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Ecological Intelligence: Do Humans Have What it Takes to Survive?

Society has lost touch with what may be the singular sensibility crucial to our survival as a species.

The following is excerpted from the Ecological Intelligenceby Daniel Goleman, published by Broadway Business, an imprint of The Crown Publishing Group, a division of Random House, Inc. Reprinted with permission. Copyright © 2009 by Daniel Goleman.

For over a thousand years Sher, a tiny village in Tibet, has clung to its existence despite its dire location, perched on a narrow shelf along a steep mountainside. This site on the dry Tibetan plateau gets just three inches of precipitation a year. But every drop is gathered into an ancient irrigation system. Annual temperatures average near freezing and from December through February the mercury can hover below that mark by 10 to 20 degrees Fahrenheit.

The region's sheep have extra-thick wool that holds heat remarkably well; locally spun and woven wool makes clothes and blankets that help villagers endure the excruciatingly cold winters with little heating other than a fire in the hearth.

The stone-and-wattle houses need to be reroofed every ten years, and willow trees planted along the irrigation canals provide the roofing. Whenever a branch is cut for roofing, a new one is grafted to the tree. A willow tree lasts around four hundred years, and when one dies a new one is planted. Human waste is recycled as fertilizer for herbs, vegetables, and fields of barley -- the source of the local staple, tsampa -- and for root vegetables to store for the winter.

For centuries Sher's population has stayed the same, around three hundred people. Jonathan Rose, a founder of the movement for housing that is both green and affordable and a builder himself, finds instructive lessons in the clever ways native peoples have found to survive in perilous niches like Sher. Says Rose, “That is true sustainability, when a village can survive in its ecosystem for a thousand years.”

Tibetans, of course, are not unique in their remarkable ability to find simple solutions to the daunting challenge of surviving, even thriving, in the most dire of environmental surrounds. From the Arctic Circle to the Sahara Desert, native peoples everywhere have survived only by understanding and exquisitely attuning themselves to the natural systems that surround them and designing ways of living that best interact with those systems. The tiny hamlet of Sher depends on three forces for its survival: sunlight, rainwater, and the wisdom to use nature's resources well.

Modern life diminishes such skills and wisdom; at the beginning of the twenty-first century, society has lost touch with what may be the singular sensibility crucial to our survival as a species. The routines of our daily lives go on completely disconnected from their adverse impacts on the world around us; our collective mind harbors blind spots that disconnect our everyday activities from the crises those same activities create in natural systems. Yet at the same time the global reach of industry and commerce means that the impacts of how we live extend to the far corners of the planet. Our species threatens to consume and befoul the natural world at a rate that far exceeds our planet's carrying capacity.

I think of the brand of wisdom that has kept that tiny Himalayan village alive for these centuries as "ecological intelligence," our ability to adapt to our ecological niche. Ecological refers to an understanding of organisms and their ecosystems, and intelligence connotes 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.

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