Saleem Ali - Bridging the environmental gap

Category: Americas, Nature & Science Topics: Nature And Environment Views: 3891

Saleem H. Ali - Associate professor of environmental studies at University of Vermont

The Dudley H. Davis student center on the campus of the University of Vermont is a beacon of environmental consciousness. The elevators are lubed with vegetable oil. The wood is certified non-old-growth. The design is energy-efficient. The fountains are labeled "water bottle refill stations."

All this sits well with Saleem H. Ali, an associate professor of environmental studies, who works a few blocks west in a wooden home converted to faculty offices. On efficiency and conservation his views are in line with the campus mainstream. He wears sandals to work and shops at a farmers' market. But he has one big rebellious streak in him: He thinks that consumption of material goods is a good thing.

At the University of Vermont, as on many college quads, the establishment religion says that consumption is evil. Anticorporate groups like War on Want and the World Social Forum hold sway. Just before Valentine's Day 2004 the "No Dirty Gold" campaign roared onto street corners and campuses, including Vermont's. A 20-foot puppet of a skeleton accosted jewelry shoppers in New York to explain the dangers of gold mining. The University of Texas' Daily Texan told students that if they purchased a class ring from Balfour, they were supporting "one of the most polluting and exploitative industries in the world."

"It started off very confrontationally, and I know a lot of my students were feeling guilty," Ali says. "The story line was that it's rich people who want gold. But this is about livelihoods and artisanal miners."

Ali's book Treasures of the Earth, to be published in October by Yale University Press, opens with a provocative question: Would the world be a better place if people curbed their desire for material goods? The answer he arrives at is no. He doesn't buy the "strong sustainability" argument that humans should use only those resources that renew quickly, like water and plants. He believes that our best shot at both alleviating poverty and managing resources sustainably requires extracting riches from the earth. He thinks greed is, if not an unalloyed good, at least useful when properly channeled.

But Ali doesn't subscribe to the views of so-called cornucopians, who avow that technology and human ingenuity will solve all our resource problems. "I'm not sanguine about the current situation," he says. The onetime chemistry major points out that we're using all 92 naturally occurring elements, many in rapidly growing amounts, and for most of them, replacement technologies are not keeping up.

In a book that ranges from geology to psychology, with a history of metallurgy along the way, he argues that sometimes a nation has to extract a nonrenewable resource like oil, or tricky-to-recycle metals and gems, in order to leapfrog from dire poverty to a more diversified economy. "Money from oil wealth can be used to invest in other sectors. And that in turn can yield sustainable development," Ali says.

In the mid-19th century Sweden was one of the world's leading producers of iron ore; today it's a multidimensional modern economy. "It's quite possible that if those resources were not used, they would not have had a more service-oriented economy later," Ali says. Botswana, meanwhile, has used the much-maligned diamond, first discovered there in 1966, to transform itself from one of the poorest countries in Africa to the one with the highest per capita income. That's not to say that development in Botswana has been flawless; the country suffers from high unemployment and an aids epidemic. But the question to be asked, Ali says, is not whether things are perfect but whether a country would be better off if the diamonds--or oil, copper or natural gas--had never been extracted. Probably not.

In Chile and Malaysia natural resource industries have been the catalysts for transformation. Equatorial Guinea has one of the most oppressive dictatorships in the world, yet Ali makes the point that it wouldn't be getting the scrutiny and human rights pressure it does now if not for recent investments by foreign oil companies.

Nigeria is the notable exception, the place where resource extraction made life worse. There, for more than half a century, oil has been pumped from the southern Niger delta region. The government poured earnings into distant urban areas, ignoring the poverty surrounding the extraction sites--where oil spills damaged prospects for farming and fishing. The region descended into chaos. But that's an argument for better government, not for leaving oil in the ground. "You don't want to throw the baby out with the bathwater," Ali says. "A country which is now mining may use that to jump-start another kind of industry."

The big surprise about this tenured professor is that his students love him. On, where an overwhelming number of his reviews are positive, one student wrote, "He proved the legitimacy and relevance of environmental studies, refraining from hippyish sentiments and occasionally defending economic development." Ali, though, worries about some students, who enter college with the kind of extreme anticorporate views he deems unhelpful to sustainability. "They tend to gravitate toward very normative positions like 'globalization is bad' or 'Wal-Mart is evil,'" he says. He tries to humanize the corporate world, pointing out to students that companies are not run by automatons.

Corporations are key to changing product life cycles, a subject to which Ali devotes some of his new book. Photocopier companies are moving toward "cradle-to-cradle" manufacturing, leasing rather than selling equipment and replacing individual parts as they break down, rather than whole machines. Personal computers should also be modular, Ali argues--you don't need a new screen just because your hard drive conks out. Sounding more like a traditional enviro now, he laments that too many cell phones are discarded rather than recycled for columbium (also known as niobium) and tantalum, the two elements required by their capacitors.

No, this is no Ayn Rand libertarian. To create incentives for companies to adopt such manufacturing processes, Ali says, requires regulation. But he insists that this need not be a burden for entrepreneurs. "As long as regulations level the playing field, then we can have positive competition," he says. He cites as a model the Danish town of Kalundborg, where the government implemented regulations on waste management. Companies took it from there, evolving a system over 25 years without a master plan. The result: A coal power plant's waste heat is used by fish farms and greenhouses. Sulfur from an oil refinery goes to a sulfuric acid factory. A drug manufacturer sends its organic waste to a fertilizer manufacturer. Kalundborg is a potential global model, in Ali's eyes, but the world can get there only through the negotiation of international agreements. He is not so utopian as to think that is easy.

The bilingual (Urdu and English) Ali, 36, was born in New Bedford, Mass. and spent his childhood shuttling between New England and his parents' native Lahore in Pakistan. He gravitated to the role of peacemaker as a professional mediator for governments and companies, and author of a book on environmental conflicts between mining companies and indigenous groups, Mining, the Environment, and Indigenous Development Conflicts (University of Arizona Press, 2004). He favors peace parks: border regions that can be used to resolve disputes by giving both countries an incentive to maintain them. (The Cordillera del Condor, jointly managed by Ecuador and Peru, is a successful example.) One of his passion projects now is developing environmental curricula for religious schools in Islamic countries. He has faith in the idea that natural resources can unite rather than divide communities.

Lawrence Susskind, a professor of urban and environmental planning at mit, advised Ali on his doctoral thesis--on aboriginal groups and mining--a decade ago. Says Susskind: "I think if you're going to focus on sustainable development, you have to get people to deal with differences more effectively. [Ali] has constantly been looking at strategies for dealing with the battles between groups." If Ali can get miners and environmentalists talking to one another, he can be viewed as a true alchemist.

Source: Forbes

  Category: Americas, Nature & Science
  Topics: Nature And Environment
Views: 3891

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