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Stephanie Kaza is a professor of Environmental Studies at the University of Vermont and the author of
Mindfully Green: A Personal and Spiritual Guide to Whole Earth Thinking.

Green Dharma

Ecological Intelligence: How Knowing the Hidden Impacts of What We Buy Can Change Everything
By Daniel Goleman
Broadway Business, 2009; 288 pp., $26.00 (cloth)

A Buddhist Response to the Climate Emergency
Edited by John Stanley, David Loy, and Gyurme Dorje
Wisdom Publications, 2009; 200 pp., $16.95 (paper)

Reviewed by Stephanie Kaza

At the moment, everyone’s attention seems to be riveted on the economic crisis undermining financial stability around the world. Meanwhile, on land and sea and sky, environmental systems continue to collapse. In Ecological Intelligence, Daniel Goleman, well-known for his work on emotional intelligence, details his efforts to grasp the widespread impact of “stuff,” while in A Buddhist Response to the Climate Emergency, John Stanley, David Loy, and Gyurme Dorje take on climate change from a Buddhist perspective. Central to both books is the hopeful view that understanding and awareness will lead to behavior change—that motivation can produce results.

Goleman’s book tracks his journey from being “clueless” to realizing a green social vision based on informed consumer choice. He explores the hidden impacts of production and consumption, rousing readers with mind-numbing lists of widespread environmental damage. The impact of various products is well documented in other volumes by other writers; Goleman’s contribution is imagining a collective understanding he calls “ecological intelligence.” This phrase is typically associated with environmental insight based on a sense of place, close relations with nature, or indigenous ecological awareness. But this is not Goleman’s approach. He envisions ecological intelligence as data driven—the cumulative knowledge of product life cycles and the impact those life cycles have, as described by industrial ecologists. He argues that by drawing on complex life cycle analyses (LCAs) and product-rating criteria, consumers can become a powerful market force tipping the scales for sustainability.

The book introduces readers to a virtual network of people who represent the skills we need to build a storehouse of shared ecological intelligence. They include scientists and entrepreneurs in neuroeconomics, computing sciences, and industrial ecology. Key to Goleman’s vision are comprehensive data management systems that can offer consumers “radical transparency” by exposing as much information as possible regarding the life cycle of a product and the full range of its consequences. Assuming a human proclivity for empathy and adaptive behavior, he argues that informed consumers will make virtuous choices and drive the business world toward social and ecological responsibility.

To convince us that this potent force is already in action, he shares examples of green thinking from around the world. In Berkeley, California, a start-up business is developing the GoodGuide, an electronic resource with access to product ratings via cell phone. In Britain, the supermarket chain Tesco has calculated carbon footprints for more than 70,000 store items. In Europe, organic produce distributor Eosta provides environmental ratings for farming practices with e-profiles of featured farmers online. And in response to consumer protest in India, Coca-Cola is consulting with the World Wildlife Fund to analyze the water costs of every aspect of its production.

For Goleman, shopping can be compassion in action, a path to social liberation from our destructive environmental habits. But there are many assumptions here that may undercut his vision. Study after study shows that consumers do not necessarily act rationally or take advantage of information to guide their choices. Awareness does not necessarily translate into behavior change, even though we wish that it were true. Goleman acknowledges that business pressures to meet cost and performance goals often outrank social and environmental considerations. Yet he argues strongly that radical transparency has the power to drive the market. The problem is that some producers will do everything they can to hide environmental exploitation or their use of cheap labor by invoking the principle of “trade secrets.” Who will invest in information sleuthing? Who will set the rating criteria and how will the rating systems keep up with the rapid rate of product generation? And will consumers even have the luxury of time to consider the data? Even if those in the Global North inventively develop ecological intelligence, these efforts may very quickly be outrun by population multiplier effects in the Global South. And what about China? Are the Chinese producers interested in ecological intelligence?

Goleman’s book gives us much to think about, if we can avoid becoming mired in emotional reaction to his truly heartbreaking accounts of rainforest razing, aquatic dead zones, coral bleaching, and the toxic stew we eat and breathe. Like many environmental calls to action, it follows the Jeremiad format: see these horrors and respond! But we really don’t know whether human action can reverse the unraveling of the earth’s systems. At stake is the integrity of the original “ecological intelligence,” an intelligence far older than our cleverness.

In A Buddhist Response to the Climate Emergency, editors John Stanley, David Loy, and Gyurme Dorje likewise take the classical Jeremiad approach to climate change, aiming to inform and inspire Buddhists to take action, and soon. The book is an anthology of Buddhist commentaries, featuring reflections from two well-known teachers, the Dalai Lama and Thich Nhat Hanh, along with many short pieces by Tibetan rinpoches and Western Buddhist teachers. Stanley, a British biologist and Tibetan Buddhist practitioner, brought this project to fruition by collaborating with engaged-Buddhist scholar David Loy and Gyume Dorje, a scholar of the Nyingma tradition—completing the book in time for the next big global climate conference, in Copenhagen this December.

Given the impact of climate change on future generations, A Buddhist Response to the Climate Emergency challenges us to consider what this means for the bodhisattva vow. If Buddhists are fundamentally concerned with the alleviation of suffering, surely they have a distinctive role to play in responding to climate issues. As the Dalai Lama says, “It has become an urgent necessity to ethically re-examine what we have inherited, what we are responsible for, and what we will pass on to coming generations. We ourselves are the pivotal human generation.”

Following the opening statement by the Dalai Lama, Stanley lays out the basic science of global climate change, discussing carbon emissions, tipping points, feedback loops, and carrying capacity, and he makes the case for climate change as a deeply moral problem that Buddhists must address. Though he says this section offers a Buddhist approach to climate science, much of this material is commonly found in other climate resources. The one exception is the report on the melting of Himalayan glaciers, what is sometimes called the “third pole,” a phenomenon that receives far less media attention than ice loss at the north and south poles. The Himalayan glaciers should be of special concern for Buddhists, as these ice fields supply the water needs of Tibetan ecosystems as well as feed major rivers in the birthplace of Buddhism and in lands where it took root—the Ganges and Brahmaputra in India, the Salween and Irrawaddy in Burma, the Mekong in Vietnam, and the Yangtze and Yellow in China. We do not hear much about this third pole because information is scarce and conducting scientific research in this region is difficult under Chinese rule. Perhaps Buddhists should make this their own cause célèbre in the climate conversation.

Like Goleman, the authors presented in this anthology assume that awareness will bring about behavior change; however, by “awareness” they mean much more than the usual environmental education. They literally mean awakening from delusion, engaging the deeper and more powerfully motivating force of spiritual awareness. This, they contend, is what it will take to awaken from the broad collective denial around climate change, to challenge the habitual patterns and hindrances that present such formidable obstacles to awakening.

What solutions do the writers in The Climate Emergency bring to the table? Foremost is the power of aspirational prayer, as suggested in many of the contributions by Tibetan teachers. Setting a strong intention is necessary for breaking through systemic social denial regarding the nature of the climate emergency. Ringu Tulku Rinpoche writes, “We train not to lose the calm clarity of the mind even in the worst situations… whatever happens, if we lose stability, bodhichitta, and equanimity, we cannot accomplish much.” Among the Western writers, Bhikkhu Bodhi offers a level-headed approach: “Through wisdom, we investigate a danger: see it as a whole, identify its underlying causation, and determine what can be done to remedy it at the causal level. Through compassion, our hearts feel the danger vividly and personally, and thereby expand to embrace all those exposed to harm…”

Stanley and his wife, Diane, also a longtime practitioner of Tibetan Buddhism, round out the solutions with many well-known pragmatic approaches already under discussion: energy efficiency, developing renewables, expanding tree cover, reducing consumption, hybrid vehicles, etc. Like the climate-science section, these are only weakly linked to a Buddhist perspective. They might have included examples of Buddhist initiatives to address climate change, such as solar temples in Japan or off-the-grid monasteries in British Columbia. It is surprising that there was no discussion of the potential role for sangha in building a Buddhist climate movement. Likewise, the considerable debate over climate justice was not part of this Buddhist analysis, a common oversight in developed nations.

Nonetheless, both A Buddhist Response to the Climate Emergency and Ecological Intelligence have much to offer. The authors and editors deeply want your attention on these crucial ecological issues, and they have made their best efforts to do the research and writing to bring these matters to the public. But whether learning and awareness will generate behavior change is up to us. The state of life on earth may ultimately depend on our capacity to act with true ecological intelligence.

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