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Ecological Intelligence - Page 2

I think of the brand of wisdom that has kept that tiny Himalayan village alive for these centuries as "ecological intelligence," in the sense that it speaks to our ability to adapt to our ecological niche. Ecological refers to an understanding of organisms and their ecosystems, and intelligence lends the capacity to learn from experience and deal effectively with our environment. Ecological intelligence lets us apply what we learn about how human activity impinges on ecosystems so as to do less harm and once again to live sustainably in our niche—these days the entire planet.

Today's threats demand we hone a new sensibility, the capacity to recognize the hidden web of connections between human activity and nature's systems, and the subtle complexities of their intersections. This awakening to new possibilities must result in a collective eye-opening, a shift in our most basic assumptions and perceptions, one that will drive changes in commerce and industry as well as in our individual actions and behaviors.

The Harvard psychologist Howard Gardner reinvented the way we think about IQ by arguing that there are several other varieties of intelligence besides the ones that help us do well in school, and that these intelligences also allow us to do well in life. Gardner enumerated seven kinds, from the spatial abilities of an architect to the interpersonal aptitudes that make teachers or leaders great. Each of these intelligences, he argues, has a unique talent or ability that helped us adapt to the challenges we faced as a species, and that continue to benefit our lives.

The uniquely human ability to design a way of living that adapts to virtually any of the extremes of climate and geology the Earth offers would certainly qualify. Pattern recognition of any kind, Gardner suggests, may have its roots in the primal act of understanding how nature operates, such as classifying what goes in which natural grouping. Such talents have been displayed by every native culture in adapting to its particular environment.

The contemporary expression of ecological intelligence extends the native naturalist's ability to categorize and recognize patterns to sciences like chemistry, physics, and ecology (among many others), applying the lenses of these disciplines to dynamic systems wherever they operate at any scale, from the molecular to the global. This knowledge about how things and nature work includes recognizing and understanding the countless ways manmade systems interact with natural ones, or what I think of as ecological intelligence. Only such an all-encompassing sensibility can let us see the interconnections between our actions and their hidden impacts on the planet, our health, and our social systems.

Ecological intelligence melds these cognitive skills with empathy for all life. Just as social and emotional intelligence build on the abilities to take other people's perspective, feel with them, and show our concern, ecological intelligence extends this capacity to all natural systems. We display such empathy whenever we feel distress at a sign of the "pain" of the planet, or resolve to make things better. This expanded empathy adds to a rational analysis of cause-effect the motivation to help.

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