May 15, 2009
BILL MOYERS: One of the hottest videos amongst the younger set isn't the latest tune from Hannah Montana or the Jonas Brothers. It's this:
ANNIE LEONARD: Have you ever wondered where all the stuff we buy comes from and where it goes when we throw it out?
BILL MOYERS: "The Story of Stuff," is a lively, short, illustrated lecture about how we're trashing the planet, kind of a mini-version of "An Inconvenient Truth," without Al Gore.
ANNIE LEONARD: ...we're on this crazy work-watch-spend treadmill and we could just stop.
BILL MOYERS: The guide is former Greenpeace activist Annie Leonard and she explains the impact of all the material things we buy, consume and throw away our stuff.
ANNIE LEONARD: The waste coming out of our houses is just the tip of the iceberg. For everyone garbage can of waste you put out on the curb, 70 garbage cans of waste were made upstream just to make the junk in that one garbage can you put out on the curb.
BILL MOYERS: This straight talk about stuff has become a phenomenon in schools across the country, embraced by kids and teachers alike, who think that when it comes to the environment, curricula and textbooks are hopelessly out of date. One school board in Missoula, Montana however, recently banned the video after a parent complained that it was anti-capitalist.
It's complicated, this stuff, so complex and interconnected that my next guest says the idea of green jobs, green buildings, green energy, a green economy is quote, "a mirage." Exactly what does he mean? Well, he's here to explain.
Daniel Goleman is a former science reporter for "The New York Times," twice nominated for the Pulitzer Prize and recipient of the American Psychological Association's Lifetime Achievement Award. His first book, "Emotional Intelligence," sold more than five million copies worldwide. The second of the trilogy was "Social Intelligence," and now comes his latest, "Ecological Intelligence," subtitled, "How Knowing the Hidden Impacts of What We Buy Can Change Everything." That particular concept of Daniel Goleman's recently was celebrated by "Time Magazine" as one of "10 Ideas Changing the World Right Now."
Daniel Goleman, welcome to the Journal.
DANIEL GOLEMAN: It's such a pleasure to be with you, Bill.
BILL MOYERS: When I finished your book, I wrote down what I took to be your message. Here it is. The things we buy and use come usually with a hidden price tag. And if we don't read that hidden price tag our children and grandchildren face a disaster. Fair enough?
DANIEL GOLEMAN: I think that's well put. 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, has 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. Manufacture through transport, through use, disposal. At every stage in that progression, over the life cycle of a product, there's a new methodology. It's called life cycle assessment.
BILL MOYERS: But what's new about this? Because we've all been taught, or learned by osmosis, that each of us leaves a carbon footprint on the sands of time. And we know there are consequences to our presence here. So what's new about what-
DANIEL GOLEMAN: Well, Bill, I think there are two things that are new. One is that life cycle assessment goes way beyond carbon footprint at any given point. For example, a glass bottle, a glass jar, they analyze that, its manufacturing, to 1,959 discreet steps.
At every step of the way there are myriad impacts on the environment, on health, on the people involved, and so on. So, first, we have a vaster sense, and a much more accurate sense, of really what the impact is. And the second thing is, and this is the big breakthrough, that information is now available to you and me while we're shopping. So that we can use it to make better decisions.
BILL MOYERS: How so?
DANIEL GOLEMAN: Well, there's a fabulous website. It's called GoodGuide. GoodGuide.com. And it summarizes, it draws on about 200 of these databases, and summarizes for us in, you know, ten points ten is the best, one is the worst how this product stacks up on its environmental health and social impacts compared to other products of its kind. What this does, Bill, is give us what's called radical transparency. Suddenly, you know, we've all vaguely known, things have carbon fingerprints. Now we can know exactly which is better.
BILL MOYERS: But do you expect me to go to Pioneer Grocery Store at 74th and Columbus carrying my little GoodGuide and stand there and thumb through it? Or...
DANIEL GOLEMAN: Well, here's the lovely thing. You only need to do it once. You know, you- take your shopping. Just think about it. The things you buy every week, the things you buy every month, they're probably the same I know it's true for me. I buy the same brands week after week after week. Now you can check them out and you can compare them. Just take the ten things you buy most often, spend ten minutes on GoodGuide, and you can upgrade your impacts.
BILL MOYERS: We will link our audience to GoodGuide. But when people go to Wal-Mart, they go for one reason. They go looking for the lowest price. The best bargain. They're not thinking about what happened in China to produce this piece.
They're not thinking about the trees the Walton family cut down to build this store. They're not even thinking about what the clerk who sells it to them is making. They're thinking about the lowest price. How do you expect to snare them in this net of Indra?
DANIEL GOLEMAN: Well, let me question the assumption behind your question. That is that better means more expensive. If you look at another website, Skin Deep, it rates personal care products in terms of chemicals of concern. You know, there are 50 ingredients in a bottle of shampoo. It looks at every one of those in a medical database. Does this chemical cause cancer in mice, for example? Then it ranks shampoos, hair products, lip gloss, whatever it is, in terms of how dangerous it might be, and what's clearly the safest. Or baby shampoo. And this allows us to make a decision based on what's better. But I looked at the ten best shampoos, and the ten worst, and guess what? The most expensive shampoo by far is in the ten worst. So you can't necessarily equate price with safety.
The biggest consumer goods companies are already using life cycle assessment to look at their entire range of products to see what's the worst impact?
One big company found that the worst thing they did for the environment was that their detergents required warm water when you wash. So what'd they do? They had their R&D folks to produce a detergent that's just as good in cold water. So this thinking is catching on in companies. In fact, companies tend to be ahead of consumers on this.
BILL MOYERS: So you are telling me that there's a market growing up for life cycle assessed products?
DANIEL GOLEMAN: Well, I think it's a little different, Bill. What's happened with our products and things we buy, is that we have what's called in economics an asymmetry.
That means that sellers know things buyers don't. We just experienced a meltdown in the economy because there were toxic assets. And banks were buying things that they didn't realize what they were, and they were poisonous. Well, we're buying-
BILL MOYERS: And they were selling them too. The mortgages-
DANIEL GOLEMAN: And they were selling them, exactly. And that's been our condition, now, with the things we buy for our homes. We're buying, in a sense, toxic goods, as it were. Goods that have these environmental health impacts. We have no idea. All of a sudden and this is the big revolution there's radical transparency. Because now consumers can know what's in a product. And, you know, if you use GoodGuide you can do two things that are spectacular. One is you can, in a single click, tell the company why you're not buying their brand anymore, or why you are now buying their brand.
This is very powerful information. You can also inform all of your friends as to why you've just done that. As this information spreads virally what's going to happen, and companies see this coming, is that this kind of ecological goodness is going to matter for market share.
BILL MOYERS: This table is a no Twitter zone. But you've just given me perhaps the first practical use of the Twitter that I can think of. Standing there-
DANIEL GOLEMAN: Twitter's a natural for this. Yes. In fact-
BILL MOYERS: Don't buy. Or hurry up and buy.
DANIEL GOLEMAN: Exactly. Exactly. And to the extent that each of us, any of us, takes the trouble to get the information, and to make a better decision, it's imperative, in fact, imperative that we do three things. One is know the impacts of the things we buy.
The second thing is favor the improvements. And the third, and this is crucial, is share that information. Tell everybody you know. Because that is what's going to make this matter. That's what's going to give it the magnitude that can actually shift market share.
And why that's so important is that, within companies right now, there is a huge ferocious debate about sustainability. There're some folks that say we should do it because it's morally the right thing. And there are other folks who say, "Well, show me the business case. We're not going to make money on it." And so it's stalled. But, as market share shifts, all of a sudden, within companies the grounds of that debate shifts because, now, doing the right thing is synonymous with capturing market. Doing good is the same as doing well. That is a radical transformation of the logic of business as regards all these impacts.
BILL MOYERS: When you talk about sharing this intelligence, I'm reminded that one of the surprising moments in your book, when I- was when I read that your advice that we should learn to think like insects. And I'm sort of trivializing it. But you do talk about the swarm intelligence of insects, right?
DANIEL GOLEMAN: That's true. Well-
BILL MOYERS: And how is that a factor in our human communication?
DANIEL GOLEMAN: Well, no one person can know all of the impacts of every product. No one person can know what you should buy. No one person can share. We all have to do this together. The more we do it, the better off we are.
Now every ant has like two decision roles it makes. The scouts go follow the strongest pheromone trail. That's where the food is likely to be. And, for us, I think it's about the same. So we don't have to become experts in this.
BILL MOYERS: Your book broke my heart, quite frankly.
DANIEL GOLEMAN: Is that right?
BILL MOYERS: Yeah, yeah.
DANIEL GOLEMAN: Why?
BILL MOYERS: Because you write in there that green is a mirage. That much of what's touted as green, in reality, represents fantasy or simple hype. And here I had been working so hard to develop what "The New York Times" calls the green mind.
DANIEL GOLEMAN: Well...
BILL MOYERS: And support a green economy. And you tell me I'm entering the land of fantasy.
DANIEL GOLEMAN: Well, let me reassure you. Everything that we've done that's green is to the good, you know. I recycle my papers and plastics. And I try to get the green product. But once you realize, through the lens of the life cycle assessment, that every product has 1,000 environmental health, social impacts, and you see that what we call green has taken one of those, one slice and improved it, there's still the 999 other things that we need to get better. The stuff we have now is a legacy of innovations and inventions from a very innocent time when nobody thought about ecological impacts.
BILL MOYERS: The industrial age. An age that gave, that made life comfortable and convenient for my-
DANIEL GOLEMAN: It made it-
BILL MOYERS: Great grandmother in ways she couldn't imagine.
DANIEL GOLEMAN: Exactly. And at a hidden cost for us today. Because the way we make concrete, which involves taking limestone and some chemicals, and heating it for 48 hours at very high temperatures, was invented in the 1820s. The way we make glass, which is a similar process, you take sand and you take a caustic soda and some things, you mix them together, you heat them for 24- I mean, it's energy intensive.
That brilliant idea, which made life so much better for our grandparents, is now, unfortunately, one of the great causes of global warming. And, you know, that invention for glass was from 1850. It's still done the same way. There's a vast innovative opportunity here, Bill.
BILL MOYERS: Let's take some examples from your book.
DANIEL GOLEMAN: Sure.
BILL MOYERS: I went to the grocery store the other day. And I came home with the plastic bag that they gave me. And feeling, knowing that I was going to see you I felt guilty because I know what we all know about plastic bags, right? It takes 500 to 1,000 years to dispose of it.
DANIEL GOLEMAN: There you go. Yeah.
BILL MOYERS: So I thought, well, I should have asked for a paper bag. And then I read in here, paper is not a lot better?
DANIEL GOLEMAN: Well, here's the problem. There is no manmade product that nature loves. Everything has these impacts. So what we need to do is either change our habits. You could, of course, get a cloth bag. And cloth has its own problems.
But, still, if you use a cloth bag every time you go to a store, and replace 1,000 paper bags, or 1,000 plastic bags, the net benefit is in your favor. And in nature's favor.
BILL MOYERS: All right, here's another example from your book. Sunscreen. I mean, I put this sunscreen on my grandkids to save them from cancer. But you're telling me that I may be saving them from cancer while killing the coral reefs, right?
DANIEL GOLEMAN: Well, the news is even a little worse than that, Bill. I'm really sorry to tell you this. But it turns out that there is an ingredient in some children's sun block that becomes- it's suspected to becoming a carcinogen when it's exposed to the sun.
But the paradoxes abound. You know, there's an ingredient in every sunscreen that washes off, and I was very chagrinned to learn that this ingredient makes an algae flourish that kills the coral. And this is our dilemma. We are creating dangers we have no idea about.
BILL MOYERS: And you say in the book that it's estimated that between 4,000 and 6,000 metric tons of sunscreen wash off swimmers each year around the world.
DANIEL GOLEMAN: Yeah. Yeah. That's true.
BILL MOYERS: With danger to the coral reef.
DANIEL GOLEMAN: To the coral which is why you were out there in the first place. But, of course, the lesson is not "don't use sunscreen," because the primary danger is from sunburn and melanoma. The lesson is complain to the manufacturers and favor any that have ingredients that don't do this. That's what each of us can do.
BILL MOYERS: Well, here's my 100 percent organic cotton t-shirt. And I thought what a prize, you know.
DANIEL GOLEMAN: Yeah. Yeah. Bless your heart.
BILL MOYERS: Until I read your book.
DANIEL GOLEMAN: Well, I bought one of those too. And it, you know, what's good about it is that it's organic cotton. And that means they didn't use pesticides, they didn't release poisons into the environment. They didn't have to use chemical fertilizers that wash into water and cause what's called utrification that ends up killing the life in the water.
So that's all to the good. The downside includes things like the fact that it is a dyed t-shirt. And most textile dyes are toxins. In fact, it's long been known that workers in dye houses have higher rates of leukemia because of that.
So what I'm saying, I guess, is that there is almost no product today that's pure. But I believe we can get there if we care.
BILL MOYERS: One more example. One of the shampoos I bought. This happens to be the good shampoo, according to the ingredients. And it only cost about $3. The bad shampoo, believe it or not, which has a lot of unfortunate ingredients, cost $16.
DANIEL GOLEMAN: I know. I know. It's unbelievable.
BILL MOYERS: So that's your point about the expensive, high end products are not always the best products.
DANIEL GOLEMAN: No. We have this assumption that, oh, we can't do this. It's going to cost more. Actually, if you look around, you know, while this really expensive, very appealing, rather toxic shampoo, is very pricey. And, in fact, the more we show companies we care about this, the more they will use their economies of scale to make the better stuff even cheaper.
BILL MOYERS: But it's been my experience that people don't always, and don't often, act on information. They need some emotional investment in it.
DANIEL GOLEMAN: That's true. And I think as we all become more knowledgeable about the hidden impacts, particularly the impacts of industrial chemicals on ourselves and our loved ones, if you think about it we don't want to bring toxins into our families. We don't want to bring them into our homes. I think that is actually the biggest emotional hook. It is for me. 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
BILL MOYERS: But, you know, my friend, Joseph Campbell, said, "If you want to change the world, change the metaphor." And I see, in your book, "Ecological Intelligence," your efforts to change the metaphors by which we approach the routine prosaic world of consumption. I mean, for example, the riddle of the chariot.
DANIEL GOLEMAN: Well, the riddle of the chariot comes from the 5th century, from an obscure text in India. But what it says is this. It poses the question: where is the chariot? Is it in its wheel? In the frame? In the rods that connect it to the horse? It's not in any one of those. It is an aggregate of parts.
And the metaphor here is that any product is not a single thing here. It has a back story. It's an aggregate. It's an assembly. And that assembly includes the impacts along the way. So we've got to expand our thinking about the stuff we buy. Because it has a history that could be better going into the future if we vote with our dollars. And that's another metaphor I'd like to put out. Is that it's like an election, folks, you know. Do you want the, you know, the pricy one with the chemicals of concern?
Or do you want the one that's actually cheaper as it happens, and that you know is safe for your family. And if you do, and, as you say, if you have a broader moral vision, do you want to let other people know? Do you want to make the company know, so that by the time your grandchildren are buying it, it's a safer product.
BILL MOYERS: You are a science reporter. That's where I first met you. When you were the science reporter for "The New York Times." Is there significant evidence to persuade you, as a reporter, that we Americans are taking to heart the message of ecological intelligence? That we're beginning to think about the multitude and the hidden cost of what we buy and consume? Is there real evidence that companies are changing their ways? That consumers are changing their habits?
DANIEL GOLEMAN: Well, one of the points that I find very encouraging is a generational difference. You know, you and I grew up in an age where we loved plastics, and we loved our consumer goods. And we never knew what the hidden impacts were. And we never knew that we should care that much.
You know "Silent Spring" was the beginning of what became the environmental movement. But young people, people who have grown up with the specter of global warming, are far more motivated to do whatever they can to preserve the world. And they're also far more sophisticated, certainly than me, and perhaps than you, about social networking on the web. About Twitter and Facebook and so on. Which I see is the engine which is going to drive the sharing of the knowledge that will create this shift that will make it, not only feasible for companies, but actually essential for companies to do the right thing.
BILL MOYERS: The swarm intelligence.
DANIEL GOLEMAN: There you go.
BILL MOYERS: It's a hopeful book. "Ecological Intelligence" by Daniel Goleman, how impacting the hidden impacts of what we buy can change everything. Dan, thanks for being on the Journal.
DANIEL GOLEMAN: You bet you. Pleasure.