(audio) book review: Ecological Intelligence, by Daniel Goleman

Not a big fan of this audiobook.  But I did learn.  (That’s a pretty low bar, of course.)

My thoughts:

useful information mixed into a vat of corporate informercials

Goleman’s book starts strong and has several insights. He highlights the complex nature of the apparently simple choice between paper and plastic: plastic takes much longer to degrade, but paper takes more of some resources to produce. He mentions consumer indices that make it easier for consumers to know which products have a lower ecological footprint (Good Guide, Earth Stir, and Skin Deep), and he introduces (to me, anyway) the term “greenwashing” which refers to companies that highlight some environmentally friendly element of a product in order to divert attention from a remaining ecological footprint the size of Bigfoot’s. Goleman repeats the useful, eminently doable mantra: “Know your impacts. Make improvements. Share what you learn.”

But the book feels far too long. The detail he displays on each of the indices begins to feel excruciating, and while each of the environmentally innovative firms (who realize that they can earn money AND reduce their impact: wow!) is interesting individually, the list is interminable. Too many individual products, too many quotes from industry executives talking about what great stuff they’re doing (“I see going green as a team sport”).

I feel like he spends too little time on how MUCH we consume: the entire focus is on shifting between products (with a single passing reference to the freegan movement). Some of the analysis feels unsophisticated: At one point, he refers to experiments in which people only buy products marked as environmentally friendly when they cost more (perhaps because the higher cost makes the claim more plausible), and later he highlights consumer research suggesting that people would be willing to buy environmental if it didn’t cost more. (He consistently cites loads of consumer opinion survey without really thinking about what we learn from these.) He highlights Facebook applications like How Hot Are You? and suggests an application to actually change consumer behavior, which is a giant leap (which he acknowledges, to his credit).

I think Goleman is trying to show us what’s already happening and to give a vision of what could happen. But the identity of his audience is too diffuse. If it is the consumers who are willing to do very little, I doubt they’ll have the patience to read his book. My best bet is the companies, but then, Why am I reading?

I’m not sorry I listened this book: I really learned some things. But I hesitate to recommend it. Just read the first few chapters and then look up the consumer indices. Or listen to the abridged audiobook: Some books can use it.

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