Ecological intelligence: what is it? »

In my past work I’ve explored what it means to be intelligent about our emotions and, more recently, about our social lives. In Ecological Intelligence: How Knowing the Hidden Impacts of What We Buy Can Change Everything, I look into the sense in which we can, together, become more intelligent about the ecological impacts of how we live – and how ecological intelligence, combined with marketplace transparency, can create a mechanism for positive change.

In the interest of full disclosure, when it comes to ecological intelligence I am as clueless as most of us. But in researching and writing this book I’ve been fortunate enough to stumble upon a virtual network of people – executives and scientists alike — who excel in one or another subset of the skills we urgently need to build the human store of shared ecological intelligence, and to let that knowledge guide our decisions in better directions. In sketching the possibilities of this vision I’ve drawn on my background as a psychologist and science journalist to delve into the world of commerce and manufacturing, to explore cutting edge ideas in fields like neuro-economics and information science, and particularly an emerging discipline, industrial ecology.
This journey continues one I began more than two decades ago, when I wrote in a book on self-deception that our habits of consumption on a worldwide scale are creating an ecological deficit at a rate unparalleled in history, as I put it, “simply by our heedlessness of the links between how we live and the effects on the planet. We do not know the connections between the decisions we make daily – for instance to buy this item rather than that – and the toll those decisions have .”

Back then I imagined that one day we would somehow be able to gauge with accuracy the ecological damage from a given act of manufacturing or the packaging, shipping and disposal of a given product and sum it up in some handy unit. Knowing that metric about a TV set or box of aluminum foil, I reasoned, we could take more responsibility for the impact on the planet of our individual choices. But I ran out of steam, conceding “there is no such information available, and even the most ecologically concerned among us do not really know the net effect on the planet of how we live. And so our obliviousness lets us slip into a grand self-deception that the small and large decisions in our material lives are of no great consequence.”

All those years ago I had never heard of industrial ecology, the discipline that routinely does the very impact analyses I dreamed of.  Industrial ecology exists at the cusp where chemistry, physics, and engineering meet ecology, and integrates those fields to quantify the impacts on nature of manmade things.  Back when I was wishing for this field to exist, that still-obscure discipline was just gathering itself. In the 1990s a working group of the National Academy of Engineering spawned the field, and the very first issue of the Journal of Industrial Ecology began publication in 1997, well over a decade after I had wished for its existence.

Industrial ecology had its roots in the insight that industrial systems parallel natural ones in many ways: the streams of manufactured stuff running between companies, extracted from the earth and emitted in new combinations can be measured in terms of inputs and outputs regulated by a metabolism of sorts. In this sense industry, too, can be seen as a kind of ecosystem, one that has profound effects on every other ecological system. The field includes topics as diverse as estimating CO2 emissions from every industrial process or analyzing the global flow of phosphorous, to how electronic tagging might streamline the recycling of garbage and the ecological consequences of a boom in fancy bathrooms in Denmark.

I see industrial ecologists – along with those at the cutting edge of fields like environmental health — as the vanguard of a dawning awareness, one that may well add a crucial missing piece in our collective efforts to protect our planet and its people. Imagine what might happen if the knowledge now sequestered among specialists like industrial ecologists were made available to the rest of us: taught to kids in school, easily accessible on the Web, boiled down into evaluations of the things we buy and do and summarized as we were about to make a purchase.

Whether we are a single consumer, an organization’s purchasing agent, or an executive managing a brand, 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 our values.  The methods for making that data known to us all are already in the pipeline. As this vital knowledge arrives in our hands we will enter an era of radical transparency.

Radical transparency converts the chains that link every product and its multiple impacts — carbon footprints, chemicals of concern, treatment of workers and the like — into systematic forces that count in sales. Radical transparency leverages a coming generation of tech applications, where software manipulates massive collections of data and displays it as a simple read-out for making decisions. Once we know the true impacts of our shopping choices, we can use that information to accelerate incremental changes for the better.

From Ecological Intelligence: How Knowing the Hidden Impacts of What We Buy Can Change Everything