Ecological Intelligence by Daniel Goleman

by Daniel Goleman, author of Ecological Intelligence: The Hidden Impacts of What We Buy

Near the start of the 20th century William James wrote that “an education in attention would be the education par excellence.” That was then.

Today, a century after James, I argue that the most crucial education would be in ecological intelligence—and that this demands rethinking and updating curricula in ecoliteracy in fields ranging from physics and chemistry to business and psychology.

Let me explain what I mean by ‘ecological intelligence’.  For the 10,000 or so years of human history before the Industrial Revolution—what geologists call the Holocene Age—survival for the vast majority of people depended on each group’s keen understanding of the ecosystem it inhabited, whether the Kalahari or the Siberian tundra. Failure in this basic ecological knowledge meant death.

But with the rise of cities, of vigorous trade, and then the coming of the Industrial Revolution, the stuff we needed to survive—our clothes, our food, everything—more and more often came to us from a distance rather than being provided by the natural abundance of our locale. With that disconnect between survival and the need to understand our local ecosystem came a steady de-skilling in ecological intelligence. While native peoples who live on their land still may have exhibit levels of such savvy, the vast majority of us haven’t a clue about how our activities impact local, distant, and worldwide ecosystems.

The Holocene was an ecologically stable age, with conditions favorable for human flourishing. Geologists tell us we have entered the Anthropocene Age, a period in Earth’s history where human activities are altering for the worse the most basic biogeochemical process.

Today we understandably focus on the threats posed by global warming and how to slow it. Yet temperature represents but one of ten tipping points in the planet’s carrying capacity for life as we know it.  An article by Johan Rockstrom of the Stockholm Environmental Institute and seven colleagues in earth sciences in Nature describes these planetary boundaries, each with a safe threshold for human activities—and a point which, if crossed, triggers what may be catastrophic consequences for key biophysical systems that keep Earth in a desirable state for life as we know it.

We may have crossed three such boundaries already—not just global warming, but also loss of biodiversity (due, for example, to clear-cutting rain forests), and interference with nitrogen and phosphorous cycles (mostly due to nitrogen-based fertilizers).  The others include freshwater availability, ocean acidification, chemical pollution, and so on.

Those now in their school years will bear the brunt of these changes to a far greater extent than any other human generation. This makes ecological intelligence, with its deep understanding of the interconnections between human activity and its impacts on nature an essential human competence once again.

And yet the human perceptual system was honed to spot dangers like a snarling predator, while today’s threats are too subtle, too slow, or on too macro a scale to register. Luckily, a new scientific discipline, industrial ecology, has emerged in the last decade or two that provides the necessary knowledge base. Industrial ecologists—physicists and chemists, industrial designers and engineers, ecologists and earth scientists—analyze with precise methods the impacts of human systems on natural ones.

Their main method is Life Cycle Analysis (LCA), which can render a metric for the full spectrum of environmental, health, and social impacts of a manmade object or activity. The LCA of the glass jar your pasta sauce comes in would break its life cycle into close to 2,000 discrete steps along the way, each one of which can be assessed for a spectrum of impacts, such as several hundred emissions of particulates and chemicals into air, water and soil; greenhouse impacts, embodied energy, the toll taken on the health of workers from exposure to toxic chemicals at each point in its supply chain, and so on.

LCA data can answer questions like, Is it better for the planet to use a stainless steel water bottle, or get water in plastic bottles? The answer: at first the cumulative negative ecological impacts of stainless steel far outweigh the plastic option—largely because of the energy and global warming impacts of making steel by heating pig iron and a mix of other ingredients to thousands of degrees for two days. But the more plastic bottles you don’t use because of the stainless, the more the eco-math tips in favor of the stainless.  By the time you reach 30 plastic bottles not consumed, all the global warming impacts of the steel are remediated; by 500 such uses, everything favors the steel.

Similarly, Is it better to use an e-reader or read the actual book? Answer: if you’re going to get the e-reader, you’ve got to read at least one hundred books before your ecological debt gets paid.

Another version of the question: Which shampoo has the fewest chemicals of concern—possible toxins? The answer to that can be found at, which analyzes the long list of ingredients in personal care products to find how many of them have shown up in medical databases as toxins.

Such computations represent what today’s ecological intelligence requires of us: surfacing the hidden impacts of everything we do and buy, so that we can make better choices. The new methodology makes possible an eco-rating system that could let a shopper instantly compare competing products on their ecological merits. A prototype of just such a system is already in operation. The website (and free iPhone app)  evaluates tens of thousands of consumer goods by aggregating more than 200 databases quantifying everything from the company’s global warming impacts to toxic chemicals used or treatment of workers.

Students today would benefit immensely from understanding how their individual shopping decisions impact global ecosystems. Such eco-rating systems exemplify a coming wave of radical transparency that could culminate in products’ competing not just on price and quality, but on their total ecological impact as assessed in life-cycle-assessment ratings. Historically there has always been a vast information asymmetry, with consumers knowing next to nothing about the true ecological impacts of what they buy. Ecological transparency hands that once-hidden information to shoppers.

The information systems fostering marketplace ecological transparency are disruptive technologies, promising to be a game-changer both for business and for environmental, public health, and social activists of many stripes. One scenario: As the cost of compiling and indexing this previously hidden information drops to zero, the ratings will sway the shopping decisions of substantial numbers of consumers—as well as business-to-business and institutional buyers—shifting market share toward ecologically superior products, thus making winners of brands that compete best on the ecological merits, along with price and quality.

This, in turn, could trigger a virtuous cycle where this crucial information at the point-of-purchase impels companies to upgrade the impacts of their business practices in an ongoing process of improvement. And this game change for business could resolve the longstanding debate within companies about sustainability, where some voices argue for social responsibility and others counter that there is just no business case to justify changing. While there are exceptional, progressive companies, the best most businesses have done is to pursue sustainability only to the extent it immediately helps their bottom line—for example, by finding cost savings from energy efficiencies.

These developments create a new opportunity for educators in a wide range of fields to help their students enhance their understanding of ecological intelligence. Each discipline has its unique window for engaging the issue.  Business and economics can address what it will mean for ecological impacts to take a central role in the value equation for business decisions.  Psychology and the social sciences can explore how this might alter our decision-making and behavior. Biological and health sciences can engage how industrial chemicals widely dispersed in the environment impact human health (and that of other species).

The physical sciences can introduce their students to industrial ecology through the new methodologies for ecological impact assessment. And environmental science could investigate more precisely how manmade systems are impacting natural ones. Material sciences and industrial design can find a business case for exploring alternative industrial processes and platforms that harmonize with nature (perhaps based on biomimicry) rather than destroy it.

The emergence of ecoliteracy 2.0 can be seen in web-based assignments like the one for a course on Sparking Social Change at Harvard’s JFK School of Government:

Go to and look up a product that you regularly use. Can you envision this tool, or one like it, altering your purchasing decisions? Why or why not?

At Berkeley’s Haas School of Business, in a course on Strategic Corporate Social Responsibility, the assignment was to act as a consultant advising a CEO on what the company would need to do to get a high GoodGuide score for their products.  A geoscience course at Oregon State University had students look at GoodGuide to see what made a product “safe, healthy, and green.” And in an economics course at Northern Arizona State University the assignment was to get comparative product examples from GoodGuide to show how better information in the marketplace could move production to become more sustainable.

Each field brings a complementary lens to the burning question for our students’ future: how human activity, driven by our personal choices, accelerates the deteriorations of the Anthropocene Age—and how more ecologically intelligence decisions could slow them down.

The one hopeful indicator from that Nature article about the earth’s ten tipping points was ozone: once-perilous levels of the gases that were destroying the ozone layer have been reversed by wise decisions. Our collective ecological intelligence holds the key to our planetary future, for better or for worse. What could be a more important topic than that?