Ecologists tell us that natural systems operate at multiple scales. At the macro level there are global biogeochemical cycles, like that for the flow of carbon, where shifts in ratios of elements can be measured not just over the years, but over centuries and geologic ages. The ecosystem of a forest balances the entwined interplay of plant, animal, insect species, down to the bacteria in soil, each finding an ecological niche to exploit, their genes co-evolving together. At the mico-level cycles run through on a scale of millimeters or microns, in just seconds.
How we perceive and understand all this makes the crucial difference. “The tree which moves some to tears of joy is in the eyes of others only a green thing which stands in the way,” wrote the poet William Blake two centuries ago. “Some see Nature all ridicule and deformity, and some scarce see nature at all. But to the eyes of the man of imagination, Nature is Imagination itself. As a man is, so he sees.”
When it comes to seeing nature, these differences in perception have huge consequence. A polar bear stranded on an ice drift or a vanishing glacier offer powerful symbols of the perils we face from global warming. But the inconvenient truths don’t stop there — only our collective ability to perceive them does. We need to sharpen the resolution and broaden the range of our lens on nature; to see how synthetic chemicals disrupt the cells of an endocrine system as well as the slow rising of ocean levels.
Our species needs to re-sensitize ourselves to such dynamics in nature, in order to preserve them. We have no sensors nor any innate brain system designed to warn us of the innumerable ways that human activity corrodes our planetary niche. We have to acquire a new sensitivity to an unfamiliar range of threats, beyond those our nervous system’s alarm radar picks up — and learn what to do about them. That’s where ecological intelligence enters the picture.
“Ecological intelligence” denotes the ability to adapt to our ecological niche. Ecological refers to an understanding of organisms and their ecosystems, and intelligence lends the capacity to learn from experience and deal effectively with our environment . Ecological intelligence lets us apply what we learn about how human activity impinges on ecosystems so as to do less harm and once again to live sustainably in our niche — these days the entire planet.
Today’s threats demand we hone a new sensibility, the capacity to recognize the hidden web of connections between human activity and nature’s systems, and the subtle complexities of their intersections. This awakening to new possibilities must result in a collective eye-opening, a shift in our most basic assumptions and perceptions, one that will drive changes in commerce and industry as well as in our individual actions and behaviors.
The Harvard psychologist Howard Gardner reinvented the way we think about IQ by arguing that there are several other varieties of intelligence besides the ones that help us do well in school, and that these intelligences also allow us to do well in life. Gardner enumerated seven kinds, from the spatial abilities of an architect to the interpersonal aptitudes that make teachers or leaders great. Each of these intelligences, he argues, has a unique talent or ability that helped us adapt to the challenges we faced as a species, and that continue to benefit our lives.
The uniquely human ability to design a way of living that adapts to virtually any of the extremes of climate and geology the Earth offers would certainly qualify. Pattern recognition of any kind, Gardner suggests, may have its roots in the primal act of understanding how nature operates, such as classifying what goes in which natural grouping. Such talents have been displayed by every native culture in adapting to its particular environment.
The contemporary expression of ecological intelligence extends the native naturalist’s ability to categorize and recognize patterns to sciences like chemistry, physics, and ecology (among many others), applying the lenses of these disciplines to dynamic systems wherever they operate at any scale, from the molecular to the global. This knowledge about how things and nature work includes recognizing and understanding the countless ways manmade systems interact with natural ones ecological intelligence. Only such an all-encompassing sensibility can let us see the interconnections between our actions and their hidden impacts on the planet, our health, and our social systems.
Ecological intelligence melds these cognitive skills with empathy for all life. Just as social and emotional intelligence build on the abilities to take other people’s perspective, feel with them, and show our concern, ecological intelligence extends this capacity to all natural systems. We display such empathy whenever we feel distress at a sign of the “pain” of the planet, or resolve to make things better. This expanded empathy adds to a rational analysis of cause-effect the motivation to help.
To tap into this intelligence we need to get beyond the thinking that puts mankind outside nature; the fact is we live enmeshed in ecological systems, and impact them for better or worse – and they us. We need to discover and share among us all the ways this intimate interconnectedness operates, to see the hidden patterns that connect human activity to the larger flows of nature, to understand our true impacts, and to learn how to do better.
We face an evolutionary impasse: the ways of thinking that in the ancient past guided our innate ecological intelligence were well-suited to the harsh realities of prehistory. It was enough that we had a natural urge to gobble as much sugars and fats as we could find to fatten ourselves against the next famine, sufficient that our olfactory brain would ensure toxins triggered nausea and disgust to spoiled food, and that our neural alarm circuits made us run from predators. That hard-wired savvy brought our species to the threshold of civilization.
But ensuing centuries have blunted the skills of the billions of individuals who live amidst modern technologies. Career pressures drive us to master hyperspecialized expertise, and in turn to depend on other specialists for tasks beyond our realm. Any of us may excel in a narrow range, but we all depend on the skills of experts – farmers, software engineers, nutritionists, mechanics – to make life work for us. We no longer can rely on our astute attunement to our natural world nor the passing on through generations of local wisdom that let native peoples find ways to live in harmony with their patch of the planet.