It's a question that most of us are ill equipped to answer, even as the debate over what is and isn't green becomes all-important in a hot and crowded world. That's because as the global economy has grown, our ability to make complex products with complex supply chains has outpaced our ability to comprehend the consequences — for ourselves and the planet. We evolved to respond to threats that were clear and present. That's why, when we eat spoiled food, we get nauseated and when we see a bright light, we shut our eyes. But nothing in evolution has prepared us to understand the cumulative impact that imperceptible amounts of industrial chemicals may have on our children's health or the slow-moving, long-term danger of climate change. Scanning the supermarket aisles, we lack the data to understand the full impact of what we choose — and probably couldn't make sense of the information even if we had it.
But what if we could seamlessly calculate the full lifetime effect of our actions on the earth and on our bodies? Not just carbon footprints but social and biological footprints as well? What if we could think ecologically? That's what psychologist Daniel Goleman describes in his forthcoming book, Ecological Intelligence. Using a young science called industrial ecology, businesses and green activists alike are beginning to compile the environmental and biological impact of our every decision — and delivering that information to consumers in a user-friendly way. That's thinking ecologically — understanding the global environmental consequences of our local choices. "We can know the causes of what we're doing, and we can know the impact of what we're doing," says Goleman, who wrote the 1995 best seller Emotional Intelligence. "It's going to have a radical impact on the way we do business."
Over the past couple of decades, industrial ecologists have been using a method called life-cycle assessment (LCA) to break down that web of connection. The concept of the carbon footprint comes from LCA, but a deep analysis looks at far more. The manufacture and sale of a simple glass bottle requires input from dozens of suppliers; for high-tech items, it can include many times more.
The good news is that industrial ecologists can now crunch those data, and smart companies like Coca-Cola are using the information to clean up their corporate ecology. Working with the World Wildlife Fund, Coke analyzed its globe-spanning supply chain—the company uses 5% of the world's total sugar crop—to see where it could minimize its impact; today Coke is on target to improve its water efficiency 20% by 2012.
Below the megacorporate level, start-ups like the website Good Guide are sifting through rivers of data for ordinary consumers, providing easy-to-understand ratings you can use to instantly gauge the full environmental and health impact of that T shirt. Even better, they'll get the information to you when you need it: Good Guide has an iPhone app that can deliver verdicts on tens of thousands of products. Good Guide and services like it "let us align our dollars with our values easily," says Goleman.
But ecological intelligence is ultimately about more than what we buy. It's also about our ability to accept that we live in an infinitely connected world with finite resources. Goleman highlights the Tibetan community of Sher, where for millenniums, villagers have survived harsh conditions by carefully conserving every resource available to them. The Tibetans think ecologically because they have no other choice. Neither do we. "We once had the luxury to ignore our impacts," says Goleman. "Not anymore."