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Sourcing future resources.

TREASURES OF THE EARTH: Need, Greed, and a Sustainable Future

by Saleem H Ali

YALE UNIVERSITY PRESS, HB, 22.50 [pounds sterling]

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By some accounts, one of the defining features of modernity is humanity's belief that it can gain mastery over the natural world. Nature used to be seen as magical and mystical, something to be revered and feared but, at some point in the post-medieval era, a new attitude emerged. Historians sometimes call this process 'disenchantment': nature could no longer cast its spell, so it became a resource to be controlled and exploited. It's a seductive theory, not least because it might go some way towards explaining why we now find ourselves in such an environmental mess.

But before we lavish uncritical assent on this idea, it's worth pondering the question of whether there was always a subtle quest for mastery, albeit limited and parochial in bygone eras. Our ancient forebears used flint, gold, iron and copper, and perhaps all they lacked was the technology to expand their exploitative repertoire. This, at least, is one of the thoughts that Saleem Ali's book provokes. He talks about something called the treasure impulse: humanity's eternal and indefatigable desire to harness the power of minerals, metals and anything else that lies buried beneath the soil or seabed.

For Ali, this impulse is neither good nor bad: it's simply part of who we are and, as such, it would be foolish to try to stifle it. Ali dislikes extremist environmentalist positions that insist that 'self-denial of human wants is a virtue, and a minimalist lifestyle is the road to salvation'. At the same time, he tries to distance himself from the so-called cornucopian argument, which suggests that, one way or another, humanity will always find some new resource or solution to sustain our present lifestyles. It would therefore be silly either to shut down all the mines or to dig and drill on blindly without any sensitivity to pending environmental disaster.

Ali suggests that we should continue to pursue our treasure hunting in the natural world: first, because this is what we're programmed to do and, second, because such efforts aren't always as catastrophic as the doom-mongers suggest. At the same time, we should redouble our efforts to find methods whereby materials can be recycled and returned to their pristine state, thereby allowing us to use them again. Also, whenever possible, we should seek out synthetic alternatives and, from Ali's perspective, this avenue already seems to be brightly lit. Instead of asbestos, we have fibreglass; instead of plastics, we have polylactic-acid products derived from potatoes in which to wrap our comestibles; there is even a booming synthetic oil industry. Who knows how many other problems will be solved by the application of human ingenuity? If only it were that simple. To be fair, Ali makes some excel lent points. As he says, the environmental debate is often 'entrenched in normative positions'. Some insist that all exploitation of dwindling natural resources is loathsome; others simply shrug off environmental concerns. It isn't so much a debate as it is a catfight between stubborn polemicists. All is also right to take simplistic analyses of the curse of resources to task. Just because a country has diamonds in its soil doesn't mean it will inevitably fall into social chaos. All told, it's accurate to suggest that discussion of such issues 'has been polarized by a sense of either panic or complacency'.

Seeking out some middle ground is an excellent idea. Unfortunately, Ali's grand theory, which for all his protestations seems decidedly Micawberesque to me, relies on the notion of untapped intellectual capital (something will turn up). Cognisance of dwindling natural resources should, he says, 'lead not to despair but rather to solutions'. Fabulous, but what if the solutions never arrive?

When confronting global environmental problems, keeping your fingers crossed isn't the wisest of strategies. Relying on human invention simply isn't sufficient. We have to assume the worst and take drastic action (the sort that Ali shuns) to limit the potential consequences of our muddleheaded stewardship of the planet.

Proving that our ancestors have always blithely mined the Earth's resources isn't the same as proving that we should follow their lead. Times have changed and we have run out of luck. Ali frowns at both the Cassandras and the Cornucopians in the environmental debate. He should check his Greek mythology. Cassandra was always right: the trouble, her epic curse, was that no-one ever believed her.
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Author:Wright, Jonathan
Publication:Geographical
Article Type:Book review
Date:Feb 1, 2010
Words:749
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