Q: You’ve written books on emotional intelligence, social intelligence, and now ecological intelligence. Would you talk about the idea of multiple intelligences?
The big idea is that, although while we’re in school it seems that the only intelligence that counts is the academic sort, as you live your life, it’s clear that there are other abilities that matter immensely, for personal happiness, for relationships, for success, for teamwork, for leadership. The rubric “emotional intelligence” was conceived by Peter Salovey, who is now the provost at Yale, with Jack Mayer, who is now at the University of New Hampshire. At that time I was working with the New York Times, doing science writing, although I’m a psychologist. I saw that concept and I thought, wow, that really organizes a lot of understanding.
Ecological intelligence is a completely theoretical construct. It’s one that I developed to explain why it is that we have entered the Anthropocene Age. The Anthropocene Age, geologists tell us, began with the Industrial Revolution and is the first geological era in which the activity of one species, humans, is driving biogeochemical systems that sustain global life—unfortunately in the wrong direction.
It struck me that in order to have survived, any human group needed to understand and have an exquisite attunement to its local ecosystem. This is what ecological intelligence is. It’s the way native peoples everywhere have survived, wherever they lived, whether the desert or the tundra. And with the Industrial Revolution, we began a huge disconnect between what sustains us and its origins. We have only the vaguest idea what transpired in order for us to get the things that we now depend on to live. And so there has been an enormous, species-wide de-skilling in ecological intelligence, and to our detriment.
Q: So we have ecological intelligence, but it was designed for another context?
We have the capacity for ecological intelligence. It’s stunted in modern societies because we don’t grow up learning, for example, what’s poisonous and what’s nutritious. We have specialists who know it. A mycologist can tell you this mushroom will kill you and that one is good to fry. But now it’s specialized information.
Q: Do we need to train our brains to have ecological intelligence? How do we do that?
I think what we need is an information prosthetic. And luckily those systems have just been developed.
We need to understand how our daily activities, the things we do and the things we buy, impact the major systems that sustain life. And industrial ecology is a new field that connects those dots. It studies how human systems like energy systems, transportation systems, and industry impact natural systems. And it does it in a very fine-grained way, using life-cycle assessments [LCA].
It would, say, take this tape recorder and break it down into the 1,000-plus discreet steps over its entire life cycle, from when you started to extract the chrome ore you’re going to mix with pig iron to make the stainless steel, or the trace amount of rare metals that are in it that are mined in parts of Africa that are run by warlords who use child labor in the mines. LCA can measure a wide array of environmental, health, and social consequences of every single step in the life cycle. And you can aggregate all that data and give this item a score vis-à-vis another tape recorder you might buy.
Those scores are now becoming transparent at point of purchase. This is the big, disruptive technology moment. There is now a system called GoodGuide.com, which has an iPhone app. It aggregates about 200 databases and gives a single score to about 65,000 products on their eco-virtue—10 being the best, 1 being the worst—and you can unpack it and get the details. It’s really just a proof of concept—it shows that it can be done. The state of the art would base those scores on LCAs done by the companies. But we’re not there yet.
Walmart, actually, is driving its suppliers in that direction. They’re asking 100,000 suppliers to provide data such as energy footprint; partially diminished fractions of an ecosystem; disability-adjusted life-years, which is a public health unit. If this happens, it’s going to create an entirely new metric that will, in turn, create a competitive battlefield for companies. And the only way to win will be to perpetually find ways to become more sustainable in operations.
Q: Do you see a movement toward a common metric, or are there going to be a bunch of different ones?
It’s too early to tell. I know, for example, that Walmart has co-founded a sustainability consortium to develop an eco-index that they plan to use in their stores in five years. Best Buy and some other big-box stores are in it, as well as some suppliers. And there’s, I understand, an internal debate over whether to use a system called Earthster, which is an LCA-based, open-sourced, supply-chain management tool. Since it’s open-source, it lets companies see what their sector average is and then, in turn, answer a question like, if we made this change in this supplier—say, if we no longer got palm oil that was from forests in Indonesia that had been clear cut but rather from more sustainable providers—how much will it improve our score?
I don’t know how it’s going to work out. But I do think that, in order for the system to work at all, whatever becomes the standard has to be credible. It needs to be LCA-based and done by experts. It needs to be certifiable, independently audited, and transparent.
Q: And do you imagine the result would be a single index number? Or a series of scores?
I imagine a single index number that is transparent, so you can dig down and see how that was arrived at.
Q: And that might involve new forms of information technology where you could run your iPhone over a product and the breakdown would show up?
Yes, at the consumer end you can go shopping with it and use a GoodGuide-like app. You put it on the Webkinz Pink Pony, and you see that, on a scale of 10, it got a 3.5. Why is that? It’s because of the chemicals in the Pink Pony, so you don’t buy the Pink Pony. You buy another Webkinz toy which got an 8.3. And you do that right on the spot, just looking at your iPhone.
But the real leap forward will be when Walmart posts a single score next to the price tag.
Q: Are you confident that if people look at two products and one of them has the better score and one of them has the lower score, that they’ll pick the one with the better score?
No, not at all. I’m confident that enough people will that it will matter to business—that it is more than 10%. If you lose 10% market share on this, it’s worth pursuing.
Q: It’s just enough to change those supply chains.
I think that’s what really matters, that this becomes a leverage point for supply-chain management. That’s where the real action is.
Q: Do you imagine that that kind of change will be sufficient to make an impact? Or does there need to be a change in values, a change in people’s way of thinking?
You know, I was just talking to Peter Salovey, and he was saying that one thing that strikes him about students today is that they are real activists around environmental issues. That wasn’t true 10 years ago to this extent, and certainly not 20 years ago. I think there’s a generational shift coming. I think that kids and those in their teens and twenties, have grown up with a unique generational trauma, which is the news about the eventual meltdown of the systems that sustain life and how bad it might get during their lifetimes or their children’s lifetimes. And I think that’s a big motivator. So I think that, as younger people become consumers, more and more of them will take this into account. And I think that Walmart is just being smart by making sustainability a core strategy.
Q: To step back to the idea of ecological intelligence, are you saying that the only real missing element is the information input?
Two elements. One is the readily available information: information cost needs to drop to zero. That means it’s with the price tag—you don’t need to do anything extra to make that comparison. The second element is motivation. It’s very difficult to create motivation. Circumstances create motivation. And I think the circumstances have created that motivation.
Q: Do you think that there is a point at which people need to not only make a choice to buy more sustainably produced objects, but also to buy fewer objects?
Yes. First-worlders have enormous impact, compared to third- or fifth-worlders—for example, for global warming, it’s estimated at about 250 times as much, if you take the people at the top of the pyramid and the people at the bottom of the pyramid. Even though Africa and parts of Asia are going to grow in population, the per-person additive impact is trivial compared to what we buy and the consequences of it. So I think that a reduction in consumption will be part of this. And I think it will be motivated from the same set of experiences.
I’m very interested in eco-literacy now, in getting the kids to understand these systems, to understand the consequences of industry, to understand that the chemical palette we have now is probably creating many of the diseases that we face as we age. That everything we do has an environmental consequence. We can vote with our dollars for a better world. And the first way to vote is not to buy something.
Q: Do you imagine a formalized piece of the educational curriculum around this kind of thing?
Yes, I do. I’ve had some experience with this. The emotional intelligence work that I did really focused on emotional literacy courses. There are now thousands of courses—one of the first was in the New Haven schools. It’s called the Social Development Curriculum. It’s embedded into other courses, and it teaches the basics of emotional intelligence. It lowers the rates of fights and has a lot of other positive impacts. That’s being documented now. And I see a very parallel role for eco-literacy because it, too, can map across courses. It can easily be in math, easily be in sciences, easily be in social studies.
Q: Do you think that there is a cognitive problem where people are just hard-wired to ignore the long-term consequences of things?
There is this design flaw in the brain, which I think is one reason we have the Anthropocene Age in the first place. The brain’s radar for threat was developed over 80,000 generations during the Pleistocene Age, when we roamed savannahs, mostly, and the threat was a snarl or a rustle in the grass, and that’s what we’re attuned to. That’s what we have the big emotional response to. But today’s shifts are too macro or too micro. They’re outside our perceptual apparatus. We can understand them intellectually, but we don’t perceive them directly. So they don’t mobilize the system built in for humans to survive threat. Today, we face a threat that eludes us. That’s why we need to take these extra steps.
Q: Do you think that there are emotional moments that can help push that along? If you show someone a picture of a polar bear trapped on a ice floe…
I don’t know if marketing will do it. I’m not convinced. I think a more immediate experience is going to be much more powerful. If you go shopping with GoodGuide, and you find that your favorite shampoo gets a rating that is really bad, and you look in the system to see why, and realize that it has three carcinogens and two endocrine disruptors, and that this other brand, right next to it, has none of that, you have a very powerful psychological experience. It’s called the contrast effect: when you compare two similar objects and one of them is found to be disgusting, the other looks far better. And I think that’s going to shift market share, once these transparency systems become pervasive in stores.
Q: It seems like there’s a shift going on, where a few years ago it was always concern for the planet. And now people are realizing, actually, this is making me sick. Suddenly everyone was very concerned about the BPA in plastic.
I think that the health impacts are far more emotionally impactful than the environmental impacts. The hook will be the chemical palette that we use, which has never really had to undergo strict toxicity tests. In Europe they’re starting to do that, but in the States, when the EPA was created, 62,000 industrial chemicals were grandfathered in as presumably safe, BPA being among them. Environmental impacts are very distant and remote. The health impacts threaten you, me, and everyone you love, and that is visceral.
Interview conducted and edited by Ben Mattison.