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Room to Consume 

A UVM environmental studies prof seeks to end global poverty by embracing our "treasure impulse"

Published October 7, 2009 at 8:36 a.m.

Saleem Ali’s ideas may sound like heresy against the mainstream of environmentalist thought. The environmental studies professor at the University of Vermont supports globalization and free trade. He shops at Wal-Mart, pooh-poohs the localvore movement and believes that reducing our consumption of material goods can harm poor countries. Ali doesn’t dispute the seriousness of global warming, but he thinks the campaign against it has become almost theocratic, “like a doomsday cult.”

But don’t start hurling Molotov cocktails, or invectives, at his UVM office: Ali’s unorthodox ideas warrant closer inspection. Ali, who’s also on the adjunct faculty at the Watson Institute for International Studies at Brown University, is an expert on extractive industries and international conflict resolution. In the past, he’s gotten enviros, mining companies and indigenous peoples to sit down together and hammer out solutions to their differences.

Likewise, his work on creating international peace parks to resolve age-old border disputes, such as the one between India and Pakistan, has made impressive headway. In October 2007, Seed magazine named Ali one of eight “revolutionary minds in the world.”

In his seven years at UVM, Ali, 36, has also become one of the more popular professors in the Rubenstein School of Environment and Natural Resources. His new book, Treasures of the Earth: Need, Greed, and a Sustainable Future, written for a more mainstream audience than his earlier academic works, comes out this week.

It begins with a provocative question: Would the world be better off if human societies curbed their appetite for material goods?

Ali says no. He contends that, when humans follow their “treasure impulse” — that is, the desire to satisfy “wants” as well as “needs” — they make important discoveries and technological advances that can ultimately benefit all human development.

Make no mistake: Ali is acutely aware of the enormous human and ecological costs associated with the extraction of nonrenewable resources such as oil, coal, gems and precious metals. Much of his new book chronicles the historical plunder of the Earth’s riches and the pressing need for a paradigm shift toward greater efficiency, conservation and resource recovery.

Likewise, Ali doesn’t endorse unfettered capitalism. He advocates for tougher international regulations that protect against unfair labor practices, human-rights abuses and environmental degradation.

Nevertheless, Ali believes that on issues such as climate change, we need to be “pragmatic environmentalists” who think “truly at the planetary level.” Sometimes, he says, this means that “optimal outcomes of environmental factors” must take a back seat to more urgent needs in the developing world. Only then, he argues, will we arrive at policy prescriptions that adequately address poverty, injustice and wealth inequality.

Ali’s global outlook dates back to his childhood. He was born in New Bedford, Mass., to Pakistani parents who were both political science professors. His father taught at UMass Dartmouth; his mother worked for the Pakistani government. When Ali was 8 or 9, his mother brought him to Pakistan, where he lived during his “impressionable years,” returning to the States during the summers.

Ali was initially drawn to the natural sciences and earned his undergraduate degree at Tufts in chemistry. He later made the jump to the social sciences, not only because he felt “ill-suited” for a life in the lab, but also, he says, because “I figured that in order to get any results, you really needed to be in the social sphere.”

While at MIT, Ali began looking for a doctoral thesis topic that hadn’t already been studied exhaustively. His advisor suggested the extractive industries. Ali found the idea appealing. Mining in particular is often done in remote areas where it impinges on the rights and welfare of indigenous populations.

Since then, Ali has traveled the world studying how the “accident of geography” has bestowed great wealth on some nations while leaving others impoverished. He’s also examined the complex dynamics that allow some nations to benefit from their own material wealth while others fall victim to political turmoil or foreign plunderers.

In the process, Ali has formulated some ideas that run contrary to prevailing environmental wisdom, such as his suggestion that want-based consumption can benefit poorer nations.

“The irony of environmentalism is that it’s meant to be very planetary … but of late, it’s become very parochial,” Ali says. “People are saying, ‘Let’s just save the small farmers and the small businesses in our state.’ But if you’re really an environmentalist, think in planetary terms. Think of the small farmer in China, too.”

Ali doesn’t downplay the importance of reducing one’s carbon footprint. But he contends that many communities around the world have only a few forms of livelihood, and are helped when affluent countries invest in their development and consume their goods.

And not just “essentials.” For example, 90 percent of the world’s gold is mined for “want-based” products — namely, jewelry — often in environmentally harmful ways. But, Ali points out, there are more than 15 million artisanal gold miners around the world whose communities depend on their livelihoods.

Ali doesn’t dispute that the scale of consumption in the developed world far exceeds most people’s needs. “Yes, we should think about how much is enough,” he says. “But the reality is, much of the world is way below what might be considered even a minimum quality of life” — without access to reliable electricity, clean water or decent housing. “What I find troubling is the romanticization of poverty, which a lot of environmentalists do, like celebrating Cuba,” Ali adds. “Give me a break! It’s a totalitarian society, and they’re celebrating the fact that they can grow food in parking lots.”

Ali’s opinion of the localvore movement, which he describes as “very troubling,” will inevitably rub some Vermonters the wrong way.

“Unfortunately, it’s been reinforced by some very well-intentioned environmentalists, people like Bill McKibben and Michael Pollan, whom I have a lot of respect for,” Ali says. “But I think in this regard, they have a very defeatist approach towards globalization.

“Sure, support local farmers, but don’t do it with antipathy toward the rest of the world. And if possible, do both,” he goes on. “I shop at the farmers market also, but I have no problem buying grapes from Wal-Mart because they’re grown in Chile. Chile’s economy is diversified because of it.”

Unsurprisingly, Pollan and McKibben take issue with such remarks.

“Sometimes, people who argue for trade erect a rather romantic notion of the Chilean or Chinese farmer at the far end of the supply chain,” Pollan replies, via email. “These are often the biggest producers in the country, many times owned by U.S. multinationals, and there are questions whether the best land in Chile should be used to grow food for rich first worlders.”

McKibben also challenges Ali’s claim that buying locally reflects a “parochial” worldview.

“My interest in local food has almost as much to do with conditions in developing countries as conditions here,” McKibben answers. “In those countries, export-oriented agriculture has meant the depopulation of the countryside, as peasant farmers are forced off their land and relocated to tin barrios and favelas on the edges of capital cities. Until you’ve spent a lot of time in a wide variety of countries, it’s hard to imagine just how pervasive this phenomenon is.”

McKibben agrees with Ali that environmentalism must be planetary in its outlook. “But we do it by trading information, ideas and images, not stuff.”

Ali acknowledges that his support of Wal-Mart is considered blasphemy among most environmentalists. But he offers that the retail behemoth, which accounts for 10 percent of China’s total exports, has actually used its size to do some good in the developing world, albeit under pressure from NGOs.

For example, Wal-Mart, the world’s largest purchaser of diamonds, has actually improved workplace conditions in India, where 70 percent of the world’s diamonds are cut. Its decision to sell only compact fluorescent light bulbs makes an impact, too.

What about the frequent criticism that Wal-Mart destroys downtowns and puts small mom-and-pop stores out of business? Ali is unconvinced.

“Again, I think that’s a very defeatist argument, because if these small stores are willing to act efficiently and they’re willing to perform better, they can succeed,” he says. “There’s nothing inherently good about small mom and pops. The only thing that’s good is if they’re providing a good service and good quality.”

McKibben takes issue with that claim, too: “If your only goal is efficiency … then pile on the Wal-Marts,” he answers. “But do it knowing that study after study shows they depress wages, leave communities poorer than surrounding ones without the big boxes, and reduce the level of political activity.”

Although Ali is critical of the apocalyptic predictions that loom over all climate change discussions, he’s not entirely optimistic about humanity’s chances of solving this problem unscathed. As he concludes in his book, our solutions may ultimately lead to a very different world from the one we now know.

“That world might be closer to the fictional representation in Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner, or Gene Roddenberry’s Star Trek or maybe even Wall-E,” he writes, “but it will still be our world with all its material desires, quests for efficiency, and creative paths that test our minds.”

Want to learn more?

Treasures of the Earth: Need, Greed, and a Sustainable Future by Saleem H. Ali. Yale University Press, 304 pages. $30.

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About The Author

Ken Picard

Ken Picard

Ken Picard has been a Seven Days staff writer since 2002. He has won numerous awards for his work, including the Vermont Press Association's 2005 Mavis Doyle award, a general excellence prize for reporters.


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