Diamonds are the poor’s best friends
Environmentalist Saleem Ali thinks there's one surefire way to lift people out of poverty: encourage trade that balances need with greed
Corporations are evil. They ruin the environment, take advantage of the world’s poor and accrue profits that benefit a few, already wealthy souls.
In certain circles, such statements are gospel. There’s no use debating their veracity because, well, the proof is everywhere. But maybe, just maybe, what’s taken as proof is really unexamined bias. At least, Saleem Ali thinks so.
Ali, director of the Institute for Environmental Diplomacy and Security and a professor at the University of Vermont, believes that many tree-hugging enviros bark up the wrong tree by vilifying corporations. Instead, he stresses that companies, properly monitored by governments, will increase the livelihoods of the poor. And for many poor people, prosperity is linked to wealthy societies’ desire for natural resources. He spells it all out in “Treasures of the Earth: Need, Greed and a Sustainable Future” (Yale University Press, $20).
Of course, putting this pro-business message out to people, one that heralds the connection between the wants of one group and the betterment of another, has garnered Ali fans and detractors. Forbes magazine proclaimed him “the alchemist” and National Geographic labeled him an “emerging explorer.” Some greens, according to Ali, haven’t been so supportive of his views.
In a recent phone conversation, Ali, a self-proclaimed realist, talked about how diamonds can save the poor, why the world would be better off if greens worked with corporations and how our current and impending environmental crises can create unity in a world too often divided along lines of us and them.
Your book’s called “Treasures of the Earth: Need, Greed and a Sustainable Future.” So how would you define a treasure of the earth?
Anything that we are harnessing from the planet, and it could be used positively or negatively. Even if we’re talking about food, we are dependent on the elements to nourish food. Hence we have minerals written on our cereal boxes. So when I talk about treasures, I’m essentially going back to the elements of the earth.
All plant life and animal life need minerals, so [the elements] have a very specific needs-based connection to our sustenance. But then they also provide for more luxury oriented wants, so to speak. The whole jewelry industry is about minerals, whether you’re talking about gold or diamonds or other kinds of precious gemstones. So there’s this huge spectrum between what we need and what we want, and the book tries to grapple with these and how understanding our relationship to minerals can make us a more efficient and equitable society.
So let’s touch upon the topic of greed. Can you name a mineral that we both need and want?
Well, carbon was the fundamental element for organic molecules and it’s also, in its purest form, the diamond. A diamond is something we want; we don’t need it physically. But the same element forms many other kinds of compounds, like coal, where we do need it, given our current constraints of energy. So carbon’s an important one in that regard.
But I also have a more nuanced approach. If you think about a diamond, which is a luxury good, if you look at its utility, we clearly don’t need it. But the people who produce the diamond, if you look at it from a production point of view, they do need diamonds for generating livelihood. For example, Botswana, which has risen out of poverty, has become a showcase of democracy and development in Africa. And the only reason that has happened really is because it’s the world’s largest diamond producer. It didn’t have many resources by which it could be lifted out of poverty before that. Their major industry before was cattle ranching. That wasn’t environmentally good nor was it particularly lucrative. So, diamonds were in essence something which provided for their needs, even though the sale of diamonds and their consumption in the developed world itself may be considered a want. So if it wasn’t for some starry-eyed teenager wanting to buy a diamond ring, you wouldn’t have that demand. Need and greed are interrelated and that’s the part that’s often missed by the mainstream environmental discourse.
Recently, there’s been a term called blood diamonds. It seems there’s this ethical movement for people not to buy diamonds because they come from a war-torn and ravaged country.
Yes and I’m very sensitive to that. I’ve travelled to Congo, to many of these areas where you have conflict diamonds. And clearly, we need to have regulation of any industry.
But you don’t want to throw the baby out with the bathwater. Just because you’ve got conflict diamonds doesn’t mean that all cut-diamond consumption is bad. I gave you the example of Botswana, or we could talk about the Arctic region of Canada, where diamond mining is providing livelihoods for Inuit communities to stay in their traditional homeland, to reduce the amount of migration to cities. All those things need to be considered when you buy diamonds, so I think it’s very important that consumers become more aware where they’re buying diamonds from. So in that regard the process in certification is a very valuable process that allows consumers to track diamonds. And it’s absolutely incumbent upon developing countries to ensure that their supplies are monitored and managed.
But I think the hunkering down of environmentalists, where they’re basically saying, “Well, we should not consume luxury goods,” is a little bit disingenuous. When we’re dealing with structural levels of inequality in the world, there is no way you can lift people out of poverty without having some kind of trade, and often the trade will involve some kind of luxury goods.
You’ve got two paths: Either you just dump cash on the developing world and raise them out of poverty; that has failed, because it doesn’t create incentives for performance. The only other option you have is trying to encourage some positive, sustainable mechanism of livelihood. And livelihoods are not possible without trade.
How has this message been received so far by the environmental movement? Do people think your idea is bunk?
On the whole, it’s been positively received. My argument is that there are no simple, magic bullet solutions and we will have to make some kind of sacrifice in terms of environmental crises, just as we often have to sacrifice our human wants. And sometimes environmentalists just look at one side of the story in terms of consumerism and say, “Well, let’s just consume less.” But that’s really kind of an ostrich [with it’s head in the sand] mentality and I think environmentalists in the developing world really appreciated my message.
I got some pushback, definitely, from Western environmentalists who said, “Well, you know, it’s a slippery slope if you start consuming more.” And my argument is, “Well, the reality is most of your doom-and-gloom scenarios, which I agree are likely to happen—there [are] a vast number of people who are already living in those gloom-and-doom scenarios.” If you go to some areas of sub-Saharan Africa, where you see abject poverty, people are living in that apocalyptic world that the Al Gore narratives tell you about. So how you lift them out of that poverty is particularly important. Until environmentalists pay attention to poverty alleviation they’ll never get traction. And that’s what has happened with the failure of the climate change negotiations time and again. I think more environmentalists are coming around to it, and they’ve appreciated that I’m approaching this with nuance and I’m not trying to be sensationalistic about it.
Some people, some journalists, have this view, “Oh well, his argument is a bit meandering and it’s not linear.” Well the world is not linear. I don’t want to pretend to give an argument like [New York Times columnist] Thomas Friedman that McDonald’s will save the world or that kind of very simplistic view, which sells books but is just not the reality.
You were profiled in National Geographic and you said, “Environmental issues have the power to unify groups with seemingly irreconcilable differences. Shared concerns about resources in conservation can resolve even bitter conflicts.” Can you give examples?
So, this is the other side of my work, to say, “How do we use environmental issues as a peace-building strategy?” Because environmental factors can be seen as a common threat, you can get people to cooperate on issues where they might not otherwise. So for example, if two countries have been in conflict over a border area, and there has been recognition [that] this is an ecologically very important area, you can get people to resolve their disputes.
One example is the dispute between Ecuador and Peru that has waged on for many decades in a region called the Cordillera del C
There is so much wrong with Saleem Ali’s analysis, it would take a while to go through each point with a careful response. Here’s one issue:
Saleem Ali uses the word “efficiency” five times in this interview. He says if we go to “devolution of production. It will end up being terribly inefficient. You
You are missing the point about efficiency with the usual critique using Jevons’ paradox that many environmentalists use.
Efficiency may be our only salvation because it is practically not possible to reduce some measure of economic growth to lift people out of poverty. Yes, this may lead to suboptimality with certain other environmental factors but we have no choice if we want pluralism of choice in matters such as population (which is ultimately the most significant variable of consequence).
My argument is precisely that we MUST tackle inequality but it is impossible to do so without some kind of change in wealth flows and income generation.
Read my book before passing judgement based on an interview.
This is precisely the problem with environmentalism at present—a theological reluctance to consider alternative perspectives.
As an adherent to the religion of love, I find your attempt to make the diamond industry into the iconic savior of the poor to be utterly dismaying. I cannot think of any more artificial and manufactured desire than diamonds, where marketers produce a mentality equating true love with the amount of money you are willing to spend on their shiny stones. You’re right that trade creates jobs, but instead of “lifting people out of poverty” by indulging in extreme opulence, we could share some of our unjustly accrued resources with people in poorer countries and allow them to create economies that acutally benefit themselves. My family does this through kiva.com. Returning some of the wealth that we (in the Global North) have made off the subordination of people in the Global South so they can buy farm tools that will increase their capacity, attend institutions of higher education, and start small businesses seems like a more just and responsible thing to do than buying more diamonds. One final question: what percentage of diamond money stays in the hands of the miners?
Lastly, it is not fair to have your views published in a newspaper and then tell someone that they cannot publicly disagree with you until they have read your book.
Grace and Peace,
weaponry manufactured in the first world makes any such benefits utterly insignificant.
It is not surprising that Salim has such a rose-tinted image of diamonds as the industry has spent millions of dollars over decades promoting a positive image of diamonds as objects of desire, romance and purity. The diamond funded human rights scandals of the 90s, which gave rise to the term blood diamond, eroded public confidence in the ethical bone fides of the diamond industry and threatened the entire industry. The industry had no choice but to introduce the Kimberley Process regulations to stop the rot and shore up the crumbling image as consumers began to associate diamond with war crimes and brutal human rights violations. However, the Kimberley Process only dealt with a very narrow section of the diamond-funded human rights violations
Sorry, I cut off the opening paragraph above.
While the diamond industry can bring benefits to some in the third world, the suffering of others on the receiving end of the diamond-funded war crimes and diamond-funded weaponry manufactured in the first world makes any such benefits utterly insignificant.
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