daniel_goleman's picture
Psychologist; Author (with Richard Davidson), Altered Traits
Hidden Consequences of Our Daily Choices as Consumers of Products and Services

What is the biggest unreported story?

The hidden consequences for our health and the environment, and for social and economic justice, of our daily choices as consumers of products and services.

Our individual habits of consumption, when multiplied by our vast numbers, have devastating impacts — but we are blind to the chain that links our individual choices with their vaster consequences. I'd like to know what these links are — but they lack transparency. We need something akin to the labels of nutritional value on foods that would surface these hidden consequences of our own actions.

A case in point: what is the environmental cost of choosing to buy a hamburger? How many acres for cattle to graze, how much erosion or degrading of land as a consequence, how much more greenhouse gases added to the atmosphere, how much water used for this purpose rather than other things? How does a burger made from beef compare in this regard to, say, one made from turkey, or from soybeans?

Another case in point: since childhood, I've suffered from asthma. Asthma is becoming epidemic among children, especially in urban neighborhoods. One clear reason for the upsurge is the increase in airborne particulates that irritate and inflame respiratory passages. I live in the Connecticut River Valley of Massachusetts, which, because of prevailing winds, receives a large portion of its particulates from the pollution in the metro New York City area, as well as from the industrial Midwest states. One coal-powered electrical plant in Ohio, a notoriously bad offender, contributes almost half the airborne particulates that reach my area from the Midwest. Who are the largest industrial customers of that electrical plant? What products that I'm now buying are built using power from that plant? I might boycott them if I knew.

Individually, the consequences of my choices are admittedly negligible. But if summated across millions of consumers making the similarly informed choices, the impact could be quite great. We could 'vote' for more benign consequences if we had this missing information.

I applaud, for instance, the mutual funds and other corporate citizens who are offering shareholders the option to get their reports via the internet, rather than wasting resources — trees, power, etc. — mailing thousands of hard copies. One fund informs me, for instance, that if all members sign up for internet reports, the savings in pulp amounts to more than three hundred trees per year.

I want more choices like that.

So how about a new investigative beat for journalism: hidden consequences.