Giftedness comes in many forms, and high ecological intelligence (ecological giftedness) is one of them. How can we develop our own ecological intelligence, recover full access to our ecological giftedness if we have lost touch with it, and recognize and champion the various forms of non-human intelligence (and giftedness) all around us?
by Jennifer Harvey Sallin
NON-HUMAN INTELLIGENCE & GIFTEDNESS
I’ve been specializing in the field of intelligence and high intelligence (giftedness) for the last decade, but even before that, I was fascinated to learn anything and everything I could about neuroscience and the nature of consciousness, both in human and non-human beings. Robert Sapolsky was one of my early companions on the explorative journey, as was David Chalmers. I questioned a lot about animal and plant consciousness, intelligence and even “giftedness”, and Sapolsky, Chalmers and others gave me hints about what might be. It’s been only in recent years that clearer research has come out to confirm the intelligence of animals and plants, and their levels of awareness and conscious participation in life. What I suspected in my earlier years is showing as true: animals and plants are conscious and intelligent beings, and some members of their species can even express versions of their own forms of “giftedness”.
Of course, in our human-centric culture, where human intelligence and needs reign supreme, the self-sovereignty of plants and non-human animals is often ignored outrightly. We have turned much of our non-human world into a machine, a backdrop for, or supply for our human-focused, culturally driven narrative that tells us who we are and what our life’s purpose is. We are the highlight or the apex of evolution and those other conscious and intelligent beings are objects which are there “for us”, or so culture has told us (even most religious narratives claim we humans are the “special ones” here with a purpose, and that it is our right to dominate and subjugate other species).
The more recent research (and for many of us, our inner intuition) tells us that this is not true. Each animal, each plant, is a “who”, not a “what” or an “it”. It has a full life of its own, in its own context, with its own aims and sense of purpose. Many social species have families, friends, rivals, culture and traditions. We are all “who’s”, interconnectedly living on this planet. And since it is the recognition of another’s intelligence, personality, and unique self-hood that often convinces us to value, respect and peacefully coexist with them, it’s important for us to invest in understanding the minds, emotions and experiences of the “who’s” we live with. An extension of that exploration forces us then, given our current circumstances, to also invest in understanding the “who’s” we are systematically torturing and killing both directly and indirectly via our consumption choices. Urbanization, deforestation, factory farming, animal testing, ecosystem destruction… the list goes on and on. Of all land mammals on the planet, 60% are agriculturally farmed animals for human use and consumption; due to deforestation, habitat destruction, hunting, illegal wildlife trade, and climate change, wildlife makes up only 4% of all land mammals; humans take up space in the middle at 36%.
Recognizing the intelligence of the other beings who share our planet and reevaluating how we are partnering with – or hurting or destroying – them in light of our recognition of the full scope of their conscious, intelligent presence, is an essential first step toward developing and increasing our own ecological intelligence and wisdom.
Here are some essential reading resources on the topic:
- Beyond Words: What Animals Think and Feel, by Carl Safina – in this book, you’ll learn about animal intelligence, and even about gifted animals among the families and packs described in the book. Safina talks about the neurological differences between animal and human brains, why our language sounds like one thing while animal language sounds like another, and how elephants, wolves, orcas and many other animals are “who’s” that live in a very socially connected species ecosystem. It’s one of the most beautifully written and moving books I’ve ever read, on any topic.
- Carl Safina’s entire body of work, which is informative, inspiring and motivating: www.carlsafina.org
- Animalkind: Remarkable Discoveries About Animals and Revolutionary New Ways to Show Them Compassion, by Ingrid Newkirk & Gene Stone – this book is an essential primer on recent research about animal intelligence as well as animal cruelty and what we can do today to change our relationship with animals to become generative co-inhabitants of the earth.
- Our Wild Calling: How Connecting with Animals Can Transform Our Lives, and Save Theirs, by Richard Louv – this book is a beautiful, embodied philosophical journey through deep connection with wild nature.
- The Revolutionary Genius of Plants: A New Understanding of Plant Intelligence and Behavior, by Stefan Mancuso – in this book, you’ll learn about plant intelligence, and even about gifted plants who perform amazing feats based on their skills.
- The Hidden Life of Trees: What They Feel, How They Communicate – Discoveries from a Secret World, by Peter Wohlleben – this book is a treasure of information and prose, and since reading it, my life and the way I see the world around me has never been the same.
ARE YOU ECOLOGICALLY INTELLIGENT?
Howard Gardner had a name in his Theory of Multiple Intelligences specifically for one aspect of the kind of intelligence which recognizes and connects easily with the non-human “who’s” with whom we inhabit the planet: Naturalistic Intelligence. This version of intelligence focused mostly on the very hands-on connection and ease with nature (gardening, caring for animals, etc) as well as an understanding of the web of life. Ecological Intelligence goes even beyond this. In my current model of giftedness, I’d group naturalistic intelligence mainly under sensual and physical, and to some degree emotional, intelligence; ecological intelligence would go further to encompass aspects of existential, intellectual and even creative intelligence. To be ecologically intelligent, one must be aware of the interconnected systems which create conditions of thriving of the various ecosystemic components of the whole, and be able to solve problems which obstruct that thriving. That takes practical, theoretical, philosophical, scientific, embodied, emotionally-connected, open-minded and creative intelligences. You could be great at gardening and caring for animals, for example (having naturalistic intelligence), all the while not necessarily being aware of how the political situation around you or the current cultural norms affect land use, animal treatment, or the evolution of interspecies cooperation.
Someone who is “ecologically gifted” would have a natural propensity for quickly understanding various factors across these domains, how they weave together and what can be done to make complex systemic change toward a desired ecological outcome. Here are some questions to help you start to evaluate your natural propensity for ecological intelligence (and perhaps giftedness) or your need and desire to develop this side of yourself:
- Are you aware of what you eat and where it comes from?
- Are you aware of the lives of the “who’s” which are sacrificed for what you eat?
- Are you aware of the intelligence of animals and plants?
- Do you know where your drinking water comes from?
- Do you know where the heat in your house comes from, and its ecological footprint?
- Are you aware of the many “who’s” that are creating the products you consume and in what conditions they work and live?
- Are you aware of your bioregion and the many “who’s” living with you in your bioregion?
- Are you aware of the impact of your travel on the planet and on the places you go?
- Are you aware of the microbial life in the soil and on and in every living thing, including the microbial life in your own body?
- Are you aware of the causes of ecosystem degradation and destruction locally and globally?
- Are you aware of the political and economic factors that keep us locked into ecologically destructive patterns?
- Are you aware of the cultural pressures and narratives that keep us locked into ecologically destructive patterns?
- Do you garden or care for plants?
- Do you connect with animals regularly?
- Do you spend time connecting with wild nature regularly?
- Are your daily decisions made in connection with the web of existence, or only based on your own considerations?
- Are you aware of the complex emotions you feel in relationship to the systemic destruction of the planet and the loss of biodiversity?
The above list is only a start. There are so many intellectual, emotional, cultural, practical and philosophical, questions which can be asked as a starting point to explore your level of ecological intelligence. You might find you don’t know many or any of the above answers. Does it mean you’re not ecologically intelligent or gifted? Not exactly… read on below.
First, some recommended reading on a few of these topics:
- Ecological Intelligence: How Knowing the Hidden Impacts of What We Buy Can Change Everything, by Daniel Goleman – this book is a quick but important primer on helping us understand what we need to know in order to become ecologically intelligent.
- How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy, by artist Jenny Odell – this book is a must-read. It focuses on bioregionalism, cultural shifting, and finding our personal path to our own expression of ecological intelligence.
- Eating Animals, by Johnathan Safran Foer – this book came out in 2009 and unveiled much about the lives of the factory farmed animals we eat. There is also a 2017 documentary of the same name, produced by Nathalie Portman.
- I Contain Multitudes: The Microbes Within Us and a Grander View of Life, by Ed Yong – this is an elegantly written primer on the microbial life that inhabits and surrounds every living being on earth.
- Powerarchy: Understanding the Psychology of Oppression for Social Transformation, by Melanie Joy – Joy writes about the psychological power structures which keep us locked in moral hierarchies based on human exceptionalism and oppression.
- Earth Emotions: New Words for a New World, by Glenn Albrecht – here you’ll learn new words to describe complex feelings related to the ways the world is changing (for better and for worse).
RECONNECTING TO ECOLOGICAL INTELLIGENCE
In our current culture, it can be difficult to access our ecological intelligence. The pressure on us to be constantly “productive”, to have a lot of money, to keep consuming, to be constantly entertained and to get lots of likes on social media can keep us to an extent disembodied and disconnected from our more here-and-now flesh-and-blood realities. For those of us living in cities (more than half of the world population does), it can be really hard to track where our food and other products come from, how they were produced, by whom and in what conditions.
Another major obstacle is psychological or physical trauma, including shock trauma, developmental trauma or gifted-specific trauma. Trauma gets stored in our bodies as a protection mechanism and results in various forms of dissociation from reality. Maybe we live too much in our minds, maybe we lose ourselves in addictive behaviors or thoughts, maybe we don’t feel connected to the world because we don’t trust it or feel safe in it. Whatever the case, disconnection from ourselves via trauma equals disconnection from our ecology (both physical and social ecology). Some of us who have a natural ecologically-oriented intelligence but have felt that intelligence ignored, bullied or otherwise ridiculed or dismissed by the people in our lives may have experienced trauma in that regard and thus try to hide that part of ourselves because we no longer feel safe to inhabit it fully. Perhaps we try to look like we are okay with ecological destruction because most people around us don’t care and we fear what they would say if we pushed the issue or made unpopular decisions.
Thus we can see that inhabiting our ecologically intelligent selves and developing and strengthening our ecological intelligence starts (as with any of our forms of intelligence) with connection to our here-and-now reality and safety. If we do not feel safe to inhabit our physical body, to share our true feelings and thoughts, to connect with others about things we care about, we will not have access to our own potential nor to the path to fulfilling that potential. That in itself can feel like a trauma on top of a trauma.
A lot of the work here is about finding safety within, through nervous system regulation and trauma healing; finding safety without, by connecting with others who share your concerns and desire for ecologically intelligent ways of living; and by creating safety for others as well in these ways, when you have found enough of it for yourself.
Here are some places to start:
- Gifted-specific Mindfulness practice
- Gifted-specific trauma bodywork
- Learning about Gifted Trauma
- Learning about Giftedness & The Ecology of Relationships
Kant distinguished between moral actions and beautiful actions, moral actions being performed primarily out of duty and beautiful actions being performed due to natural inclination (imagine feeding your kids because the law tells you to vs. feeding your kids because you love them and want them to thrive). Philosopher Arne Naess took Kant’s ideas into the realm of ecological intelligence and action, emphasizing how developing a natural inclination to be ecologically intelligent can be and become a deeply beautiful act – something we do not just because our world is in crisis, not because regulations tell us to act differently, not just because we are angry at governments or oil companies, or because we are scared for our future. Tapping back into our very animal nature, becoming once again (or maybe for the first time) connected to the earth we live on, the ecosystems we live in, and acting in concert with them and caring for them in a life-generating way – becoming conscious of ecology and thus more ecologically intelligent – can become a deeply beautiful act.
It may not start out that way for you, but for many of us who venture down this path, we find that the beauty on the journey surpasses anything we could have imagined when we took the first step.