May 15, 2009
What is behind a jar of peanut butter on the supermarket shelf? The answer, Daniel Goleman tells Bill Moyers on the JOURNAL, is a lot more complicated than "more jars of peanut butter." Goleman explains:
The sad fact is that what we see in the store, what we put in our homes, what we use every day, all those objects, all those friendly products that we're so used to, have a hidden legacy which has to do with their impacts on the environment, on our health, on ecosystems, on the people that made them that starts from the moment that they start to extract the ingredients.
Responsible consumption goes far beyond current notions of green, explains Goleman. Thanks to a growing field called Life Cycle Assessment (LCA), where you might see only ground peanuts and a glass jar, Goleman and many others now see the 1,959 discrete steps to make the jar alone including all the energy and resources it uses along the way, and all it will use once it's thrown away. LCA documents the whole cost of a product by breaking it down into component parts and tracing them up the production line.
LCA has been used by corporations since the 1960s to measure the impact of their products. The first, according to Goleman's recent book ECOLOGICAL INTELLIGENCE, was Coca-Cola as it tried to decide between glass and plastic bottles. Only recently, though, have shoppers had access to the information. Using Web sites such as GoodGuide and Skin Deep, ordinary people have access to a much more complete picture of what a product costs not just to their wallet, but to their health and the planet.
It's a change that Goleman believes could have a hugely positive effect on the way things are made. In fact, many large companies already believe their customers care about the whole footprint of their products, says Goleman on THE JOURNAL, and "this thinking is catching on in companies. In fact, companies tend to be ahead of consumers on this."
Saved by Shopping?
Some argue, though, that educating consumers will not be enough. Clive Bates, Head of Environmental Policy, Environment Agency for England and Wales, argues in the TELEGRAPH that society cannot rely on people's goodwill alone. Bates believes it takes government-level action to make the kinds of changes needed to preserve the planet for future generations. Bates believes not enough people will act on their best impulses.
Citing many problems where he believes government must step in such as protecting fisheries Bates concludes, "I think most people want to do the right thing for the environment, but Government needs to create the conditions in which going green is for the many, not just the few."
Reviewing ECOLOGICAL INTELLIGENCE in the FINANCIAL TIMES, Jonathan Birchall agrees: "Yes, we each need to be ecologically intelligent, and aware of the consequences of our actions. But to really change the habits of the majority of us who carry on regardless will require government action as well as informed consumers."
Goleman allows that people aren't as moved by abstract problems. But he thinks once they know toxicity of many consumer products, and the dangers they pose to their families and friends, they will choose the more sustainable alternatives: "Global warming is a danger that's far removed. But, you know, the health of the people we care about and ourselves, that's very immediate."
Daniel Goleman is an internationally known psychologist who lectures frequently to professional groups, business audiences, and on college campuses. Working as a science journalist, Goleman reported on the brain and behavioral sciences for THE NEW YORK TIMES for many years. His 1995 book, EMOTIONAL INTELLIGENCE was on THE NEW YORK TIMES bestseller list for a year-and-a-half; with more than 5,000,000 copies in print worldwide in 30 languages, and has been a best seller in many countries.
Goleman's latest book is ECOLOGICAL INTELLIGENCE: HOW KNOWING THE HIDDEN IMPACTS OF WHAT WE BUY CAN CHANGE EVERYTHING. The book argues that new information technologies will create "radical transparency," allowing us to know the environmental, health, and social consequences of what we buy. As shoppers use point-of-purchase ecological comparisons to guide their purchases, market share will shift to support steady, incremental upgrades in how products are made changing every thing for the better.
SOCIAL INTELLIGENCE: THE NEW SCIENCE OF HUMAN RELATIONSHIPS, was published in 2006. Social intelligence, the interpersonal part of emotional intelligence, can now be understood in terms of recent findings from neuroscience. Goleman's book describes the many implications of this new science, including for altruism, parenting, love, health, learning and leadership.
Published May 15, 2009.
Guest photos by Robin Holland