Ecological Intelligence (continued)

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Following on the heels of the last post, I found this review of Goleman’s book on the Financial Times. Most of the review follows the line in his interview with Moyers. Sample:

Goleman argues that we can train ourselves to think differently - to develop an innate flight instinct when confronted by, for example, a shampoo that contains methylparaben, or a garden chair made from tropical wood.

Helping the consumer along the way are new websites which drive “radical transparency”. Skin Deep, a “cosmetic safety database” evaluates the chemical content of more than 50,000 different products and rates them on a score of one to 10.

An even more ambitious website, GoodGuide.com, rates everything from yoghurt to toys and laundry detergent. It gives products an overall mark out of 10, with subdivisions for its health, environmental and social impacts. Companies will seek to improve their ratings, and all will be well - or at least not quite so bad.

Goleman is quite honest about adding some caveats about the quality of the information. Even with such somewhat incomplete and perhaps even misleading data, he believes that the widespread use of such information will drive consumers to become more conscious about social and environmental issues. As I noted yesterday, I part company at this point because I think this kind of practice simply creates a sense of I’m doing what I should and the rest is up to others. The truth is probably somewhere in between.

The FT picked up on its own concern than “radical transparency” is not powerful enough to lead to widespread change in the culture to offset the threats we face. They quote a part of his book reporting an interview with me.

But the big problem - which Goleman does not get to grips with - is that this is unlikely to be enough. Towards the end of his book, he undermines much of what has gone before by noting that John Ehrenfeld, a founder of the field of “industrial ecology” has concluded that gains delivered by efforts towards increasing the eco-efficiency of business “are too small as yet to offset the growing threats”. Ehrenfeld wants innovations that “radically reduce the amount of stuff that humans all over the globe use to produce well being”.

Both the Financial Times and Goleman need to understand that two distinct paths must be followed—a big challenge as the two do not run parallel. Radical transparency, or any activity that pushes consumption in a direction resulting in lower impacts (reducing unsustainability) is one of these. The other (producing sustainability) requires a much deeper change—bringing our basic human concerns to the surface and shifting from the having to the being mode of living.

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