Daniel Goleman spoke at the beautiful new David Brower Center in Berkeley on August 13th (as part of a seminar hosted by the Center for EcoLiteracy) about his new book Ecological Intelligence: How Knowing the Hidden Impacts of What We Buy Can Change Everything. Two big ideas that stuck with me were (1) the emergence of new tools and techniques for achieving radical transparency of products—a deep accounting of a products biological and ecological risks across its life cycle and across its supply chain, communicated in easy to understand rating systems and indices like the GoodGuide; and (2) the need for introducing ecological intelligence into the K-12 school curriculum to develop a generation of globally and ecologically empathic individuals. Radical transparency combined with ecological intelligence provides the data and the collective human capacity to turn empathy for the planet into meaningful action.
Goleman explained that ecological intelligence is the capacity to live well in our ecosystem. It is an extension of our emotional and social intelligence to a planetary level in which our collective empathy is put into action globally. With emotional intelligence we learn how to identify, assess, and manage our own emotions. With social intelligence we learn how to manage relationships and develop empathy. According to Goleman, ecological intelligence “lets us apply what we learn about how human activity impinges on ecosystems so as to do less harm and once again live sustainably in our niche—these days the entire planet.” Many native groups do this well, like the tiny Sher village in Tibet that has sustained itself on a steep mountainside for over a thousand years. We don’t. Our modern routines and industrial systems have disconnected us from our adverse impacts on the world. We need to change this if we are to create significant and lasting positive impacts on the health of the planet and preserve the human species.
Goleman proposes that with ecological intelligence and radical transparency we will relate more empathically to information about human risks (like exposure to harmful pesticides) and ecological damage (like destruction of coral reefs from chemicals in sunscreen) and make different consumer decisions. As companies respond to new market choices and demands driven by ecological intelligence and radical transparency (and potential cost savings) they will innovate business and industrial practices that are less destructive to human and ecological wellbeing. Goleman sees the supply chain as the point of leverage and points to WalMart’s new sustainability index as a way for their suppliers to compete for shelf space. With 200 million customers and 60,000 suppliers, the impact is huge.
Developing ecological intelligence in the school age population is necessary for nurturing an ecologically empathic future generation of leaders, consumers, voters, innovators, and community members. And Goleman is hopeful because there seems to be an emerging track record here. He stated that a new study is about to be released, a meta analysis, (he didn’t cite it in his talk so I have no reference unfortunately! I’m trying to track it down.) that reviews research on classrooms that implemented social-emotional learning (SEL) in the school curriculum. Those classes that were exposed to SEL reported lower rates of antisocial behavior (e.g. bullying), high rates of pro-social behaviors (e.g. cooperation), and higher levels of academic outcomes. Introducing ecological intelligence into K-12 curriculum could extend those positive results to our behaviors regarding human-natural ecosystems and raise student achievement at the same time. That is exciting.
Goleman mentioned that there is discussion about having some form of ecological intelligence curriculum included as part of a revised No Child Left Behind bill. That is one way to diffuse ecological intelligence, but it might just be perceived as one more requirement added to teachers’ load and could become watered down and scripted curriculum by the time is reaches the classroom. Perhaps we should look at the supply chain in education to think about other ways to catalyze ecological intelligence in schools. WalMart acts as a de facto regulator and has huge impact on changing behaviors of manufacturing and industrial processes because of its size and leverage on supply chains.
Where in education is there that kind of catalyzing effect without going to the federal government? Another player in the education ecosystem with big leverage is higher education—colleges and universities. Imagine if they required applicants to demonstrate ecological intelligence. Just as suppliers are intent on getting their product on a WalMart shelf, families and schools are increasingly focused on getting their kids into college. Foundations have built initiatives on facilitating entry to college, K-8th grade and high schools have oriented curriculum around college entrance, and a thriving market of commercial providers has targeted college acceptance to design an array products and services.
The University of California and California State University systems together serve over 670,000 students. Imagine if they required applicants to demonstrate proficiency or a certain number of course credits in ecological intelligence. What if their application included an essay question or description of a project that dealt with ecological intelligence? What are other levers in the education supply chain? There may be other creative ways to stimulate the states into finding ways of diffusing ecological intelligence into curriculum, service learning opportunities, and even internships with businesses. Focusing in the education supply chain may provide ideas for some useful strategies.