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Ecological Intelligence March 31, 2010

Posted by Amir Roth in books, climate, sustainability.
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I just finished Daniel Goleman’s “Ecological Intelligence”. So I thought I would pen (finger) a quick review/affirmation/rebuttal. The basic idea is that we are entering (perhaps) the age of “radical transparency” in the marketplace. An age in which consumers will know about the good and bad impacts of every product they buy–health impacts, environmental impacts, and social impacts. Armed with this ecological intelligence, 10% of consumers will switch to “responsible” brands even if they cost more, while another 75% will switch to “responsible” brands assuming cost neutrality. This will create a virtuous cycle in which companies compete not only on product quality and price but also on environmental and social stewardship. With the market now having stake in environmentalism, utopia will ensue!

Goleman is optimistic, but not quite that naively optimistic. He points out that environmental and social responsibility is already a mission for many companies and that there are fledgling services for providing impacts information on a B2B basis (Earthster) and at point-of-purchase (GoodGuide). But also that there are many challenges to creating such a radically transparent market (the amount of information you need to gather and collate is mind-boggling) and many questions about the scope and scenarios in which such a market would actually “work.” Presumably, there are large numbers of people in the world who are in no position to make purchasing decisions based on anything but cost. And presumably, there will be certain products and services which, by definition, will require disproportional damage to the public commons.

Anyways, I think that a ecologically transparent marketplace will be a good thing and will make the world better. I just don’t know that it’s enough. There are those who say that it is the market that created the climate change, environmental toxicity, and social imbalance and so it is the market that can most effectively fix these problems. But there are also those who say that the market has already proven it cannot deal with “commons” in a non-abusive way and that the most effective way to incorporate a commons into the market is to privatize it. Let us privatize the environment then. On a more serious note, I think that marketplace transparency can be effective in improving corporate social responsibility, and that it can potentially be effective in producing more sustainably derived, healthier to use products. But I think it is quite limited in what it can do to improve global environmental condition, specifically global warming. A transparent marketplace will allow people to choose low-footprint products over high-footprint products, but I doubt it will make them take the best choice–fewer products! That a pair of jeans requires 2100 gallons of freshwater to produce (cotton is very thirsty) is only part of the problem. The bigger part is that many people have ten pairs of jeans when in reality they only need 5. Or 3. That cars average 19.8 mpg and spew 1.2 lbs of CO2 per mile is only part of the problem. The bigger part is that people drive so much. Will GoodGuide help us buy less? Drive less? Live more responsibly? I doubt it. Only a realistic non-subsidized price on goods like water and CO2 will make us do that.

P.S. BO, what is this? If you want to throw Republicans a conciliatory bone, tell them that you will pick up Mike Steele’s tab at Voyeur’s. But lifting the ban on new offshore drilling is not going to accomplish anything positive (except for reduce the price of gas by an average of 2 cents starting in 2026) while perpetrating all sorts of damage to coastal environments and perpetuating habits we need to break! Say it ain’t so, BO!

P.P.S. Goleman also wrote “Emotional Intelligence” and “Social Intelligence”. Given my current emotional and social state, maybe I should put those on my queue as well.

P.P.P.S. In other news, it’s been the wettest March on record. This couldn’t be because there is too much moisture in the air because of excessive oceanic evaporation because it’s too damn hot, could it?

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