April 12, 2011

Book Review: Treasures of the Earth by Saleem Ali

Ali<br /> BookSaleem Ali’s 2009 book, Treasures
of the Earth: Need, Greed and a Sustainable Future
, arrived at my desk at
just the right time last fall. I’ve been working on a new report on minerals
that, thankfully, is mostly complete now. We talk a lot about China’s resource
consumption and rare earth elements these days. For the past 2 years that I’ve
been contemplating why we, in this crazy modern world we live in, should care
much about minerals if our jobs are oriented toward security and foreign policy

For this, I’ve extensively researched the history of the
U.S. security community opining and at times acting on minerals concerns since
the early 1900s. Ali, a professor at the University of Vermont and director of its Institute for Environmental Diplomacy and Security, takes his book further. He follows the arc of civilizations
caring about minerals and raw materials through ancient history, to the role of
minerals as commodities and in holding value as currency, up to present-day
mining and trade. Just what I needed.

Ali’s book is delightful to read, and presents an incredible
wealth of knowledge without the reader feeling overloaded at any point. After
reading his work, it did not surprise me in the least to learn the World
Economic Forum honored the author as one of its “Young Global Leaders” this
year. This is big, global thinking at its best. And on a tough topic:
connecting minerals to policy considerations is not always an intuitive

Treasures of the Earth
answered my question – what should security and foreign policy people care
about minerals? – at various levels. Ali provides a reminder of how minerals were
integral in grand civilizations and great empires, to the extent that we now
name epochs and ages of history for them. He also considers the effects of
resources at the country level, considering both the elements of truth and
false over-generalizations involved in the “resource curse” debate by comparing
cases such as Botswana, Chile and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Ali
also puts feet on the ground to provide local-level anecdotes of the role of minerals and
materials in everything from community rituals and social norms to a modern-day
scavenger community in the Philippines that has centered around reclaiming
materials that others have thrown away. The author even delves into the psychology
of material desires that drives so much mineral-related economic activity. This
contrast of global, state and local-level anecdotes both make Treasures a consistently engaging read,
and drive home that we D.C. types need to think comprehensively about the
myriad ways in which minerals matter.

In the end, Ali offers a pragmatic vision for considering
resources in decision making and managing the world’s finite resources in a way
that does not preclude development and prosperity. He does not beg Americans to
forego their i-Whatevers or suggest that the world’s poorest people should
simply not strive for development.

One of the aspects I appreciate most about
this book is the author’s refusal to put himself in easily-defined camps
holding traditional, often extreme, and often unrealistic views. In other words, when you read
this book, you won’t be reading tired rants about the resource curse or denialist
claims that the world has no resource constraints to be concerned with. We need
creativity, brains and good old-fashioned innovation to help sculpt a world
where development and wise use of resources can proceed at pace together,
mitigating the tensions between the two. Our security certainly depends on
following this path Saleem Ali envisions.

Read this book, follow Saleem on Twitter, and check out the blog's interview with him last week. You'll be glad you did!

Photo courtesy of Yale University Press.