Traditional treasures such as cinnabar and amber lie in wooden display cases in Saleem Ali's dining room. His collection is not large, nor exceedingly valuable. But it evokes the many places he has visited — and crystallizes, almost literally, what he believes is a fundamental human desire to collect the earth's mineral resources. He calls this the treasure impulse.
Ali's recent book Treasures of the Earth: Need, Greed and A Sustainable Future begins by Ali asking this question: would the world be a better place if we could somehow curb our desire for material goods?
"The usual environmentalist answer is: 'of course,'" he says. But Ali, associate professor of environmental planning, is not the usual environmentalist.
"I say, 'No.'" he says with a gentle laugh, "No, no."
"The reality is, without minerals, we could not have had modern civilization," he says, adding that we could not have achieved civillization benchmarks such as the Iron Age or Bronze Age without an innate desire for material good.
Today, Ali argues, that treasure impulse, properly channeled and fairly regulated, can spur creativity, the desire for discovery, and economic development.
"Environmentalists have their hearts in the right place and many of them are very concerned about developing countries," he says, "but the way they have framed their whole narrative, it's kind of defeatist: they want to shut down trade, many of them do, and if you shut down trade, you will increase poverty whether you like it or not."
Instead, Treasures of the Earth makes a case for what he calls humanitarian resource extraction. Ali doesn't deny that the ecological history of mining is often a rapacious one that has yielded profound damage to landscapes around the world. And yet many of the world's poorest and most vulnerable people depend on mineral extraction and other non-renewable resources for livelihood.
"I'm for resource conservation," he says, "But I'm not an environmentalist in an absolute sense, in that I think the environment has intrinsic value at the expense of human beings. My environmentalism is very centered on poverty alleviation."