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Ecological Intelligence - Page 4

Our species needs to re-sensitize ourselves to such dynamics in nature, in order to preserve them. We have no sensors nor any innate brain system designed to warn us of the innumerable ways that human activity corrodes our planetary niche. We have to acquire a new sensitivity to an unfamiliar range of threats, beyond those our nervous system's alarm radar picks up—and learn what to do about them. That's where ecological intelligence enters the picture.

The neocortex, the thinking brain, evolved as our most versatile neural tool for survival—whatever the hard-wired circuits of our brain cannot help us understand, the neocortex can discover, comprehend, and marshal as needed. We can learn the now-hidden consequences of what we do, and what to do about it—and so cultivate an acquired ability to compensate for the weakness of our innate ways of perceiving and thinking.

The variety of ecological intelligence humanity so urgently needs demands this generalist zone work along with the brain's pre-dedicated modules for alarm, fear and disgust. Nature designed the olfactory cortex to navigate a natural universe of odors we rarely encounter today; the amygdala's neural web for alarm innately recognizes with effectiveness only a limited—and largely antiquated—range of danger. Those hardwired areas are not easily reprogrammed, if at all. But our neocortex—through what we intentionally learn—can compensate for our natural blindspots.

Smells are just combinations of volatile molecules wafting from some object and reaching our nose. Our olfactory brain assigns a positive or negative valence, separating the desirable from the repulsive, the putrified meat from the fresh bread. But life now requires learning that the scent of newly applied paint or that distinctive aroma in a just-bought car comes from volatile, manmade chemical compounds, which act like low-grade toxins in our body and should be avoided. Likewise we need to acquire a learned early warning system toward toys laden with lead and toward gases that pollute the air we breathe, and to dread toxic chemicals in our foods that we cannot taste or see. But we can only "know" these are dangers indirectly, through scientific findings—a different order of knowing. What may eventually become a learned emotional reaction must begin with intellectual comprehension.

Ecological intelligence allows us to comprehend systems in all their complexity, as well as the interplay between the natural and manmade worlds. But that understanding demands a vast store of knowledge, one so huge that no single brain can store it all. Each one of us needs the help of others to navigate the complexities of ecological intelligence. We need to collaborate.

Psychologists conventionally view an intelligence as residing within an individual. But the ecological abilities we need in order to survive today must be a collective intelligence, one that we learn and master as a species, and that resides in a distributed fashion amongst farflung networks of people. The challenges we face are too varied, too subtle, and too complicated to be understood and overcome by a single person; their recognition and solution require intense efforts by a vastly diverse range of experts, business people, activists—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 one hand, and to see the new opportunities these solutions offer (as well as the collective determination to do all this).

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