What's Your Green IQ?

In Ecological Intelligence, Daniel Goleman questions the environmental impact of what we buy. You'll never answer "paper or plastic" the same way again.

We like a writer who asks big questions, and Daniel Goleman has been unafraid to tackle them ever since his 1995 bestseller, Emotional Intelligence, which investigated how people understand and communicate feelings. He followed this with Working With Emotional Intelligence, and Social Intelligence, and now, in Ecological Intelligence, he asks the biggest question of all, the existential dilemma that every American must confront at some time: Paper or plastic? Which is why it’s such a letdown when he answers, in three crisp syllables: “It depends.” Like we couldn’t have figured that out for ourselves.

I discovered that the ingredients in the national-brand shampoo I had been using for years posed a risk of cancer, organ damage, neurotoxicity, and numerous other unpleasant consequences.

If Goleman is right, though, this will soon be the least of our concerns. The awesome responsibility of solving the world’s most intractable environmental and social problems will fall on the shoulders of American consumers. Armed with gigabytes of data on every brand of chewing gum and shampoo on the market, they will be transformed into environmental vigilantes, enforcing demands for safer and more eco-friendly products that, as they filter up through the retail supply chain, manufacturers will rush to satisfy. The empowering tool for this is something called “life-cycle analysis,” a new discipline that, as Goleman explains, “measures in fine-grained detail the vast number of ecological impacts of every product—paper, plastic, cement, you name it—all along its life cycle, from the time it is made, through its use, until you dispose of it, and even after you toss it out.” Then that data can be downloaded onto a convenient hand-held scanner that the shopper will wave over any product on the supermarket shelf, and next thing you know, instead of discounts grocers will be offering half off the carbon footprint of a roll of paper towels if you buy two at the regular environmental cost.

That’s a joke, but it illustrates the magnitude of the change in consumer behavior Goleman anticipates, and the complexity of the calculations necessary to bring it about. If there were a simple answer to the paper-versus-plastic question we wouldn’t still be asking it. Plastic bags are made of nonrenewable petroleum and take hundreds of years to decompose, but paper bags take more energy and water to manufacture. The plastic-versus-paper riddle is actually a trick question. In fact, Goleman carries his own reusable fabric shopping bag to the store, as we all should do. But even that doesn’t free him from worries about pesticide residue in the field where the bag’s cotton was grown and whether the fabric mill used child labor, so maybe the safest thing is to buy only as much as you can carry back from the store in your hands.

That’s a joke. The real answer is, it depends. When Goleman attempted to apply the principles of what he calls “radical transparency” to the choice between a reusable stainless-steel water bottle and throwaway plastic ones, he consulted an “industrial ecologist” who measured the environmental and health impacts along dozens of parameters. The upshot was, the choice depends on what you choose to focus on. In terms of fossil-fuel depletion, the steel bottle was the equivalent of just eight plastic bottles—a few days’ worth for many people—while on the scale of “ecotoxicity on freshwater” you’d have to buy 900 plastic bottles before their impact equaled the steel.

So it’s not just a matter of having the right information, but deciding in advance which specific environmental values are important to you. And this was for a simple choice between two different containers whose contents—water—were the same. What about something really complicated, like a frozen waffle? Or, to take a product that Goleman seems particularly partial to, shampoo? Goleman introduced me to the Environmental Working Group’s cosmetics-safety Web site, Skin Deep. Here I discovered that the ingredients in the national-brand shampoo I had been using for years posed a risk of cancer, organ damage, neurotoxicity, and numerous other unpleasant consequences. That’s without even considering the environmental effects of the bottle it comes in, or the ink used to print the label.

Goleman points out that “the toxicity effects of many of the industrial chemicals in use today are unknown. The old model used by toxicologists is: Does a large dose of this in an adult produce disease? But the body is an enormously complex chemical factory, which accumulates these chemicals over a lifetime. The thing to worry about is the mix of them in the body, even in very small amounts.” By that reasoning, even the most complete database in the world won’t suffice to weigh the risk of, say, endocrine disruption from propylparaben versus immune-system toxicity from methylisothiazolinone. You would need a computer programmed with a complete history of everything else you’ve ever ingested, inhaled, or touched in your life to calculate the potential interactions.

That’s not a joke. And neither are the environmental and health hazards Goleman describes, or the exploitative labor practices of manufacturers in developing countries. Goleman has been chewing on these problems since the 1980s. “I wrote a book about self-deception ( Vital Lies, Simple Truths: The Psychology of Self-Deception). I said, this [“green” marketing] is the biggest self-deception of all, but I threw up my hands because there was nothing we could do about it. But now there is a new generation of information technology that can trace in detail how our shopping decisions drive the industrial, commercial, and manufacturing processes that are gobbling up our resources. We have to stop bewailing all the things that are happening to the earth as though we had nothing to do with them.”

But I remain unconvinced that the solution to these problems must lie with an empowered consumerocracy. I applaud the efforts of the Environmental Working Group but I can’t help notice that although the site had processed (on the day I checked it) 104,622,102 searches since 2004, of 1,705 shampoos listed, 270 were still designated as “high hazard,” including many nationally known brands. Clearly, people are still buying them. Surely the great majority of Americans driving SUVs in, say, 2006 were well aware that tailpipe emissions were bringing catastrophic global warming down on our empty heads? How much more data would it have taken to get them to switch to hybrids? We all know the answer: SUVs stopped selling only when gas reached $4 a gallon, because people know that their personal choice of vehicle will have no effect on the climate, unless everyone else does the same. In exalting market-based solutions to everything, we seem to have forgotten that there is a mechanism to impose just such a choice on society; it’s called government. If America’s air is much cleaner now than it was 30 years ago—as it is, greenhouse gases aside—it’s not because enlightened drivers demanded cars with catalytic converters; it’s because the Clean Air Act forced the manufacturers to install them. If the rivers no longer catch fire, we have the Clean Water Act to thank. There’s nothing wrong with, as the saying goes, voting with your wallet, as long as you don’t forget that you can vote with your votes as well. Goleman is a smart writer and his heart is in the right place, but I think his next book ought to be about something he might want to call Political Intelligence.

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Jerry Adler is a contributing editor at Newsweek, where he writes about medicine, science, and ideas. He is the author of High Rise: How 1,000 Men and Women Worked Around the Clock for Five Years and Lost $200 Million Building a Skyscraper.