Monthly Archives: September 2015

About ecological intelligence and facewash


The Slate headline on July 20 was rather ominous:

Earth’s Most Famous Climate Scientist Issues Bombshell Sea Level Warning 

James Hansen, NASA’s former lead climate scientist, heading a study group of 16 colleagues, now fears that glaciers in Greenland and Antarctica will melt 10 times faster than previous estimates, resulting in sea level rise of at least 10 feet in as little as 50 years. We conclude that continued high emissions will make multi-meter sea level rise practically unavoidable and likely to occur this century. Social disruption and economic consequences of such large sea level rise could be devastating. It is not difficult to imagine that conflicts arising from forced migrations and economic collapse might make the planet ungovernable, threatening the fabric of civilization.

On August 5 Rolling Stone echoed his warning and summed up several equally worrisome facts: The Point of No Return: Climate Change Nightmares Are Already Here

The worst predicted impacts of climate change are starting to happen — and much faster than climate scientists expected. The article points to record-setting heat waves in Pakistan and India that each killed more than 1,000 people and to the fact that the rain forest in Washington State caught fire for the first time in living memory. In California, suffering from its worst drought in a millennium, a 50-acre brush fire swelled seventy-fold in a matter of hours, jumping across the I-15 freeway during rush-hour traffic. Then, a few days later, the region was pounded by intense, virtually unheard-of summer rains. 

These are certainly all issues of such magnitude that they could make you lose a lot of sleep over them but last week I stumbled upon a news item that scared the living daylight out of me. I really thought I was fully aware that plastic is an environmental disaster of the highest order. Muriel has been on the barricades for two decades fighting the use of plastic bags on Bali and for some five years I have been reading up on the Great Pacific garbage patch. It is estimated that plastic bags and water bottles take up to 400 years to disintegrate.  Then, what caught my eye on was the headline

This Earth Day, Ditch the Microbeads for Wildlife’s Sake

It turns out that a few years ago, major cosmetics and hygiene product manufacturers devised a way to make facial wash products even more refreshing. Tiny plastic microbeads were added to increase abrasion and exfoliation. These microbeads proved to be popular with the consumer public and soon found their way into hand soap and even toothpaste. The problem is in their small size and the long life span of polyethylene or polypropylene plastics. Municipal water treatment facilities are not equipped to filter such small pollutants out of the water and in the end the microbeads flow unimpeded into our streams, lakes and rivers. The beads look like food to fish and amphibians, but because of the chemicals used to manufacture them as well as the pollutants they absorb in the water, including DDT and poly-chlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), they are highly toxic to living organisms. When the smaller creatures that eat the beads get eaten by larger animals, the particles make their way up through the food chain, eventually making their way to humans…I could not help wondering who came up with this madcap idea in the first place.

Although the saying goes that ignorance is bliss and sometimes it is better not to know things, from Muriel’s library I picked up Ecological Intelligence by Daniel Goleman. (Penguin Books 2010) Ecological Intelligence examines the environmental, social, and health consequences of everyday consumer choices and Goleman makes a long plea for what he calls radical transparency

When it comes to the full cost of ecological ignorance in the market place, we endorse the vital lie that what we don’t know or what we don’t see does not matter. In fact our indifference to the sum total of what we buy and do, and our unexamined habits as consumers drive a vast number of threats to the environment and to health….Today’s threats demand that we hone a new sensibility, the capacity to recognize the hidden web of connections between human activity and nature’ systems and the subtle complexities of their intersections…

We face an evolutionary impasse: the ways of thinking that in the ancient past guided our innate ecological intelligence were well suited to the harsh realities of prehistory. It was enough that we had a natural urge to gobble as many sugars and fats as we could find to fatten ourselves against the next famine, sufficient that our olfactory brain would ensure that toxins triggered nausea and disgust in response to spoiled food, and that our neural alarm circuits made us run from predators. That hardwired savvy brought our species to the threshold of civilization.

But ensuing centuries have blunted the survival skills of the billions of individuals who live amid modern technologies….Any of us may excel in a narrow range, but we all depend on the skills of experts –farmers, software engineers, nutritionists, mechanics- to make life work for us…Each one of us needs the help of others to navigate the complexities of ecological intelligence. We need to collaborate.    

Goleman argues that our ‘green’ thinking about hazards, like toxins in toys, threats like global warming, and the impacts of the stuff that we manufacture, distribute, consume, and discard has been one-dimensional, focusing on a single problem in isolation from everything else. He suggests that we make the effort to understand the adverse consequences of the products of modern society in three interlocking realms: the geosphere of soil, air, water and climate, the biosphere of our bodies, those of other species and plant life, and the sociosphere of human concerns such as conditions of workers.

While carbon footprints are relatively easily calculated and satisfy some concerns about climate change, the scope of environmental impacts from a product goes far beyond carbon use. This means assessing a product over the full course of its life cycle, from manufacture (and even before that to the origins of its components and extraction or creation of its ingredients) to disposal. The complexities are indeed staggering. There can be fifty or more ingredients in a bottle of shampoo, and the same goes for the type of plastic in a bottle. The ecosystem within our bodies involves immensely complicated interactions between our genes and the everyday industrial chemicals we take in through what we eat, breathe and touch…


Goleman laments the phenomenon of greenwashing. Take the claims that can’t be supported such as household lamps that trumpet ‘energy efficiency’ on their packaging without the least shred of supporting evidence. Or claims that are simply too vague, like ‘eco-conscious’ shampoo, or poorly defined, like ‘chemical-free’ insecticide. (No product is free of chemicals altogether so what kinds of chemicals does this label refer to?)…Greenwashing pollutes the data available to consumers, gumming up the market place efficiency by pawning off misleading information to get us to buy things that do not deliver on their promise…  

The author then makes the case that by boosting ecological intelligence through this concept of radical transparency’, companies will incrementally shift their practices, moving our society toward sustainability and changing things for the better.

The remedy for a vital lie is always to face the truth it obscures. In our consumer purchases the truth takes the form of the countless hidden impacts that the things we buy have during their manufacture, their use and their disposal. At present we are largely blind to those consequences…Radical transparency offers a way to unleash the latent potential of the free market to drive the changes we must make, by mobilizing consumers and executives to use data to make more virtuous decisions…For companies radical transparency can create a vibrant new competitive playing ground, one where doing the right thing also means doing better…  

Goleman introduces Dara O’ Rourke, the industrial ecologist and founder of GoodGuide as the person who is leading the charge in the arena of radical transparency. is a comprehensive, authoritative resource for information about the health, environmental and social performance of consumer products and companies.  GoodGuide has evaluated 250,000 products and now even offers an iPhone app that enables consumers to retrieve ratings of products and allows them to make informed choices at the point of sale, based on their own preferred filters of social, ecological and/or health concerns.

The subtitle of the book is The Coming Age of Radical Transparency and on the back cover the Financial Times calls it refreshingly optimistic. Personally I am ready to believe things when I see them happen but I am not from the tribe of serious optimists. I remain a pessimist, albeit one with a smile on his face (and in the interest of full disclosure, I use Sensodyne cool gel toothpaste).