Goleman, a psychologist and former Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times science writer, suggests that, even when we try hard to be green, we aren’t nearly as green as we need to be. For example, such beneficial things as recycling programs can also do harm. “They lull us into the illusion that we are doing enough, while ignoring the remaining adverse impacts of what we buy and do,” he writes.
Be careful of those “green” product labels, Goleman warns. That 100-percent organic cotton T-shirt you just bought may have an ecologically shadowy history. Even cotton crops grown without pesticides require an enormous amount of water, according to Goleman, and the dyes and other chemicals used to process the fabric are extremely toxic.
Even worse, thousands of years of evolution have trained the relatively primitive human brain to sense immediate, physical threats — a snarling animal, for example — but not large-scale hazards like global warming. “Our brain excels at handling threats in the moment but falters at managing those coming at us in some indefinite future,” Goleman writes.
So are we doomed? Are we just a bunch of stupid cave-dwellers, running around like Barney Rubble in tie-dyed T-shirts and tilting at pterodactyls with spears, while toxic chemicals we can’t even smell or taste light up our livers like cancerous Christmas ornaments? Well, maybe not.
In his book, Goleman argues that we are on the verge of supplementing our primitive hardwiring with something he calls “ecological intelligence” — a vast, shared network of detailed information regarding the full social and ecological impact of products. Consumers will be able to use an array of new wireless and web-based technologies to instantly tap into this network to find product information, even at the point of purchase.
These innovations, Goleman predicts, will usher in an age of what he calls “radical transparency,” thereby shifting information, and hence power, from manufacturer to consumer, and from seller to buyer. “If we knew the hidden impacts of what we buy, sell, or make with the precision of an industrial ecologist, we could become shapers of a more positive future by making our decisions better align with out values,” Goleman writes.
Industrial ecology is a relatively new field that integrates physics, chemistry and engineering and is the source, according to Goleman, of much of the new, richer data now available concerning the eco-impact of products. Industrial ecologists and engineers deconstruct the ingredients and processes that go into any manufactured object and do a Life Cycle Assessment, or LCA. This allows them to track a product’s precise social, health and ecological effects from production to final disposal.
Gregory Norris, an industrial ecologist at the Harvard School of Public Health, walks Goleman through an LCA for a simple glass jar and shows him that making even such a simple product can be very complex. Making that jar can involve, directly or indirectly, hundreds of suppliers of energy and materials, as well as thousands of production processes and sub-processes. “Because everything connects to everything, we need to think in a new way,” Norris tells Goleman.
One example of the new technologies available to disseminate this information to consumers is GoodGuide.com, a website that provides consumers with complete information regarding a product’s social and ecological worth. Good Guide has developed applications that allow buyers to use their cell phones to obtain that product information even while standing in a store aisle or checkout line.
Goleman also cites the transformative nature of Twitter and the other social networking technologies that have empowered consumers to mobilize against companies that have done things those consumers believe to be harmful. “Customers are no longer lone individuals, isolated and voiceless,” he writes. “Consumers can talk back to business in a far more powerful way than ever before, en masse and synchronized.”
Goleman hopes that the coming of radical transparency will help hasten the widespread adoption of new green products and services. “As we are able to make choices based on full information, power transfers from those who sell to those who buy,” he says. “By doing so we will create an entirely new competitive advantage for companies that offer the kinds of products our collective future needs.”
Daniel Goleman is the author of the bestsellers Primal Leadership, Emotional Intelligence and Social Intelligence: The New Science of Human Relationships. For more, visit www.danielgoleman.info.