Saleem Ali on Our “Treasure Impulse”

Saleem Ali, an associate professor of environmental studies at the University of Vermont, has long studied the intersection of the natural and social sciences, particularly how environmental concerns create social conflict or cooperation. His work on Treasures of the Earth: Need, Greed, and a Sustainable Future began as a way in part to reconcile environmentalism and consumerism. “We live in a world where ultimately our lives are dependent on materials,” he said. “They come from different parts of the world and they provide livelihoods from mines to markets.” Ali chatted with Zócalo about why consuming resources isn’t all bad, and how it can be done well.

Treasures of the Earth by Saleem AliQ. What is the treasure impulse?

A. The treasure impulse is basically a human desire to look for new exciting materials that can enrich our lives, both physically but also more in terms of culture and aesthetics. Many times we think of this impulse as being really focused on need, but what we find even in early human history is that the impulse to discover and find these materials has also been very focused on wants. The first mining was for cosmetics rather than for need-based materials. That treasure impulse has been very positive. It has led us to discover these materials from the Earth and allowed us to develop as a society. It’s not a coincidence that developmental phases in human history are named after minerals – the Stone Age, the Iron Age, the Bronze Age and so on. Those were the materials that allowed for development to occur.

Unfortunately, it can bleed into aggrandizement. Sudden rushes on these resources, without proper regulation and social norms, can be destructive. But if we channel the impulse properly, we can really get a lot in terms of finding environmental solutions to our problems.

Q. Is there any particular mineral or resource that we overconsume, or extract especially harmfully?

A. In terms of overconsumption, the other thing I tried to do in this book is approach the issue from the perspective of industrial ecology. The main thing is, can materials be cycled properly? If they are coming out of a circular ecology, it works. But if you are throwing things away and those things go into a landfill, that is wasted energy. Any material usage out of the loop is bad. You could say we’re over-consuming almost everything, in this sense. We are designing products badly. But if we could reconfigure our system for industrial development whereby that material can be harnessed again, then the elements are ultimately reducible. The website for the book – which I hope will be used as a text for courses on sustainability – is framed around the periodic table. Elements are inherently renewable – it just takes energy to harness those elements back, to reconfigure them appropriately into compounds and materials that are of use to us.

It’s important for us to understand the cyclical nature of the natural systems, and to mimic them in our industrial processes. This is what the field of industrial ecology has tried to do. I had the good fortune of being a student in the first course ever thought in the field at Yale in the early 1990s, with Tom Graedel and Brad Allenby, pioneers in the field. It’s an emergent area that is marginalized by environmentalists who say industry is inherently antagonistic to natural systems. But industrial ecologists say industry is here to stay and we need industry to mimic natural systems, and then we can deal with these problems.

Q. How far has the field gotten in impacting environmentalism?

A. We are now getting interest in terms of policy. In Denmark for example, you have the city of Kalundborg, which has an eco-industrial park, and industries are exchanging waste and thinking in terms of systems, of how waste can be reused to produce something else. In Sweden we have a whole ministry dealing with these issues. Even in China there is an initiative to think in terms of a circular economy, to grapple with the country’s problem of waste and heavy pollution. The way out of that is to harness materials appropriately so the age-old practice of scavenging is important here. In some ways we have operationalize scavenging at much larger scales, where all human communities are thinking about scavenging and retrieving materials from industrial processes, rather than at landfills, so you avoid that added inefficiency.

Saleem AliQ. What about materials often regarded as exhaustible, like oil?

A. With organic materials like oil, the ultimate goal would be to synthesize them from other processes. This is something that is being tried – the whole field of biofuels is trying to do this. We still have the challenge of climate change to contend with. There is hope, potentially, that we will be able to find ways to do that especially with algae, for example, because algae is good at sequestering carbon. Algae is now being used to produce biofuels in the same way. The challenge there is one of chemistry. If you can synthesize the same kind of organic chemistry from biological systems that are renewable on human timescales now, then we’ve solved a major problem. We’re moving toward that. I see it happening in the long run. Similarly, there are so many ways by which degradation of biomass leads to methane production. If we can harness it from decaying materials, it could be very significant.

Q. I can see how that process would be economically beneficial in the long run, but what about the short run? And do economic concerns prevent industries from pursuing such measures?

A. We definitely want to have regulations to channel us appropriately. The problem has been that we don’t have the right incentive mechanisms in place. There has been too much of a thrust on complete laissez-faire capitalism. I’m all for capitalism, but regulated capitalism. In many cases you are not able to create the right incentives to grapple with pollution and resource scarcity. One of the issues is to value ecosystem services, to bring the natural environment into that whole framework for analyzing value. In some cases, you can give payments to ecological services so people have an incentive to conserve. The market does create some incentives for innovation on the environment, but they’re not really informed by science. There’s a cognitive gap between the general public and the scientific community. You need some kind of regulatory process to bridge that. I think there is an emerging consensus around that process. The government has a role to nudge us in that direction.

Q. Earlier you mentioned progress in Denmark and Sweden. How is the U.S. doing?

A. The U.S. is doing some positive things. The Obama administration has changed the way the Environmental Protection Agency considers the issue of waste overall. The name of the Office of Solid Waste has been changed to the Office of Resource Recovery and Cycling. The regulations that will emerge out of that office will have a different paradigm. They’re not regulating waste. Instead, they’re finding incentives by which that waste can be cycled back. So I think we have some good positive change in the U.S. as well. There is much more awareness here. I’m heartened by my students. Who are more engaged in the public discourse around these issues. One of the goals of the book is to get people excited about solutions, and seeing materials as not just a problem but as a means of addressing our environmental challenges.

One of the areas that has been a real challenge for environmentalists is dealing with pluralism and democratic choice. What ends up happening is that when you have an urgent environmental challenge, environmentalists will say, let’s solve the problem and react and regulate. What I’ve been trying to argue is that sometimes that may be very effective – if you have every certainty that there is that particular problem, and that your particular regulations will work to fix it. Often, if you’re wrong on that, you go down a slippery slope, toward a dangerous kind of totalitarianism. It’s surprising to me that environmentalists have embraced totalitarian societies because they get the job done. Many romanticize Cuba or talk about societies that can immediately make a change in regulation and solve problems. What I say is that as a modern society, we have to grapple with the issue of pluralism otherwise we could go down a very dangerous road. It may be we come out with suboptimal outcomes from an environmental point of view. But in the long run, you are insulating your policy decision from potential dangers and risks. You are getting many more people involved, and your chances of error even though the outcome will be more inefficient, the chances of error will be reduced. It hearkens to Amartya Sen’s saying that it is impossible to be a Paretian liberal. What Sen observed many decades ago is that in order to be a liberal, you are committed to choice and pluralism, which makes it impossible to also have optimality. So when environmentalists gravitate toward totalitarianism, it is self-defeating. Even if it is suboptimal in the long run, it is likely to be more sustainable, and it will insulate us from the abuse of the system.

*Photo courtesy alarch.