Treasures of the Earth


Product details

Product name: Treasures of the Earth: Need, Greed, and a Sustainable Future

Reviewer: Kate Arneman

Author: Saleem H. Ali

Publisher: Yale University Press

Price: $59.95 (hardback)

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Can humans suppress their appetite to accumulate and possess the treasures of the Earth? Are we evolutionarily hardwired to squirrel away what we perceive as valuable? Would we be better or worse off without this “treasure impulse”? These are some of the questions raised in this scholarly work by Saleem H. Ali, associate professor of environmental studies at the University of Vermont.

Ali explores the tension between human needs and wants as manifest in our treasure hunts for gold, oil or even a rare species of mushrooms renowned for its aphrodisiac properties. In doing so, he seeks to move away from the overly simplistic designations of consumption as a sin (as some environmentalists would see it) or a virtue (as some economists would argue).

Rather, he focusses on how the creativity and innovation that forms part of the treasure impulse can be harnessed in ways that benefit humans and the Earth. How can it be channelled into technology that helps us recover resources that have been used, design products that recycle materials and reduce waste, synthesise materials that we once mined?

For Ali, technology is the overlooked variable in the IPAT equation:

Environmental impact (I) = population (P) x affluence (A) x technology (T)

The research is rigorous and multidisciplinary, the writing fluid and elegant, but the central argument falters. Ali’s thesis is so nuanced that, at times, it almost seems to lapse into ambivalence.

Most of the chapters look back at how the discovery and manipulation of various minerals has influenced the development of societies – a fascinating history informed by science (particularly chemistry), psychology, anthropology and economics.

The final section shifts the focus to the future and how environmental planning might mediate conflicts and encourage more efficient use of resources, as well as supporting technological innovation.

There are some hopeful case studies: the regeneration of a former clay mine in Cornwall, England; waste exchanges between businesses in a Danish industrial park, whereby the oil refinery sends its sulphurous byproducts to a sulphuric acid factory and butane to a plasterboard factory; negotiations over land rights between indigenous communities in the Kimberley and the Argyle Diamonds mining company.

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