Two very different conferences
Hayat Sindi and Diagnostics for All

Pop!Tech / Mindshifts / Daniel Goleman

I'm tag-teaming today and tomorrow with my partner in crime (and husband) Ethan Zuckerman to liveblog the 2009 iteration of the fabulous Pop!Tech conference in Camden, Maine. You can read about today's events at the Pop!Tech blog, or via the Pop!Tech 2009 tag at Ethan's blog and via the Pop!Tech 2009 category here on this blog.

If you're new to Velveteen Rabbi, welcome. Here's some information about me, and here's my comments policy. Enjoy the conference posts -- not my usual fare, but hopefully interesting. (And to longtime readers: never fear, I'll return to my usual subject matter in a few days.)

"The theme of the session this morning is thinking differently, about shifting our mindsets, about big shifts in how we relate to technology, how we think about science, how we think about the natural world," says our host Andrew Zolli, welcoming psychologist Daniel Goleman to the stage.

Goleman (here's his Pop!Tech bio, and here's his blog) wrote the 1995 bestseller Emotional Intelligence: Why It Can Matter More Than IQ. His latest work tends more toward the political than the psychological per se; he's author of Ecological Intelligence: How Knowing the Hidden Impacts of What We Buy Can Change Everything, which challenges readers to confront the real consequences of our purchasing decisions. He speaks this morning as part of the Mindshifts session.

"I want to do some mindshifting," he says, which will change our relationship to some of the environmental tragedies we heard about yesterday. He notes though a cautionary tale about believing everything you read on the web: his bio here says that he co-founded the Yale Child Studies center, but "I was about ten when that got going," though had he walked over there at the time perhaps he would have been the first kid they studied!

"How many folks here recycle? Everybody recycles. How many print on both sides of the paper? Those who can, compost? Print-on-demand business cards -- if you want my contact information, I write it out for you...?"

Imagine you have a morning yogurt, and recycle the lid in a plastics bin. What's the impact on global warming -- how much do you remediate via recycling that lid? People call out 0%, 23%, and 5%. The answer is five percent. Most of the global impacts from your morning yogurt come from the cows, the farming, the transportation -- "there's an enormous amount of invisible impact from everything we buy and consume, everything we don't see but are about to." The new discipline of industrial ecology allows physicists, chemists, and engineers to study the hiden impacts of everything. A glass jar, like you might buy your pasta in, goes through more than 1000 steps from manufacture to disposal, and each one of those steps can be examined for social and environmental impacts. Emissions into air, soil, and water. "We have a new lens on everything we buy."

This lens will tell you, he says, about a local tomato grown in Montreal: the seeds were developed in France, grown in China, shipped back in France to be treated, flown to Ontario to be sprouted, and trucked to Montreal where they became "local!" "It's a new way of seeing behind the fact that what we see now as 'green' is largely a marketing mirage." If there are 999 steps and you change one or two things, what about the rest? "It raises the bar for what we need to do." We're going to be able to do this with greater efficiency because of Good Guide, a free iPhone app. He tells us about a nine-year-old named Joey who downloaded Good Guide onto his iPhone and saw that one of his favorite Webkinz gets a 3.9 rating there, which is very bad. Alas for the Webkins fans in our audience -- the Pink Pony, for instance, is full of toxins.

Good Guide also instantly compares any product to its competitors, ranking them according to their virtues and vices. (Fortunately, the other Webkinz -- aside from the Pink Pony -- score 8s, 9s and 10s. Much better.) The app also scores foods. Playing around with this was an eye-opener for young Joey, and that's a microcosm of what can happen for all of us. We might discover that the sunscreen we put on our five-year-old daughter has a carcinogen in it, for instance. "At that moment, you've elicited what psychologists call the contrast effect...which occurs in the brain when you're comparing two things, you see one that all of a sudden is unappealing, and then you look at the other and the other looks many times better because of the contrast." This is the moment in which brands are made and ruined, he says. "This is part of the game change I want to describe to you."

If each of us, as we shop, does three things, we'll have an enormous impact on how things are made and how Congress operates. If we 1) bother to know the impacts of what we buy (via GoodGuide); 2) favor improvement, and 3) tell everyone we know. Twitter about it, tell your friends, email the manufacturer. "Chatter about it, let it go viral; the more it spreads, the more market share will shift." Hannaford Brothers supermarkets here in Maine went to some nutritionists at Yale and Dartmouth a few years back, asking them to rank every product on the shelves with simple star ratings, and market share shifted toward the more nutritional foods. "That is the mechanism that we want to have operate, because that will ripple through everything that's made."

The big accelerator turns out to be Walmart, surprisingly. A few months back, Walmart said they're going to develop a sustainabiity index based on this methodology of industrial ecology; they're going to rate products and put the ratings on the price tag just like Hannaford did. This "introduces information symmetry about the ecological costs of goods." The goods we buy every day may be toxic; information symmetry means we can know what sellers know. It's a game-changer because it can create a moveement towards a perpetual upgrade -- an ecological diagnostic.

Earthster is a similar product for the supply chain, so they can see where their worst impacts are. Proctor and Gamble studied that, and saw that their worst impact on global warming was that we have to heat our water to use their detergents, so they went to R&D and designed some detergents that work well with cold water. Anyone who manages a product or brand can see where they stand on ecological impacts, where they need to improve in order to score better. "This creates a perpetual upgrade." In order to stay competitive, you have to keep looking for new solutions, new ways to do old things -- for instance, biodegradable plastic and styrofoam. That kind of thing is highly sought-after.

Walmart's looking at resource use, climate change impacts, ecosystem impacts throughout the supply chain. "A potentially diminished fraction of an ecosystem" -- that's the metric they're using. Imagine thinking in those terms! The last one is "a disability-adjusted life year." This comes from public health, and means the years of your life you lose to some disability because of, e.g., a chemical exposure. Greg Norris, the developer of Earthster, did a study of the power grid in the Netherlands, and weighed the negative impacts from exposure to pollutants for people there vs. the impact on the 10% of the supply chain for their power grid which was from the poorest parts of the world. He found that positive benefits in the poorest parts of the world, such as improved health and education, were orders of magnitude greater than the negative impacts for the people in the Netherlands. "This gives us an entirely new way to think about the true impacts of what we do and what we buy and how to do it better."

Pollution seems to be an external cost -- "someone else will pay for it" -- but over time this becomes a reputation cost. "Investors are starting to talk about minimizing sustainability risk from reputation cost."

Goleman was talking with a guy at Greenpeace who was investigating the largest paper product company in America, trying to get them to stop sourcing from virgin forests. And the guy from the paper company said, "'We did a lifecycle assessment, we have very little chlorine, we use alternative energies, we look pretty good! We don't have to stop sourcing virgin wood.' That is old think. You can say that as long as your competitors do the same. But to win in this new game, you have to find ways to do better ecologically." This means there's an enormous business opportunity... and we each have to look at our own business operations through that same lens.

"This resolves the conflict between corporate social responsibility, people who say 'we need to do the environmentally right thing because it's the moral thing to do,' and those who argue that we have to do right by our shareholders... Now those two things are aligned. Or they will be, as this system goes to scale."

"Joey is nine. Millennials on down have a unique collective experience which is going to determine their mindset for life." How many people here learned to protect themselves from a nuclear blast by climbing under a school desk? That was the Cold War generation's major trauma. But this generation grows up on a constant media diet of disappearing species, global warming, "one litany after another of coming disaster and meltdown." The human brain, he says, has evolved a danger warning system that has a whole range of alarms -- from the prehistoric "Tiger!" to "honey, we need to talk." But what it doesn't see is the connection between what we buy at the grocery store and a pelican dying in the Pacific. But today we can have that kind of information. And kids today are going to grow up wanting that information.

Even the idea that we've begun a geological epoch where human activity is going to create disasters -- even if that comes to pass, life will adapt, he says. "The earth doesn't need healing: we do."