The Earth: Treasure It Always
Release Date: 11-04-2009
"I'm an environmental pragmatist," says Saleem Ali, associate professor of environmental planning, whose new book explores why global trade and resource extraction are vital tools for environmental justice. (Photo: Joshua Brown)
In the pleasing quietness of his house — a place where Pakistani prayer rugs lie in maroon rectangles on top of clean, white, wall-to-wall Berber carpet — Saleem Ali tends his treasure. There is the soft laughter of his two sons upstairs, "needful treasures in my life," he calls them in the dedication to his new book, Treasures of the Earth: Need, Greed and A Sustainable Future.
But more traditional treasures lie in wooden display cases against two walls of the dining room: cinnabar and amber; green malachite ("very common stuff," he says) and uncut opal ("good opal can be more expensive than diamonds," he says). There's ruby from Cambodia and an orange slippery shard of salt from his native Pakistan. These and other items he has collected from around the globe are mostly minerals and stones, composed of elements, dug from the earth.
Why do you collect this stuff, I ask him. "The world is such a wondrous place," he says, turning a glittering nugget to and fro under the display-case light, "And the materials of the world, the natural materials, are so beautiful."
His collection is not large, nor exceedingly valuable. "I'm not a very organized collector," he says. 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.
Less is less
Ali, a chemist and policy analyst by training, and now associate professor of environmental planning in UVM's Rubenstein School of Environment and Natural Resources, begins his book with 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 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, "That's why we have ages named after them: Iron Age, Bronze Age. We simply could not have achieved those without minerals."
And those achievements were largely produced by an innate desire for material goods, he contends. This treasure impulse — driven more by deep curiosity about deep places than by rudimentary needs — is engrained in human history, he argues. Fierce, exuberant acquisitiveness swirls within our evolutionary make-up.
The first mines known were for cosmetics: in what is now Swaziland, 43,000 years ago, people dug for ochre pigments for facial decorations. And only later, from this hunt for cosmetics, Ali writes, came an interest in how iron could be extracted.
Mining for humanity
Today, Ali argues, the treasure impulse, properly channeled and fairly regulated, can spur creativity, the desire for discovery, and economic development.
And so the current environmentalist urge toward self-denial, a minimalist lifestyle, and emphasis on trying to limit consumption he sees as naïve in many ways — including its negative impacts on the global poor.
"Environmentalists have their hearts in the right place and many of them are very concerned about developing countries," he says, pouring two cups of strong white tea, "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. "At the heart of the matter is our ability to understand the world's dependence on nonrenewable resources," he writes. And these resources are not just "needs," like oil, but "wants," like gold. In short, the human use of the world is a messy and nuanced business, not given to simple morality tales.
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. Nor does he deny that the social history of extractive industries and unfettered capitalism has been one of staggering inequalities and greed.
Trade is good
And yet many of the world's poorest and most vulnerable people depend on mineral extraction and other non-renewable resources for livelihood. "Most of the people in the world are still at such a low level of well-being, in terms of basic indicators of prosperity, that we will have to have more consumption, not less, to get them up to a basic level," he says. And that means global trade.
For example, the livelihoods of more than 15 million small-scale gold miners and their families, Ali notes, depend on global trade networks driven by the strange human desire for rings, jewelry and decoration.
"Trade is a good thing for various reasons," he says, "First and foremost for environmental reasons, because there are some ecosystems that are better at producing certain things," he says, following a long line of economic reasoning that wends back to Adam Smith. "Mineral occurrence is an accident of geography," he says, so economies everywhere depend on numerous minerals, from salt to iron, that are not locally available. "Without trade, you could not have functional economies which are going to be able to spur innovation."
And in a world headed toward nine billion people, many in abject poverty, and with greater demand on ecosystems and resources, innovation may prove far more important than curbing the many appetites of the wealthy West, Ali argues.
"I'm not for McMansions," he says, but rather than a simple-minded drive to quash consumption, he contends that technological innovation, effective regulation, improved recycling, durability of goods, and energy flows provide a better set of rulers for measuring human progress toward a livable future.
Are you an environmentalist, I ask him. "I'm an environmental pragmatist, "he says, "ultimately you need some kind of transfer, movement of material and goods. It's not realistic to say that we can have an economy of just ideas."
"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."
Sipping tea, I am recalled to the beginning of our conversation when Ali held up a blue and smoke-colored piece of polished rock, carved into a human head. "I got this in Brazil. It's from an emerald mine," he said, "this company has started to make sculptures out of the waste rock. They've employed all these local artisans who carve stuff."
"Maybe people are trained to become sculptors," he said, "so when the mining finishes, they will have other kinds of professions to go to."