Book Review: Ecological Intelligence by Dan Goleman

Review by Kit England

When I stumbled across this book I was intrigued. For those not familiar with the Author, Daniel Goleman is a journalist traditionally associated with psychology. He is most commonly known for ‘Emotional Intelligence’, and ‘Working with Emotional Intelligence’ – two books in the early 90’s which provided new perspectives on management and careers by exploring our ‘two  minds’, the rational and the emotional.  These insights – that the brain is not only governed by our ‘rational’ abilities, but also by emotional skills such as empathy, impulses, and social competence, – helped millions leverage these traits.

So when he decided to write a book about ‘Ecological Intelligence’ I was sceptical. What could a journalist covering psychology bring to a field where the perception is that solutions lie in technology and investment? If you speak to most people who work in Environmental Careers, the solutions are there; we just need political will and investment to achieve change. But give it time and the book tells a gripping tale.

The early chapters explore the wealth of data and information on the social and environmental impacts of products generated by large companies such as Proctor and Gamble and Coca Cola. Goleman demonstrates how those who are embracing sustainability at the core of their business are increasingly competitive and able to drive change in the supply chains.  He then evaluates initiatives where data on environmental and social impacts provided to consumers drives changes in markets, based on psychological and emotional parts of the brain. Whilst this resonates with press revelations on horsemeat, or sweatshops, Goleman also identifies that the closed nature of this information, to consumers (individuals and organisations) are a key barrier to driving further, less headline-grabbing action. He finishes by demonstrating how companies’ adopting these technologies makes it possible for markets and their pursuit of profit to become aligned with social and environmental improvement. He calls the process of releasing and publishing this information ‘radical transparency’; and that by showing information to people we educate them to be ‘ecologically intelligent’.

The book is well written, but some Green Thinkers may find it a slow start as Goleman introduces the concept and practices of lifecycle analysis and industrial ecology. While these chapters offer very little new content, they serve as a good introduction for those who are new to the area and set up the pretext for the rest of the book.  The case studies are varied and relevant throughout; Goleman has clearly had access to a good range of people in the field throughout his time researching and writing the book.

However, what struck me most about Goleman’s proposition was the simplicity and neatness of what he advocates.  A lot of other writers such as Tim Jackson offer alternative economic models; but these are incredibly complicated and advocate a complete revolution in the structures of communities, societies, and their relationship with products. Where Goleman’s approach is different is that he works to re-purpose existing structures and models. The case studies illustrate that a lot of the components needed for his vision are already happening, and the advantages in such an approach, such as sidestepping the political process. In many ways this makes the book as much a social commentary on innovation and market forces as an economic theory.

The book however is not without its faults. Goleman dedicates little space to exploring the problems of his approach. These include how to engender a shift in the companies’ mind-sets and whether this shift would be quick enough to address global resource limits. He also glosses over the difficulties and tensions in LCA, such as how to communicate potentially confusing and conflicting messages (such as New Zealand lamb having lower CO2 than local Lamb) to consumers, merely assuming that a high level label is sufficient.  The book also fails to explore a more fundamental question of democracy, in that it doesn’t explore how markets shape people’s worlds, irrespective of political and democratic mandates. In fairness this is a very different question and could be explored elsewhere. Overall the book makes an important contribution to how we drive forward environmental and social progress in a sector critical to the world’s way of life, providing insight into how we should apply emerging trends in environmental and digital agendas to further environmental goals.

If you have read a book that advances the sustainability debate and would like to share you thoughts with other Green-Thinkers submit to marek@green-thinkers.org and I will review it for inclusion on the website.

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