Tuesday, September 1, 2009

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

When I posted yesterday that I didn't have a review for the week, SusanB graciously offered one. I'm definitely going to request this from the library. Thanks, Susan, so much, for offering your review! Stop by The Blogging Bookworm any time.

I didn’t plan on reading Daniel Goleman’s Ecological Intelligence: How Knowing the Hidden Impacts of What We Buy Can Change Everything but the title caught my eye. Goleman has had bestselling books about emotional intelligence and social intelligence. I haven’t read any of them. And this book is a mixed bag and probably a repackaging of a lot of other people’s material. Plus, being an ex-academic, I’m kind of a snob about footnotes and bibliographies, and his is the most basic of supporting references to odd facts, statistics and quotes that he uses as illustrations.

Goleman postulates another nontraditional but necessary intelligence for the future of the human race, one based on the interrelationship of environment, biological impacts, and human (labor and social) impacts of what we buy or consume. The tool that he advocates for developing this intelligence is Life Cycle Analysis (LCA) and “radical transparency.”

The first third of the book is a bit of a snooze, even though buried within are the swarm rules and other thoughts about hidden assumptions and how we avoid knowing what we don’t know. I love his “swarm rules” for affecting a more fully efficient market: Know Your Impact; Favor Reductions; Share What You Know. If you are substituting glass jars for plastic containers, you will find his use of the LCA for glass jars as an example eye opening. But he also cites examples familiar to anyone reading green blogs for a year and writes in this portion with a style that had me mentally editing his writing for wordiness and clarity.

The latter two-thirds of the book is a quick and interesting read in a less pedantic style about ways to implement radical transparency, about types of information collecting for various products, and how information can affect decisions at the purchase level and how those decisions can change how institutions do things. As current examples of this process in its infancy, he discusses the GoodGuide, the SkinDeep website, and LEED certification. This part of the book seems particularly well-suited to anyone working in a business that sells or manufactures or harvests physical goods. I used to do work in calculating the environmental impacts of utilities so personally I’m a little skeptical about whether any all-encompassing attempt to categorize and rate impacts is feasible at the consumer level. And Goleman acknowledges that the affluent are those most in the position to actually be able to make decisions using this information. Nonetheless, the illustrations of what industrial giants and information startups are doing is thought-provoking.

So why read, let alone review this book? It has one great strength. As a whole, it contains the best argument I have read as to why individual actions make a difference and how consumer actions aggregate.

Three stars, or maybe two and a half. Recommended if you have any concerns about whether individual actions matter, if you are looking for a more eloquent way to shoot down that question when your neighborhood embroiler (okay, I just like that word) poses it while you are discussing why you are taking some green action, or if you are a product line manager. I recommend the swarm rules to all. Light green to mid green; get it from your library.


Green Bean said...

Interesting. Honestly, I'll probably not read it but I like hearing about arguments supporting individual action.

SusanB said...

JAM -- thanks for posting the review.
Green Bean -- It really was refreshing to read someone out and out advocating individual actions matter even if they are a sort of group-think or aggregate of "swarm" actions.

Kale for Sale said...

I heard this interview with the author on our local NPR station that was very interesting and have been curious about the book ever since. Thanks for your take on the book. I actually wonder more often now about where things come from and their impact.