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Volume 63, Number 3May/June 2012

In This Issue

The Synthesist
alfredo carlo
Saleem H. Ali attended this year's World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland as one of the WEF's 190 Young Global Leaders. "Finding ways by which the environment can help to develop our economies while also mitigating conflict remains a personal and professional commitment for me," he says.

"Greed is not bad," says Saleem H. Ali. If this sounds odd coming from a professor of environmental studies who is also the director of the Institute for Environmental Diplomacy and Security at the University of Vermont (uvm), Ali will explain that greed is not simple avarice. It's part of our "treasure impulse," which powers not only our desire to collect and consume but also our quest to innovate and discover "new ways to harness materials and energy to better the human condition." Today's challenge, he says, is to focus this impulse on planet-wide challenges.

"Pollution is one problem, but so is people dying of hunger and poverty," he says. "If you really value human existence and quality of life, the quest for innovation should always be there."

In his 2010 book Treasures of the Earth: Need, Greed, and a Sustainable Future, he explored these and other ideas drawn widely from geology, economics, ecology and psychology. Among them are concepts like "sustainable consumption," "livelihood chains" and "elemental accounting." This last concept has been pioneered in the mining industry through such initiatives as the 2003 Kimberly Process that tracks diamonds in order to prevent the industry from inadvertently financing armed conflicts. It turns governments and companies into partners in resource tracking, it can improve buyer awareness, and it helps keep "blood diamonds" out of international markets.

Born in New Bedford, Massachusetts, Ali spent part of his childhood in Pakistan, his parents' homeland, and he credits the experience with his love of bringing together diverse ideas to produce something new. For example, he says, he learned to see Pakistan's repair and service industries in the light of sustainability: These countless small and often informal businesses not only fix what might otherwise be discarded into landfills, but also provide jobs.

This leads to broader notions such as "industrial ecology," where the goal is "to make waste obsolete, whether it's material or energy. It's based on the premise that industry is a permanent part of the planet, so it should be thought of as part of the natural system," says Ali.

sally mccay / university of vermont

Such positions often put him at odds with what he calls "the anti-technology narrative" among environmentalists. "Technology can be misused," he says, "but we must constantly seek new ways to better the human condition." He cites the Kalundborg Symbiosis in Denmark, where diverse industries "became mutually beneficial by using the by-products and energy discarded by one as raw material for another." Kalundborg, however, didn't develop by industrial partnerships alone: Government provided catalysts in the form of high fees for landfills, water and energy, and it's these kinds of partnerships Ali often advocates, the better to stimulate innovation.

His "brave thinking," as his uvm colleague Thomas Hudspeth calls it, is bringing Ali global recognition. Last year, the World Economic Forum named him a "young global leader"—he is not yet 40—and Britain's The Observer Magazine included him among 20 "green giants" who will be "setting the global environmental agenda in the coming year." Seed magazine in 2007 listed him among eight "revolutionary minds in the world."

Ali's multidisciplinary approach is essential, says Hudspeth. Prior to his professorship, he adds, Ali "worked for Fortune-500 companies, so he has an insider's perspective on both business and the environment." Hudspeth, like Ali, finds that their field, environmental studies, increasingly demands that its students become knowledgeable in sciences and engineering in order to understand environmental complexities.

Peace Parks is the title of a book Ali edited in 2007 that offered analysis of some of the world's 188 parks that straddle international boundaries, and proposed a step-by-step guide to creating and strengthening them. Peace parks, Ali says, reduce political conflict through environmental and resource cooperation.

"If you focus on the environment as a quantity rather than quality, you'll fight over it. To ensure its quality, you'll cooperate over it," he says. This work contributed to his selection as an "emerging explorer" in 2010 by the National Geographic Society.

When the un-mandated University of Peace, founded in Costa Rica in 1980, wanted to develop a curriculum called Peace Education: Islamic Perspectives, Amr Abdalla, professor and vice rector, came to Ali. "A wide population of Muslims relies to a great extent on their understanding of their religion to guide all aspects of their lives. We see no contradiction between Islam and disciplines such as peace, conflict and environment," says Abdalla.

"A high standard for environmental responsibility," he adds, helps people "move away from an attitude focused on their own specific self-interest to an enlightened understanding of their self-interest within a wider sense of responsibility to the environment, based on their religious teachings." In Pakistan, the curriculum will be taught as an experiential program, bringing children from government, private and religious schools to study together; in the us, California-based Zaytuna Academy will bring the program to Muslim schools.

To Samir Doshi, a former student of Ali's and now a postdoctoral fellow at Queen's University in Canada, Ali is an iconoclast. "Saleem always questions convention. I have seen [him] play devil's advocate with the effect that a community or stakeholder arrives at a better understanding of those who disagree with them. This is one aspect that makes him so effective at conflict resolution and negotiations. It is also a much needed quality in environmental planning and sustainable development."

Naazish YarKhan Naazish YarKhan is a content strategist, writer and editor with a master's in communications. She has written extensively for media including National Public Radio, The Huffington Post, Chicago Tribune and Common Ground News Service.

This article appeared on pages 12-13 of the print edition of Saudi Aramco World.

Check the Public Affairs Digital Image Archive for May/June 2012 images.