REWIND: Ecological Intelligence



George Lakoff

Professor Emeritus of Cognitive Science and Linguistics, UC Berkeley

What’s really preventing us from enacting environmental change? Blame our brains, says Daniel Goleman, author of Ecological Intelligence. As he explains it, “The problem comes down to a design flaw in the human brain.” Evolution fine-tuned our brains to protect us from immediate survival threats – lions, tigers and bears. But long-term dangers, such as those that threaten our planet today, don’t register. “The problem is that we don't perceive, nor are we alarmed by, these changes,” says Goleman. “And so we're in this dilemma where we can show people, "Well, you know, your carbon footprint is this," but it doesn't really register in the same way as “there's a tiger around the block.” Facts alone aren't enough, he adds, “We need to find a more powerful way of framing them…a way which will activate the right set of emotions and get us moving.”

George Lakoff, a linguistics professor at U.C. Berkeley, sees the issue as a moral, rather than environmental, crisis: “…the greatest moral crisis we have ever been in. It is the moral issue of our times and it’s seen just as an environmental issue.” But morality can mean different things to different people. This sets up a debate that quickly goes from the political to the personal, as Josh Freedman, author of Inside Change, points out. “When we start saying, "okay, they're good, and they're bad," what happens is we're actually fueling this threat system that is what's in the way of us actually solving these problems.”

So what is the solution? How do we retune our primitive brains – and those of our political and business leaders -- to focus on a less than clear, less than present danger?

Throughout the discussion, several key avenues rose to the top: economics, education and emotional appeal. If major institutions can be persuaded to divest from environmentally unsound companies, says Lakoff, “then what will happen is that the prices of the stocks will go down for those energy companies. When they go down that way, they stay down…you have an opportunity to shift investment away in a way that has an exponential feedback loop.”

Educating today’s youth was a powerful and recurring theme for all the speakers. “What kids learn and tell their parents is important,” Goleman said. “Schools are a big counterforce that we can do a much better job of deploying in this battle for minds and heart.”

Despite our primitive wiring, the speakers concluded, we humans do have the capacity for the ecological intelligence – and the morality – to effect global change.

“Your morality is what defines who you are as a human being,” says Lakoff, “it's who you are emotionally and morally as a human being that matters in your life, what you do every day. This isn't a matter of compromise…we have, like, 35 years to turn this around, period. That's not long.”

“All change starts on the inside,” says Freedman, “If we can support children and adults to connect with that capability and to develop what's already there, then things are going to get a lot better.”

Daniel Goleman, Author, Ecological Intelligence: The Hidden Impacts of What We Buy (Crown Business, 2010)
Joshua Freedman, CEO, Six Seconds; Author, Inside Change: Transforming Your Organization With Emotional Intelligence (Six Seconds, 2010)
George Lakoff, Professor of Cognitive Science and Linguistics at the University of California at Berkeley and author of many books, including The Political Mind: A Cognitive Scientist's Guide to Your Brain and Its Politics (Penguin Books, 2009)

This program was recorded in front of a live audience at the Commonwealth Club of California on May 1, 2014.