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Ecological Intelligence

Ecological Intelligence Daniel Goleman Broadway Books, 276 pp., $26
Book coverRecently, MIT's Center for Transportation & Logistics reported that the carbon footprint of a bottle of water imported from France to the United States is smaller than that of a bottle of water produced here -- a blow to the argument that local products are inherently "greener" than imported ones. The difference is due to the type of energy used to make the bottle: nuclear in France versus coal in the United States. When deciding what to buy, it's important to know the whole story. That's the central message of Daniel Goleman's Ecological Intelligence, which explores why the environmental and social impacts of consumer goods remain hidden and how "radical transparency," a system the author proposes for revealing those costs to the public, will force producers to change how they make things.

In Goleman's vision, consumers would have ready access to information about workers' wages, potentially toxic ingredients, recycled content, and other parameters of the production chain. They would then reward "good" producers by buying their products and, through their Web sites, let "bad" producers know why their products were being shunned ("Hell no, the phthalates must go!"). "Such full ecological disclosure presents an untried but promising economic path," writes Goleman, "applying to the ecological impacts of the things we buy the high standards for transparency required, say, in financial statements."

Consumer transparency isn't new. And more information is surely better. But Goleman's scheme has an Achilles heel. For radical transparency to make a difference, enough people must care about the environmental and social impacts of all the stuff they buy and they must be willing to spend more to make the point. As the economy has swooned, sales of solar panels and wind turbines have dropped, and the growth of organic-food sales has slowed as shoppers seek out cheaper (and perhaps more environmentally destructive) calories. And as much as we want to live more harmoniously with the earth, we also want detergents that actually remove stains. Consumers may ask, but green chemistry may not provide, at least not at a price we can stomach.

Goleman makes much of a new Web site called GoodGuide, which integrates hundreds of databases that evaluate the life cycles of tens of thousands of toys, foods, personal-care products, and cleaners. It sounds like a great idea -- an information clearinghouse for green consumers -- but it serves largely a self-selected group of "cause" shoppers. And yes, "full disclosure has marketplace power," but the companies that willingly disclose will be the ones proudest of their efforts. Still, we have to start somewhere. Without outside pressure, whether from consumers or government, manufacturers are unlikely to improve how they make things. Radical transparency -- standardized, comprehensive, and impartial-does have the potential to be a powerful consumer tool.

For all of the interesting ideas in Ecological Intelligence, however, readers may be vexed by Goleman's redundancy and his reliance on the jargon of business and psychology: we suffer from "information inequity," choices have "net present value," manufacturers must skirt a "cognitive trap."

What is a conscientious consumer to do? Corporate social responsibility, which once held promise for reform, has all too often morphed into greenwash, and government regulation has failed to whip manufacturers into virtue. Goleman presents radical transparency as a third path, but let's not forget a fourth, proffered in the book's final pages by John Ehrenfeld, executive director of the International Society for Industrial Ecology. Ehrenfeld calls for product innovations that "radically reduce the amount of stuff that humans all over the globe use to produce well-being." In other words, buying greener is good, but buying less is even better.

image of Elizabeth Royte
OnEarth contributing editor Elizabeth Royte also writes for the New York Times Book Review, which called her "no stranger to the pleasures and perils of chasing errant pieces of plastic and other castoffs to surprising (and often disgusting) places."... READ MORE >

Congratulation from Chile!

The 2d sentence is oh so wrong. Nuclear is the MOST carbon intensive energy source if you include the carbon generated by mining, refining and shipping nuclear fuel; building and dismantling the reactor; and storing and guarding the nuclear waste. Sources at: