April 06, 2011

5 Questions with Someone Interesting: Saleem Ali

This week I
had the pleasure of doing a 5 Questions interview with great thinker Saleem Ali.
If you don’t yet know his work, you will soon. Recently named a Young Global
Leader for 2011
by the World Economic Forum, he is a Professor of Environmental
Studies at the University of Vermont
where he directs the Institute for
Environmental Diplomacy and Security
. While we’ve recently seen him writing on
the Afghanistan in FP, in this interview,
we discuss his fabulous recent book Treasures
of the Earth: Need, Greed, and a Sustainable Future
, which we’ll be
reviewing on the blog next week. This is a must-read for serious analysts of natural resource issues, but I'd argue for all of us security types in Washington as well. 

: Congratulations on being named a Young Global Leader for 2011 by
the World Economic Forum. Do you think that Treasures
of the Earth
had anything to do with your selection?

Saleem Ali:
I think it might have because I was approached by the World Economic Forum
about a year and a half ago regarding some work they were doing on the
extractive industries and they wanted me to review that work. I presume they
chose me because they read Treasures of
the Earth
in some capacity.  The World
Economic Forum as you know is really meant to bridge business interests with
civil society interests and they have this rather lofty goal of making a better
world. So they’re often looking for advice from scholars who work at that kind
of panoramic level. And that is, to some degree, my goal as well: that my
scholarship should be relevant, and try to bridge disciplines, try to bring
communities together from the business world through to environmentalists and the
government sector as well. So I think it was a good match on that account.

CP:  There’s a lot of
focus in media and in particular here in Washington on climate change and
energy, and to a little lesser extent on water lately. But your book is one of
few I’ve seen that focuses on minerals and raw materials. What was your
inspiration for the concept for the book in focusing it that way?

SA:   Well, my academic roots are in chemistry. My
first degree was in chemistry and I’ve always been a firm believer in the
primacy of the elements because ultimately everything is dependent on the periodical
table and the elements which constitute all material things. I felt that in
many cases we were really missing the most fundamental resource base in our

So Treasures of the Earth had two goals.
One, to reconnect the public with the elements and make people realize that we
are so dependent on these natural resources from which we have become so distant.
It’s interesting that when it comes to food, the public has started to reconnect
with the food comes from. Bestsellers like The
Omnivore’s Dilemma
have really reconnected people with the sources of their
food. But ultimately the food is also dependent on minerals and that part is
completely lost in these conversations. So that was one of the major goals.

And the
second major goal of Treasures of the
was to bridge the discourse on international development and
environmental sustainable. I’ve felt that there has been a polarization in
terms how environmentalists in the developed world have viewed resource
scarcity and the very tangible and real sort of poverty which exists in the
developing world. I’ve tried to sort of reopen the debate between consumption
and the environment in terms of how we should consider consumerism. There is
tendency for environmentalists to throw the baby out with the bath water when
it comes to issues of consumption. They got this very reductionist approach now
and often just say “we should just consume less.” What I argue for in Treasures of the Earth is that if we
have a very elemental view of consumption which is going back to the elements.
It’s not so much an issue that we should consume less but that we should
consume constructively so that we can reduce these development concerns and
poverty while at the same time moving towards sustainability.

Much as that
is likely to be a much more difficult task instead of just saying consume less.
We have no choice because we are on a planet where we are going to have about 9
billion people by 2050. And since we have recognized that pluralism and
individual choice is something that we do want to salvage we have no choice but
to try and figure out a more constructive way of consumption and reducing
poverty at the same time as sustaining the planet.

When people
ask me whether I’m an optimist or a pessimist I say I’m pragmatist you know I
don’t have a rosy view of the future in terms of saying that there is
definitely a light at the end of the tunnel. I just say, well, we have no
choice but to plan for whatever tunnel we are passing through. The only way we
can do that is through a much more deliberate view of minerals and resource
cycling and understanding these connections.

CP: That actually gets right to my
third question. At the end you set forth a vision of balancing sustainability
and development instead of one at the expense of the other. I was wondering if
you’ve gotten any pushback from that?  It goes against - you know, there a lot of books and authors who sell sensationalism in one direction or the other: either nothing is wrong and everything is just
fine or its doomsday.

SA:   This is the challenge because
in any case with our world where we are dealing with issues of complexity, humans
gets scared. So writers have fallen into this trap of linear causality and it’s
much easier to craft a linear narrative and it sells much better. In fact, some
of the reviewers have said, "well, he's made some really interesting arguments
but he has a meandering argument," and I say the world is meandering. Rivers
don’t flow straight, rivers meander. This is a kind of simplicity, a false
notion of simplicity that people are trying to peddle. I’m not here to
entertain. If the book sells, fine, but I’m not going to simplify just to sell
books. So that has been my goal throughout and unfortunately that’s often a
difficult reality for people to accept: that the world isn’t simple and linear
as we would want it be.

The pushback
that I’ve gotten to some degree is that “you are arguing for potentially
increasing the footprint of people all over the world.” And I say no, I would
want to reduce the footprint of people living in McMansions and so on. But what
I’m saying is just simplistically stating that humans should consume less is
missing the reality that there are still about 4 billion people who have very
basic human necessities that are not being met. They have aspirations and goals
which deserve to be addressed just as much as anyone else. And in order for
them to move out of their predicament they will consume more. So how do we then
channel livelihood so they can consume more but we do not end up ruining the
planet. And the only way out of it is then reconnecting with resource cycling
and this paradigm of industrial ecology which I talk about in part three of the
book. And not being afraid of technology which is another problem I have with environmentalists
now. They have become very sort of resistant to innovation because they have
this fear that any time we talk innovation it’s a slippery slope towards complacency
but that’s really being an ostrich really if you think about the problems of
the world. The only way out is going to be through innovation unless we try to
curtail pluralism which we have decided we’re not. 

So, for
example, the fundamental impact variable in sustainability is population but we
as a human civilization have decided we’re not going to force people to not
have more children if they want to have them. 
So of course you can try to educate them, you can try to make all kind
of efforts which might have success and might not have some success – and
population is still a huge wildcard, much as the projections may say we are
going to stabilize by 2050. I question those tremendously because we don’t know
what level of health care we’re going to have by then. That’s another
fundamental choice we’ve made is we don’t just want people to just die and wish
they die so then what do you do? I mean you have researchers trying to reverse
aging so what do you do then?

The only
outlet out of this conundrum then is technological innovation. I’m hoping this
book will also make that case in a more compelling way. It doesn’t try to focus
on win-win options, it’s just saying that we don’t have any other choice based
on these other decisions we’ve already made.

CP: I think it does make a very good
case for that. It’s one of the first pragmatic books I’ve seen so I think
you did a very good job on that. Next question: Your book has one of
the best reviews I’ve seen on the contrast in the literature on the resource
curse concept. I like that that it highlights that there are a couple of cases
of success where countries have leveraged their resources for a more enduring
type of development, but there have also been failures. So my question is that
you have traveled extensively globally and speak to global audiences in
business and world leaders in politics and all over the place. I’m wondering if
in speaking to non-U.S. audiences is there a different interpretation of the
resource curse framing? Do people accept it or reject it or see it as offensive
or inaccurate in anyway with regard to the international audiences that you
speak to?

SA: While the resource curse narrative
is often framed in terms of issues of governance. Where it comes to developing
countries that feel that colonialism has played a role in hampering governance
and development in that regard then it’s very easy to then just shift to the
blame toward the Western powers.

For example,
in the Congo which I talk about in the book, that’s a case where history is
quite clear that colonialism played a role in hampering governance with the assassination
of Lumumba and so on. So in that case where you can make a case for colonialism
then people are willing to work through it. But then they don’t like this
demonizing of resources per se, and that’s what I’ve argued for: this is kind
of dead end narrative because if you just say that if you have natural
resources then you are doomed,  what do
you do? So that’s my problem with some of the resource curse approaches is that
they use macro analysis and don’t look at finer level of details that is
offered by individual case studies such as in Botswana , Chile, and Malaysia – those
countries have used natural resources efficiently and for development.

So if you
look at a macro level of analysis, and especially if you are using one country
as a data point, then you are really running into a big problem
methodologically.  That is why I also have
a small section critiquing regression, the most commonly used methodology for
studying the resource curse. A lot of journalists get very entranced by
regression because it presents things in such a clear, quantitative way, and
there is this authenticity that numbers tend to provide. But in reality if you
look at the detail of the analysis it really starts to fall apart if you look
at the assumptions that are made when each of those variables are analyzed. And
that’s what some of the developing country audiences have liked is that I try
to give some refinement to the numbers and instead tried to position these
issues on a specific level. So for instance in Botswana, good leadership played
an enormous role. Even if you have diamonds and you have diamond companies like
De Beers which in other cases have been maligned – rightfully so for their role.
But if you have good governance even companies like De Beers can play a
positive role. They have a joint venture with the Botswana government in the
diamond mines there. That’s what people do like, is that I’m not missing the
trees for the forest in my analysis.

CP: Final question. You do extensive work on environmental issues and natural resources. But
you also had a recent
Foreign Policy piece on the Taliban

and you’ve written on madrassas and whatnot. What’s striking to me is around
Washington and even here at CNAS (myself including), we don’t tend to have people
who are fully fluent in both of these two types of issues and cross between them
well. So I was wondering, do you see linkages between any of
your work on conflict resolution and environmental issues, and your
experience and research in Pakistan, on the Taliban and groups like that? Or
are these just two separate areas that you work on?

SA: I do think there is some sort of
connection because much of my scholarship has been about how conflicts arise both
from environmental and ecological factors as well as human factors and the
intersection between the two.   As I
noted before, I don’t like simplified causality. The only way when you look at
conflicts and you’re trying to look at multiple causality is to look at these
various scales, like the human scale and the ecological scale. In the case of
Afghanistan you’ve probably heard of all these very conspiratorial analyses
about how oil and natural gas played a role in the conflict and the great game
and so on. So the natural resource connection was made there and that’s used as
propaganda time and again by the Taliban as well as some of the more radical
sort of leftist elements in the U.S. also. 
I’m very much a centrist in most my approaches.  But the reason why I was led to research and
write about it is because I am familiar with the region, so I could offer some
thoughts based on personal experience and familiarity with the language, so
that did also play a role. 

But the
natural resource connection had been made by analysts, so I did want to
question that because I don’t think it’s that simple at all. I think the
Taliban situation is essentially a religious-cultural conflict. Blaming it on
natural resources is very simplistic. If anything, I have argued that natural
resources can be a binding element to reduce the conflict. I
wrote a paper for Brookings
that you might want to look at on the role of
oil and gas pipelines as a means of cooperation. And what I argued there and
briefly mentioned it in the Foreign Policy article, is that the only time we
actually saw the Taliban and the United States communicating with each other
was in fact around the oil pipeline issue and the Taliban were even maybe
willing to send a delegation to Washington and so on. So instead of thinking
about that in conspiratorial terms one can think of that as potentially being a
wedge for peace-building and cooperation. So I hope that that kind of analysis
and out of the box thinking will gain some traction because I do fear for the region.
We really don’t have any strategy as far as I can tell for getting out of this

CP:   Excellent.
Thank you. That’s five questions.

My thanks
again to Saleem for this great interview, and we’ll be reviewing his wonderful
book next week.