From Emotional to Ecological Intelligence

In a recent interview on Krista Tippett's show, On Being, author Terry Tempest Williams described meeting someone at a dinner party who asked her, "So what do you do?"

"About what?" she said.

Her response stayed with me for reasons that I didn't quite grasp -- until I addressed about 130 educators who gathered recently on Bainbridge Island, Washington for a three-day institute about sustainability education.

As I stood before the audience of K-12 teachers and administrators from the Pacific Northwest and states beyond, including Texas, Idaho, and Georgia, I realized that Williams' answer reflected a woman who brought her whole self to whatever activity she engaged in. There were no divisions between her professional and personal self, or her rational and emotional-self -- divisions that we still feel called upon to make in our work-a-day lives, even though doing so often undermines our effectiveness.

Williams' power, appeal, and integrity rested upon that wholeness. And a similar sense of wholeness lies at the heart of a new book I'd come to Bainbridge to discuss.

Ecoliterate, which will be published by Jossey-Bass on August 14, presents a new integration of emotional, social, and ecological intelligence. Coauthored by Daniel Goleman, bestselling author of Emotional Intelligence and Social Intelligence; Zenobia Barlow, cofounder and executive director of the Center for Ecoliteracy; and me, the idea behind Ecoliterate is this:

Emotional, social, and ecological intelligence are essential dimensions of our universal human intelligence. Each expands outward in focus -- from self to others to the entire natural world, or, if you will, all living systems. But here's the juicy part: Integrating all three adds up to a good deal more than the sum of their parts.

Consider this: Since Goleman published the bestselling Emotional Intelligence in 1995, millions of educators, business leaders, and others have come to understand that success is not a matter of IQ alone. In fact, as Goleman demonstrated, people with modest IQs can be more successful than those with high IQs -- if they bring more emotional intelligence to their actions. Our effectiveness in any field, in other words, has a lot to do with our ability to be aware of and manage our emotions.

That's why tens of thousands of schools have developed social and emotional learning programs in recent decades. And just last year, the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning released the results of a meta analysis of 213 social and emotional learning programs. The findings: These programs improved students' achievement test scores by 11 percentage points.

So if you think it is worthwhile to develop emotional and social intelligence, it only makes sense to also take the next step and develop your ecological intelligence, or understanding of how nature sustains life. Doing so will offer a fuller realization of your own inherent intelligence -- and help you practice sustainable living, which in these times should be of growing interest to us all.

Similarly, if you are already interested in environmental sustainability, it makes sense to mix some social and emotional intelligence in with your ecological intelligence -- to be more effective in your efforts to educate others.

After all, when you start talking about the great ecological challenges that we face (from climate change to the acidification of the oceans to the loss of healthy soil in which to grow our food), it quickly becomes clear that such big issues stir up big emotions, from worry, fear, and guilt to love, caring, and awe.

And big emotions, especially fear, can make us shut down. Deny the facts in front of us. Distract ourselves with trivial things. Or engage in any of the defenses we humans rely upon when we encounter realities that frighten us.

Yet here we are at a turning point in history -- when it matters very much what we think and feel and do. So if we hope to truly grapple with the ecological challenges before us, and educate more people about the practices of sustainable living, we need to bring some emotional intelligence to our ecological pursuits.

Under the leadership of Zenobia Barlow, the Center for Ecoliteracy has pursued a mission for nearly the past 20 years of advancing education for sustainable living in K-12 schools through a pedagogy steeped in social and emotional learning. It has, in other words, developed a track record that shows that the integration of emotional, social, and ecological intelligence works.

Now, in collaboration with Daniel Goleman, Ecoliterate offers a collection of success stories about innovative educators, activists, scholars, and students from the Arctic to Appalachia and New Mexico to New Orleans who have cultivated the capacities of emotional, social, and ecological intelligence within themselves and are using them to educate others about some of the most critical issues of our time, including food, water, and the two most widely used forms of energy -- oil and coal.

also presents five key practices of the integration of emotional, social, and ecological intelligence:
  1. Developing empathy for all life
  2. Embracing sustainability as a community practice
  3. Making the invisible visible
  4. Anticipating unintended consequences
  5. Understanding how nature sustains life

Because we believe that school communities are the ideal places to cultivate these capacities, Ecoliterate also includes a professional development guide for K-12 educators.

In the end, it all comes down to this: At times of instability in a system -- be it a school, a nation, or the biosphere -- there is always the possibility of breakdown or breakthrough to new forms and ways of thinking and acting. And Ecoliterate reflects our core belief that the integration of emotional, social, and ecological intelligence can help lead us to the breakthrough we need -- and provide a way to bring our whole selves to some of the most important challenges before us.

Lisa Bennett is coauthor of Ecoliterate: How Educators Are Cultivating Emotional, Social, and Ecological Intelligence (Jossey-Bass, August 2012) and communications director of the Center for Ecoliteracy, a nonprofit dedicated to education for sustainable living.