Book Review by Ian Smillie

Treasures of the Earth: Need, Greed and a Sustainable Future

by Saleem H. Ali, Yale University Press, 2009

Freedom from Want

This book is a real pleasure, a surprising one, given the book’s subtitle and subject matter. Books, these days about non-renewable natural resources and extractive industries tend towards doom and gloom, with dire warnings of the coming apocalypse. They are heavily populated by large, venal corporations, myopic governments, what Saleem Ali cleverly calls “celebrity economists” and dire tales of mercury, cyanide and arsenic poisoning. And sometimes lead poisoning of the type that comes from guns.

Saleem Ali, a keen observer of history, psychology and human nature, and a professor of environmental studies, does not shy away from the obvious, but he takes a different approach entirely, one that celebrates humanity’s creativity and what he calls its “treasure impulse”, asking how and whether this can be diverted from its rapacious ways to a more conservationist ethic and a “cautionary creativity’.

The book begins with the historical development of knowledge about minerals – the search for “treasure” – more and better metals, gold, salt and diamonds, linking them to the evolution of societies, the creation of cities, nations, revolutions – industrial and otherwise – and eventually empires. In today’s world, however, the correlation between affluence and happiness, once thought to be obvious, is no longer so clear, and the price of the quest for wellbeing can be seen in slag mountains, pollution and mining disasters. Ali has travelled extensively, and evokes the hopes and dreams now long faded from dozens of Arizona ghost mining towns, and the once guano-rich ghost-country of Nauru. It hardly bears thinking about what happens to the 106,000 aluminum cans used in the United States every thirty seconds.

But the resource curse and ‘the ecological toll of our extractive excitement” – most notable today in China – are discussed in ways that go beyond utopianism, examining conservationist, restorative and recycling possibilities and realities. Where recycling is concerned, except for what we have sent into space, Ali reminds us that everything we have ever dug up is still somewhere on the planet. Ironically, it is the most abundant metals, aluminum and iron that are most easily recycled, but more than 50 per cent of all steel produced since World War II has been recycled, and in some sectors the rate is as high as 80%.

What makes this book so interesting is the course it sets between doomsters and cornucopians, showing not just what might be possible, but what is being done in the real world – not on utopian communes, but in real-life industrial settings, and in approaches to management which understand that wealth creation through technological expansion must be tempered – and rewarded – by managing the risks that accompany it.

Ali cites a 2007 opinion poll which asked 10,000 people in ten African countries to rank their priorities. Thirty five percent ranked job creation as the number one priority. Last on the list, with one per cent of the total, was environmental protection. The reality for Africa, as for the rest of the world, Ali says, “is that both may be inextricably linked.” He cites a science journalist who believes that we are reaching “the end of science”, and reminds us of other writers who have pondered the end of nature, the end of faith, and the end of history. He suggests instead that the challenge ahead is not “the end” but the need for a new synthesis of biological and mechanical innovation. Ahead of us lie our greatest challenges in engineering, chemistry, physics and computer science.

Ali asks at the beginning of the book, “Would the world be a better place if human societies were somehow able to curb their desires for material goods?” His answer, as he puts it in this fascinating book, is more complicated and more nuanced than expected.