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Treasure the Earth

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 and uncut opal. There's ruby from Cambodia and an orange slippery shard of salt from his native Pakistan.

His collection is not large, nor exceedingly valuable. "I'm not a very organized collector," he admits. 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 professor in UVM's Rubenstein School of Environment and Natural Resources -- and recently selected as an "Emerging Explorer" by National Geographic magazine -- 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 -- a chemist and policy analyst by training -- 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.

Mining for humanity

Today, Ali argues, the 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 Ali 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.

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.

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. For example, 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.

"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.

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.

Peace parks

Ali's work on the complexities of mineral extraction is just one of the efforts that led the international magazine SEED to select him as one of the world's "revolutionary minds." Ali is also a global leader in promoting transboundary "peace parks," and other efforts toward international conflict resolution.

Ali imagines that the Siachen Glacier, perched on the war-wracked border between India and Pakistan, can be turned into a shared peace park, helping to build trust and diplomatic connections between these countries. And he's doing more than just imagining: he's helped shape meetings between the two governments, to seriously consider the idea. He also serves on the board of two organizations that are actively working on environmental peace-building: International Peace Parks Expeditions and The DMZ Forum.

"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."