the spread of ecological intelligence. As distress among people mounts over the increasingly intolerable destruction of the environment, they will, it is possible, begin to compel businesses to divulge this information to the general public. This information can, at least theoretically, be made universally accessible now through the Internet. Armed with this information, consumers will have a new form of power over producers, being able to choose from among rival companies on the basis of the ecological worthiness or otherwise of their products. This, so Goleman believes, will force companies to make efforts to minimize the ecological costs of their products.

It may even make good business sense to do so, Goleman says. If a company is seen by prospective consumers to be less ecologically costly than its rivals, it might attract a larger share of the market. This itself would drive some companies to observe stricter standards of ecological responsibility. In the long-run, this would have a multiplier effect, with other companies being forced to toe their line or else face plummeting sales and profits.

Goleman sees the spread of ‘ecological intelligence’ as key to combating the ecological crisis, arming consumers with information that, he controversially argues, can enable the ‘free market’ to work for the ‘public interest’. Already, he says, experiments to promote such awareness are underway across the world—mainly in the West—and some of these have apparently won major victories.

Given the ominous reality of the global environmental threat, Goleman’s advocacy of universalising ‘ecological intelligence’ makes good sense, reminding us that although the problem is so huge that none of us can individually make much of a dent in it, every little effort, by every single individual, counts. This book makes out an impressive case for a global ecological activism that goes beyond simply targeting a few ecological offenders to working to bring every production unit to comply by strict ecological standards. Surely, this is a laudable task, and even though it may take decades, if not longer, for this to happen across the world, it is a goal worth striving for.

But, despite the many good things that can be said of Goleman’s advocacy of universal ‘ecological intelligence’, it is perhaps not really as radical as he presents it to be. Goleman sees ‘ecological intelligence’ sitting comfortably with liberal capitalism, and even working to make it allegedly more humane and efficient. ‘Ecological intelligence’, as Goleman construes it, appears to have no fundamental problem with an underlying premise of capitalism (which it shares with other, competing materialistic philosophies)—the maximizing of material acquisition and consumption. But, and this Goleman remains strangely silent on, it is this very premise that conduces to the non-stop rape of the environment. No matter how relatively ecologically inoffensive a product may appear, its production entails a rape of the environment, an interference, with almost definite negative consequences, with Nature. Naturally, a form of ‘ecological intelligence’ that doesn’t challenge the fundamental premise of capitalism cannot go very far in its actual impact.

Only if the underlying premise of capitalism is itself challenged—which Goleman fails to do and even appears reluctant to dare even contemplate—can the reality of the global ecological challenge be effectively met. In other words, it isn’t enough, as Goleman seems to argue, to produce and consume ‘ecologically intelligently’. While we can no longer do without this, of course, the maximizing of production and consumption (even if in an ‘ecologically intelligent way’) must give way to a more ecologically sensible view of life, one based on a premise precisely the opposite of that which informs all forms of materialism—the reduction of our wants to our needs. For, as Gandhi famously remarked, ‘The world has enough for everyone’s need but not for everyone’s greed.’ That realization would seem to the culmination of ‘ecological intelligence’, but, sadly, this is something that Goleman fails to admit.

Yoginder Sikand is bangalore based writer. He can be reached at ysikand@gmail.com




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