Bohemian Buddhist Review

Ecological Intelligence by Daniel Goleman

Radical transparency?  In the environmental arena?  

Daniel Goleman clearly believes we have a shot at reversing the downward trend of our environmental destruction and gives some brilliantly-researched and data-packed arguments to prove his point.  His is one of the few positive voices in a field that seems split into denialists on the one hand and doom-and-gloomers on the other. The main point of "Ecological Intelligence" is that the environmentally and socially destructive tendencies of corporate capitalism can be transformed by a process Goleman calls "radical transparency," which amounts to aligning the self-interests of consumers and corporations in a race to the top instead of the bottom.  

How? Partly due to the new field of industrial ecology, which is changing the way businesses do business, amassing and condensing mountainous amounts of data on the products and practices of individual corporations. There are obvious  competitive advantages in combining what's good for the bottom line with what's good for the environment; doing well and doing good aren't necessarily in conflict anymore.  Industrial ecologists are working with companies of all sizes, including the global giants, to help them re-vision themselves - and truly become - environmentally sustainable.  

Goleman's vision of what he calls "radical transparency" is very different from the current glut of "greenwashing," in which products tout one or two good ingredients while ignoring others that may not be healthy for us or the environment ("lemon-fresh ammonia" springs to mind).   

"Going green" can often be shorthand for a trendy marketing ploy; radical transparency gives consumers the data for informed choice. And once a competitive advantage is established by one brand, the others need to follow the leader, or lose market share. (Just think of Detroit's twenty-year allegiance to gas-guzzlers versus economic foreign cars for an example of how the idea works - and the downside of not going with forward-thinking, ecologically-intelligent consumer demands.)  

To offset Goleman's positive reportage of new and encouraging developments, one can always find the opposite, as illustrated in this quote from environmental author Derrick Jensen: "If all we do is reform work, this culture will grind away . . . Industrial civilization is functionally incompatible with life on the planet."  Goleman, a former New York Times science writer, takes a softer tone, yet he's hardly in denial about the increasingly-dire state of our planetary environment.   

Fear vs. hope. Is there a middle ground?  

Yes, according to "Ecological Intelligence." Goleman states that we have the intelligence to survive as a species, but we are at an "evolutionary impasse." None of us individually can assimilate all the data out there to help us make wise choices about what we buy -- or manufacture - but there is such a thing as "distributed intelligence," in the form of large organizations, that do much of the work for us. Information, Goleman believes, is the key to setting us free.  

Our computing skills now make previously-complicated data-gathering, storage and dissemination of information about any given company a relative snap.  Berkeley-based GoodGuide, Inc., for example, is an online database that seeks to reveal all the factors behind name-brand products, from factory and worker's conditions to carbon footprints to chemical ingredients.  

A recent article, by another former New York Times writer and Pulitzer-prize winner, Chris Hedges, points out that "we can save groves of trees, protect endangered species and clean up rivers, all of which is good, but to leave the corporations unchallenged would mean our efforts would be wasted."  

Hedges issues a call to action. "The damage to the environment by human households is miniscule next to the damage done by corporations," he writes. "We can, and should, live more simply, but it will not be enough if we do not radically transform the economic structure of the industrial world."  

Goleman doesn't ignore the "take-make-waste" corporate mindset but comes up with a scenario other than confrontation with our cannibalistic form of capitalism.  I would call it a clever co-option of corporate competitiveness, a win-win deal that sounds utopian but is actually part of a growing global trend towards radical transparency in the marketplace.  

Clearly, we need all possible approaches that are viable -- from individual "compassionate consumption" (and recycling) to cessation of irresponsible corporate behavior -- as well as Goleman's free market ideas and innovations that lend themselves to radical transparency.  

"We have to stop speaking about the Earth being in need of healing. The Earth doesn't need healing. We do.