Monthly Archives: September 2013

Ecological intelligence – a scarce resource

by Stan Hirst

 

Groupthink

We elders value the environment in which we live, and so we take a deep interest in anything that threatens the quality of that environment. For the past while we’ve been expressing concern about plans and proposals to run oil pipelines across the landscape and to build massive tanker terminals on the west coast to supply oil supertankers which will then chug up and down B.C.’s narrow coastal channels with their bituminous loads. Now we find ourselves faced by yet more proposals to haul yet more piles of thermal coal down to the coast for loading into yet more freighters to carry the stuff to yet more power plants in China for combustion to add, yes, yet more greenhouse gases to the planet’s already overloaded atmosphere.

We understand the underlying motivations of the people who propose, plan and implement all these grand schemes. Canadians don’t get to actually use any of the oil, gas and coal being extracted, hauled and shipped, so the reasons for the frenetic interest in these activities are more elementary – employment and revenue from exports. National statistics indicate that the energy sector provides 4% of Canada’s total employment and that income from energy extraction and export is currently 3.5% of average national income. These are not huge proportions in the national sense, but obviously represent a significant number of jobs and piles of loot for some. We look at the other side of the coin and express our concern with statistics and forecasts related to things like habitats for fish and wildlife, clean water and marine coastlines not befouled with oil slicks or worse.

Our reasons for concern at carbon extraction and combustion relate in the first instance to the very real possibility of local impacts from spills, contamination at the like. At the global level we see even greater threats to global climate and to planetary ecosystems from the additional carbon dioxide and methane which will be added to Earth’s atmosphere. Those impacts will affect virtually every person on the planet in some way, and the negative effects will be handed on to succeeding generations.

The really perplexing question now arises when we consider the motivations and decision-making modes of those driving the proposals to extract bitumen and coal and to ship it out for combustion. These folks look a lot like us. They live on this planet right here next to us. They seem to value environmental quality just as much as we do. They too have children and grandchildren who they want to see live happy and productive lives. Why then are they so happy to sidestep the obvious implications of negative global impacts and focus instead on the materialistic – jobs and money?

The difference between the two groups – the environmentally concerned and the environmentally unconcerned – seems to be a sensitivity to global ecological issues and to the vast web of connections and intersections between human activity and nature’s systems. Daniel Goleman, author and journalist, has termed this sensitivity ecological intelligence. Ecological refers to an understanding of living organisms and their ecosystems, and intelligence connotes the capacity to learn from experience and deal effectively with the shared environment.

In primitive societies this shared environment was essentially local – a valley, a stretch of shoreline or a path of forest used as habitat by fish and wildlife essential to local humans as food sources. Today, the global dominance of industry and commerce has brought the impacts of our lifestyles to virtually every corner of the planet. Current human use and consumption of the natural world far exceeds Earth’s long-term carrying capacity. At the same time, modern society has lost touch with the sensibility crucial to our survival as a species. Our daily routines carry on completely disconnected from the adverse impacts on the world around us. As Goleman expresses it – our collec­tive mind harbours blind spots that disconnect our everyday ac­tivities from the crises those activities cause in natural systems. An all-encompassing sensibility would be the only way to appreciate the interconnections between human actions and their direct and indirect impacts on the planet and on our own well-being and social systems.

A contemporary expression of ecological intelligence would be a naturalist’s ability to categorize and recognize patterns in the natural world – ecological, geological and climatic. Humans have done this for centuries. The global extent of human-induced change now requires that ecological intelligence be extended to the planetary level. Other levels of human intelligence, e.g. social and emotional, enable us to take other people’s perspectives, assimilate these and feel genuine empathy. Ecological intelligence extends this capac­ity to all natural systems.

The sheer efficiency and widespread prevalence of modern technologies have severely blunted the survival skills of billions of individuals on the planet. Modern economies require and encourage specialized expertise, which in turn depends on other specialists for tasks in another field. However, while many of us excel in a narrow specialized field, we all depend on the skills of experts – farmers, software engineers, nutritionists, mechanics – to make life work for us. We no longer have the abilities, the attunement to the natural world, nor the custom of passing on of local wisdom to new generations that traditionally allowed native peoples to find ways of living in harmony with their patch of the planet.

When it comes to seeing nature, differences in perception have huge consequences. Images of polar bears stranded on ice drifts or vanishing glaciers offer powerful symbols of the perils we face from global warming. Inconvenient truths of the trouble our planet is in are everywhere, but our collective ability to perceive them has been rendered ineffective. Our attention has been drawn, somewhat reluctantly, to symptoms like the slow rising of global sea levels or the pesticide-induced demise of our all-important bee populations, but how many other keys and subtle insights into natural disruption are we missing? We have no sensors for this sort of thing Goleman reminds us, nor is our otherwise impressive neural system designed to warn us of the ways that our activities are having on our planetary niche. We clearly have to acquire new sensitivities to a growing range of threats and learn what to do about them. In other words, we need urgently to sharpen our ecological intelligence.

Ecological intelligence should allow us to comprehend complex systems as well as the interrelations between the natural and man-made worlds, but developing it requires a vast store of knowledge. Too much for any one individual. Intelligence has traditionally been a characteristic of the individual, but now the ecological abilities we need in order to sur­vive must necessarily be collective. The challenges we face are too diverse, frequently too subtle or too complex to be understood and addressed by an individual. Problem recognition and solution now require intense efforts by a diverse range of experts, entrepreneurs, activists; in short, by all of us. As a group we need to learn what dangers we face, what their causes are, and how to render them harmless. On the other hand we need to see new opportunities. Above all, we need the collective determination to do all this.

Large organizations already make good use of distributed intelligence. Goleman cites the examples of hospitals where technicians, nurses, administrators and specialist physicians coordinate their skills to provide appropriate care to patients. A similar example is that of a modern commercial enterprise in which sales, marketing, finance, and strategic plan­ning each represent unique expertise yet op­erate as a whole to provide coordinated, shared understanding and implementation.

The shared nature of ecological intelligence makes it synergis­tic with social intelligence, which gives us the capacity to coordi­nate and harmonize our efforts. The art of working together effectively has to encompass abil­ities like empathy and perspective taking, candour and coopera­tion, to create person-to-person links that let information gain added value as it moves up. Collaboration and the exchange of in­formation are vital to amassing the essential ecological insights and necessary databases that will allow us to act for the greater good.