Saturday, November 14, 2009

Saleem H. Ali's "Treasures of the Earth"

Saleem H. Ali is associate professor of environmental studies at the University of Vermont and serves on the adjunct faculty of the Watson Institute for International Studies at Brown University. He was chosen in 2007 by Seed magazine as one of eight Revolutionary Minds in the World for his work on using the environment to help resolve conflicts.

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, Treasures of the Earth: Need, Greed, and a Sustainable Future, and reported the following:
Page 99 of Treasures of the Earth starts off with the continuing description from the previous page of a famous Cold War fiction essay on materialism by David Reisman titled "the nylon wars." I then try to link the rise of nylon to the prominence of fossil fuels during that period and subsequently transition to a segment in the book which is titled "Guns, Guano and Butter." This enigmatic segment is part of a chapter in the book which is titled "The Darker Side of Fortune: the psychology of treasure dependence." Here I try to provide a natural history of some of the most momentous scrambles for resources as a result of our treasure-seeking behavior.

Using a play on words from Jared Diamond's celebrated volume and a pinch of economic jargon (guns versus butter production functions), I describe how "guns and butter are inexorably linked to a common mineral need that led to many colonial conflagarations in the past. Regretably, terrorists have also been able to make the connection between the common chemistry of feeding humanity and blowing it up." I then go on to describe how nitrates are an essential ingredient for fertilizers but also for many kinds of explosives.

Bat and bird poop deposits, or guano as they are more elegantly called, were the world's most significant source of nitrates before the discovery of a chemical process to synthetically manufacture nitrates was commercialized in 1910. Page 99 starts to describe how the world's most prized guano deposits in the Atacama desert of Chile became the source of war between regional powers.

The breadth of topical and geographic coverage, as well as an attempted user-friendly tone of the narrative with the use of provocative section headings and alliteration, is happily captured by the page 99 test.
Learn more about the book at the official Treasures of the Earth website.

--Marshal Zeringue