Ecological Intelligence (cover) [a]
Ecological Intelligence (cover) [a]
What this book reminds me of when I just look at its cover again is: transparency. David Goleman continually emphasises the need for ecological or radical transparency in terms of information such as the ecological footprint, and ecological and social (worker’s health, fair trade) impact of a product. The more accessible and transparent such information is, the more prudent and informed decision a consumer would choose when purchasing goods and services.

Before one gets turned away at the sight of yet another book (or person or whatever) advocating for more environmentally-conscious choices for whatever so-called reasons you have, let me begin with this quote:

“The tree which moves some to tears of joy is in the eyes of others only a green thing which stands in the way. Some see Nature all ridicule and deformity, and some scarce see Nature at all. But to the eyes of a man of imagination, Nature is imagination itself. As a man is, so he sees.”

– Poet William Blake

Oh glorious, magnificent tree! [b]
I personally acknowledge and accept the fact that everyone has their own perspectives and hence on this subject of the environment, not all may willingly embrace changes in their lifestyles and mindsets towards being more environmentally or ecologically conscious. So why should we care? Well, basically because the impacts our actions and activities have on the natural environment goes round back to hit us in the face (karma, you know) [1]. If not, think about your future kids! The future generation! and all that. For me, I just really abhor how we humans can be so irresponsible and immature and think we rule all over Nature and the world. Anyway if one looks deeper, one can see that Nature is BEAUTY itself. Of course this reason’s credibility may be undermined, coming from a hypocrite here and all, but you know… ANYWAYS, on to it:


Knowing your impacts (mindful consciousness), favouring improvements with resolve, and sharing what you learn are three actions Goleman proposes that could help us advance our collective ecological goals. We can understand an item’s adverse consequences in these various interlocking realms, namely: the geosphere (soil, air, water, climate); biosphere (species and plant life); and sociosphere (human concerns e.g. conditions for workers).


As you can see, the impacts of a product we’re talking about does not merely comprise its carbon footprint, but also extend to different kinds of aspects. Hence choosing the more environmentally-friendly option usually entails additional benefit like less health risks – due to chemicals both harmful to the environment and our bodies – better working conditions for miners (lesser exposure to heavy metal contamination, toxic fumes), farmers and the lot, and even greater economic returns in the long run! So many win-wins here, yet regretfully not many people notice these benefits.

Even if we don’t actually think that far as Goleman researched on, some of us may find it difficult to switch to more environmentally responsible practices and purchasing decisions. Why? Fundamentally because of the lack of information {Let me remind you that the author is really persistent on transparency, haha, but in a good way though}. Excluding the most resilient of us who put in extra effort into knowing the impacts of what they do and consume, the rest of us unwittingly settle for what’s adequate rather than search for what’s optimal. Goleman introduces this idea of “satisfice” (satisfy + suffice), a mental shortcut we go through when we face a complicated decision in the supermarket aisle, choosing the easiest way out when we find that the amount of mental effort and benefit of purchasing a better product is “not quite worth it”. However, by settling for what’s just good enough, Goleman astutely observes that “we fail to see that what we are offered is only an arbitrary, narrow number of choices in the first place”. “This handy cognitive shortcut for quick and easy decision making feeds a self-deception, diminishing the range of what we seek and so consider”.

Additionally, when we shop, we actually mindlessly or subconsciously do. This partial inattention prevents us from being fully aware of what we buy and the impacts of what we buy. Our awareness is also constantly challenged by the “sensory clutter and cognitive fog” contributed by blaring radio music and marketing cues such as ‘On sale!’, ‘New and Improved!’, ‘low fat!’, all jostling for our limited attention. We also tend to think about life’s preoccupations, further distracting us.

Here, Goleman advocates for mindful shopping, of which “marks a shift in the functioning [of the shopper] from running on automatic, reflexively going through long-practiced routines, to an active awareness that allows new learning – and so new choice”. He cites a research by Harvard psychologist Ellen Langer, which shows that “[a]ctive attention… enhances your experience of whatever you’re attending to.” For an analogy think about how one usually feels fuller when one is consciously aware of eating the same amount of food compared to when one is distracted by the TV. Due to the “intrinsic pleasure of mindfulness… it should be self-perpetuating”, hopefully creating a subconscious reflux to buy better products (in terms of its impact) as we shop inattentively. One way would be to “prime the mind” with reminders that prepares us to consult an eco-transparency system while we shop. This bit is a little further into the book than when Goleman mentions such systems such as GoodGuide, Climate Counts, and Skin Deep [2], into making information about a product more available to consumers.

Surprisingly – or perhaps not – multiple studies found that increasing the price of a product labelled more environmentally friendly or deemed to have been made under fair trade or labour conditions saw greater increases in sales compared to when it shared similar prices with other less ideal substitutes or when it remained at its original price.

As researchers reasonably deduce, the higher price made the claim more credible. Our idea about price makes us equate price with quality. A higher price shapes our expectations, leading to a cognitive bias that tells us to expect the product to be better, which then shapes our experiences such that it is indeed better (Caltech neuroeconomist Hilke Plassmann). The eco-virtue label thus adds perceived value to the product, which can be used for both good and bad. Studies of preference show that a single note of positivity and negativity can skew our entire decision to buy, an aspect through which companies try to market their products to consumers.

Besides price, there are also other factors such as appearance of a product that induces consumers to associate it of being higher valued. I once saw an experiment on the TV where participants were to rate the red wine they drank from two sources. The subjects all rated red wine poured from a packet as of lower quality than that poured from a proper wine bottle with vintage label. Hmm, interesting… but both wine they drank were actually red fruit juice from the same packet.

But I digress.

The point is that we must not be fooled by claims that a product is ‘organic’, ‘natural’, ‘made under fair labour conditions’ and so on[3]. We should make an effort to delve a little deeper into a product’s claims to determine whether it is true or not. Of course, as mentioned before, not many of us are willing to exert the extra effort.

So what can we do about this?


I would like to pre-empt that this is not a fickle claim made here, but one that the author substantiates amply with wide-ranging examples and research from trans-fat to BPA to SUVs. When information is made available to consumers as in these examples, each illustrates the “potent market force that comes from full disclosure in labelling the things we buy”. This idea also resonates with the principle behind the LEED green buildings movement [2].

While one may argue that our individual decision to shift to more environmentally friendly products (certifiably, not just claimed) does not contribute much, it is not true; “that brand’s total impacts are the sum of millions of decisions like yours”, says industrial ecologist Gregory Norris. Every vote counts. The decision of you, as consumers, plays a part in how businesses manufacture their products. Companies would not care until their buyers – which are us – do.

ECOLOGICAL INTELLIGENCE also deals with other issues such as the responsibilities of companies and gave examples of THRIVING environmentally-conscious businesses (economic gains and environmental conservation goes hand in hand, yepyep), but I left those out since… okay no excuses. Anyway the book is very easy to read, with clear chapters discussing interconnected parts of the whole story, even for a dimwit like me. So I highly recommend it okay! Perhaps one can derive greater insight from it than my sorry grey matter can.


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[a] ©

[b]  ©

[1]So many sources detailing the impacts of the impacts we impose on Nature like increasing frequency and unpredictability of natural disasters and conflicts and all. But here are some interesting pieces:

[c] ©

[d] ©

[e] ©

[2] ; ; ;

[3] Beware ‘Greenwashing’


Hmm… I would like to further add a disclaimer here that not all I wrote are in my own words. I copied loads of sentences/concepts/ideas from the book with injections of my own words here and there. So I don’t really know the author’s exact words and merely strung them together here. Please don’t sue (-sweatdrop-).