Weekend Review: Treasures of the Earth by Saleem H. Ali

Treasures of the Earth: Need, Greed, and a Sustainable FutureIn the debate over the use of natural resources, University of Vermont Professor Saleem H. Ali tries to find the middle ground between the environmentalists (who stress conservation and preservation) and the capitalists (who give primary focus to job creation and profit generation) in Treasures of the Earth: Need, Greed, and a Sustainable Future (2009). Ali begins by positing that buried deep within human nature is a "treasure impulse:" a desire to mine the earth for whatever resource that is profitable at a particular point in time. The first third of this book is a skimming of history to cite evidence of this, with brief lessons in the ancient trade of salt, the seeking of gemstones, and the more recent desires for coal and oil. The second third presents a human perspective and how the acquisition of such resources takes its toll on populations around the globe as well as looking at environmental costs. Finally, Ali concludes that the human treasure impulse is here to stay, so we might as well figure out methods to channel it in a way that is equitable.

What I expected from this book was a "linkage between environmental behavior and poverty alleviation" and a common sense evaluation of current resource needs and how to best meet them while doing the least amount of harm. But what I got instead was a long-winded and rambling justification of why maintaining, and even increasing, current levels of resource extraction is primary. Ali proposes several suggestions for how extraction might be made less damaging, but clearly says that these restrictions "must be done in ways that do not stifle our inquisitive and exploratory tendencies, which may be the most likely pathway to salvation of the species" (232). Clearly, the only thing that will save us is to find more oil. Far from being balanced, his conclusions put profit over people and lack creativity.

It would seem that a balanced opinion would find a way for all sides to meet in the middle to satisfy their needs. This would include, one would imagine, a decrease in demand in addition to a search for more efficient ways to extract resources. Ali discards this option, however, when he says that there is "no plausible turning back from the lifestyles of comfort and convenience we had come to accept" (172). He also claims that the loss of real connections with other people is something we "must be willing to concede" (102). His goal is not to strike a balance between the needs of the environment, the needs of people, and the needs of business. His goal is to find out the bare minimum of concessions that can be made in order to keep environmentalists and human rights activists quiet while continuing to promote unsustainable levels of extraction and production; as much as the market will allow.

Clearly, the author has a broad range of interests and tries to bring them all together here. He gives us information about economics, anthropology, history, sociology, and psychology. While this makes for a good and flowing narrative, it leaves little room to explore any of these perspectives with any depth. In light of this, it is curious that Ali leaves politics out of the equation entirely by ignoring how these resources are managed at a government level and how the profits are distributed. In fact, he rarely talks about the role of government, save one example: to claim that U.S. involvement in wars in the Middle East has nothing to do with oil (215).

I’m only raging against this book because it left me so very disappointed. The questions that it sets out to answer are very crucial ones and they require a great deal of out-of-the-box thinking to solve, something that this author lacks. While I disagree that there is a “treasure impulse” that guides all of our actions, I would be burying my head in the sand if I didn’t acknowledge that resource use and extraction is a part of our history and will be a part of our future. But, instead of closing ourselves off to options (“the only way to live is the way we currently live!”) I think that we should be opening ourselves up to all possibilities, even (gasp!) that curtailing a so called “treasure impulse” might be a good thing.

6 comments:

  1. Wonderful well written and informaive post. Your passion on the subject is very evident. The capitalists will stop at nothing to maximize every dime they can squeeze from the Earth's dying fingers. This is the reason why our oceans are on the brink of disaster. Fish are being overfished to extinxtion. Our natural waterways, fish habitats, are polluted and destroyed. At some point soon, we will have to pay for all our actions. Unfortunately.

    Keep these wondeful posts coming. You are touching important topics here. Cheers!

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  2. Great post. Poop on him. I don't believe for a second that we can't reduce our comfort. There is a rising backlash against untempered consumerism. Obviously you and I both play a part of that along with tons of other people I know. So he is, unfortunately for him, on the heels of a rising movement in the opposite direction! Fortunate for the rest of us!

    :)

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  3. Wonderful post- I just read it out loud to my husband. I agree with you that not everyone is the same and that enlightened humans may seek
    solutions to the mistakes that have been made in the past- you write fantastic reviews-

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  4. Thanks for the scathing review. I wrote the book coming from a poor country and understanding why there is so much antipathy towards Western modes of environmentalism. All I was trying to do was approach the issue with real-world pragmatism. Our goals are the same though are paths are different.

    The author
    Saleem H. Ali
    http://www.saleemali.net

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  5. Mr. Ali,

    As an academic, I'm certain that you've had far harsher critiques than mine! I know that in my graduate studies I was on the receiving end of far worse than I have ever dished out. I would call my review of your book critical, to be sure, but I would hardly call it scathing. And you'll note that I readily admit that the bulk of my criticisms of your work stem from the fact that I felt misled by the jacket description.

    You rightly point out that I fail to take the point of view from which you come into consideration and I suppose my only defense is a desire for brevity in this post. My first draft was going on five pages and my goal was to write a brief review, not a term paper. I maintain my position, though. I do understand the goal of your approach and I think that we simply disagree. I believe what you are calling "real-world pragmatism" is what I refer to as a "lack of creativity."

    I do thank you for stopping by and taking the time to comment. I meant it when I wrote that this issue is crucial--I believe that any conversation around the topic can only help us to work towards a better future.

    Best,
    Courtney

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  6. Glad to have a conversation on these matters, Courtney

    The creativity that I seek stems from finding solutions to poverty alleviation just as much as environmental conservation. There may be some win-win opportunities such as conservation of energy but then the harder job is beyond that task and considering conservation and development simultaneously. As Amartya Sen warned us, this will always lead to a suboptimal outcome in a liberal society where individual choice is also valued. We can educate and regulate but only up to a certain point. Beyond that the spirit to innovate and deal with the hard job of understanding material connections in technology formulation is the task at hand. Sadly environmentalists have come to feel threatened by technology which is to their detriment.

    Note, that i have also launched a web page for the book and we will have ideas for creativity from all most welcome there.

    Please feel free to add links and ideas in the "think tank" feature of the site:

    We are just getting started with that.

    http://www.treasurebook.info

    I also have a facebook page for the book for students.

    Best wishes with your noble efforts. I have great respect for voluntary simplicity so long as it is not insular towards the suffering of the developing world and does not romanticize poverty.

    Saleem

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