The World in a Grain: The Story of Sand and How It Transformed Civilization

By Vince Beiser book-cover-361-xs.jpg
What you’ll learnThe story of sand may not sound scintillating at first, but sand is a substance that has become indispensable to modern society and a hotly contested resource as we begin to run out of it. Its desirability is altering the world’s maps, politics, organized crime interests, and ecosystems, as humans try to find enough to keep up with growing demand.
Read on for key insights from The World in a Grain: The Story of Sand and How It Transformed Civilization.
1. Sand seems commonplace and even unimportant, but the world would be a different place without it.If you added up all the grains of sand on all the world’s beaches, you’d have more than  7 quintillion (i.e., seven followed by 18 zeros). Sand is everywhere: not just on the beaches or in deserts, but all around you. From the house you live in to the car windows you roll down as you drive to the road you drive on—none of it would be there without sand. Sand is in skyscrapers, in silicon chips in your phone and laptop, and in the stained glass windows at that church down the street.Sand has slipped into our turns of phrase, like “a line in the sand,” ”or head in the sand.” It features in mythologies old and new: The sandman helps us fall asleep according to medieval lore, and has reappeared more recently in comics and heavy metal songs. Sand is foundational to numerous creation myths and famous poems. It was William Blake who wrote the famous line, “To see the World in a Grain of Sand.” There is something both infinitesimal and endless to sand. You can isolate a single grain and you can gaze at a coastline or desert and be astonished by the collective enormity of trillions of grains.Sand’s uses have been manifold since ancient eras. The Egyptian pyramids are one of the most famous monuments to its usefulness. Sand has been used for construction, and in the 1400s, an Italian artist-innovator learned to convert sand into glass that was completely transparent. That discovery, in turn, led to the development of microscopes, telescopes, and numerous advancements in everything from medicine to space travel. Sand has always been commonly used, but it was never relied on and used on a colossal scale until the turn of the 20th century, over a hundred years ago.Until that time, buildings were usually made with clay, wood, or stone, which is why you would never see a building more than 10 stories tall. Roads were made with scattered stones or, far more commonly, not paved at all.Sand is a substance hiding in plain sight. Without realizing it, you are dependent on sand for your daily existence. It has made your world and your world is made of it: from high rises to roads to light bulbs and smartphones, civilization is literally and figuratively resting on the stuff.
2. Besides water and air, we use sand more than any other substance.It is not an exaggeration to call sand the most crucial solid substance on earth. We rarely think about sand beyond scraping it off our shoes. It is difficult to wrap our minds around just how much sand we use and how much we rely on it.Humans use an estimated 50 billion tons of the stuff annually. To give a sense of scale, that is enough sand to cover the whole state of California. According to a recent report from a United Nations subcommittee, the amount of concrete used each year could form a wall 88 feet tall and 88 feet wide that encircles the entire globe. China alone used more concrete—the key ingredient being sand—between 2011 and 2013 than the United States used during the entire 20th century.The main development driving the rising demand for sand is urbanization: people continue to migrate to cities in droves—at a rate of 65 million per year. That is enough people to fill eight new New Yorks.Of course, like any natural resource, sand does not exist ad infinitum. There is a definite amount of it. We might look at the enormity of deserts and conclude we are doing just fine, but desert sand is formed by wind, not water, and thus lacks the cohesive bonding quality needed to create modern goods and infrastructure. This is why Dubai, though hemmed in by an enormous desert, has to import sand from Australia to continue construction.
3. The sand you casually scrape off your shoes as you enter your home is older than dinosaurs.What exactly is sand, and where does it come from?Sand is the accumulation of tiny rocks usually between .0625 mm and 2 mm in diameter. Almost 70 percent of the world’s sand is quartz, an extremely hard, durable crystal. Quartz is clear but oxidation stains it any number of colors. The oxidation process in combination with other kinds of minerals (iron, feldspar, etc.) which enter the mix give sand a yellow to light brown color. There are some exceptions, though, like Hawaii’s black sand beaches, which derive from pitch black volcanic compounds broken down through exposure to air and water.Sand comes from the erosion of larger rocks over time. This erosion can be from wind, air, flowing water, or even glaciers crunching their way through mountains. These smaller rocks that break off through erosion are gradually whittled down and become the granules we recognize as sand. These bits of quartz and other durable rock and shell are carried down from mountains via rivers and deposited along banks and shores and eventually buried under other layers of sediment and rock, which eventually form new mountains which will then be eroded once again. One geologist describes the ongoing cycle of sand as a kind of reincarnation over millions of years. It is bewildering to think that the sand you see around you could be hundreds of millions of years old—older than most dinosaurs.Not all sands are created equal. The grains vary in size and shape, and depending on how useful they are for human purposes, they are valued differently.The reason that Dubai imports sand from Australia and not the Arabian Peninsula is that the shape of the sand crystals formed in the desert is all wrong for construction. Sand that makes for dependable constructions is more jagged, angular sand eroded by water. In the desert, the granules are rounded. Erosion by wind is harsher without water to soften the constant rock-to-rock jostling. The edges of desert sand get buffed out, leaving more spherical grains. From a construction perspective it makes sense to build a house with blocks rather than marbles, which is why you will find sand mining companies based near rivers and coasts—not in the middle of deserts.
4. Sand mining takes heavy tolls on environments and societies around the world.If you are like most people, you have never contemplated the environmental or social impacts of sand mining at length, but it is an enormous industry around the world. Some of the largest fortunes in the last century began in sand for construction. Henry J. Kaiser, for example, one of the richest men of the last century, began his career selling sand to road construction crews. Today, the sand distributed for construction forms a global industry valued at $130 billion.In the United States alone, there are more than 4,000 local sand mining companies operating in all 50 states across 6,300 locations. There’s a comparable distribution in Western Europe. The process of harvesting sand can be invasive, disrupting ecosystems and habitats, polluting rivers, and harming agriculture. The scale of damage varies depending on the company, their preferred methods of obtaining sand, and the level of government regulation (and the enforcement of those regulations). But the process invariably mars the environment, even when companies do what they can to minimize that damage.In Central California, riverbed sand mining is blocking salmon migration patterns. In northern Australia, the largest variety of rare carnivorous plants is getting obliterated because of sand mining efforts. In Sri Lanka, sand mining has compromised sources of drinking water. In India, a number of fish and bird species are in decline near sand mine operations.According to a professor at the Naval Postgraduate Academy, the postcard-perfect beaches of Marina, California, lose about eight acres of shoreline annually because of a Mexico-based distributor called Cemex, which, at the time of a 2017 protest, was sucking up nearly 300 million cubic meters of sand every year.For a long time, sand mining was common across California, but since the 1980s, the federal government has been shutting down operations because of mining’s highly erosive effects on the beaches. Cemex kept mining anyway because they found a letter-of-the-law technicality that kept them outside federal jurisdiction. Thanks to environmental efforts in places like Marina, Cemex lost in court and agreed to disband its operations by the end of 2020.Other ventures, however, dwarf Cemex’s mining ambitions. Singapore is far and away the biggest importer of sand. They’ve added 50 square miles of land artificially to their tiny island nation by bringing in tons and tons of sand from their neighbors in Southeast Asia. Singapore’s consumption has been so significant that dozens of Indonesian islands have been utterly obliterated. Indonesia, Malaysia, Vietnam, and other nations have officially blacklisted Singapore, refusing to export any more sand to their island neighbor.Other distributors are dredging sand up from the ocean floor. Everywhere from the UK to Japan to Florida, which has damaged coral reefs and mangrove forests and harms seafloor ecosystems. Ocean sand mining is new enough that we only know short-term impacts, but time will tell whether these are any better than conventional mining methods.
5. There is a global black market sand trade run by “sand pirates” and “sand mafias.”Because of the environmental impact of sand mining, many governments have stepped in to regulate the industry. These attempts at regulation have given rise to a black market of titanic proportions. Black market operations vary in form and scale. Some push the boundaries of the law and others flagrantly flout it.In Jamaica in 2008, for example, sand thieves swiftly excavated and destroyed 1,300 feet of tourist-attracting coastline. Beaches in Algeria, Morocco, Russia, and many other coastal regions have been illegally ravaged as well. Half the sand mined in Morocco is obtained illegally.Sometimes, companies pay for their transgressions. Hanson Aggregates had to pay out $42 million to the state of California for sand mining in areas where they were not permitted. These sand pirates are all over the world. For one of Israel’s most infamous kingpins, stealing sand from public beaches was his first step in making a name for himself in organized crime. South African police have created a special force for dealing with and bringing down sand pirates.Of course, black market rivals do not call in the police to settle their disputes. They take the law into their own hands. Big money and black markets form a perfect storm for violence, and there is a trail of torture, beatings, stabbings, and death for those who try to uphold the law and protest their lands being gouged and their livelihoods compromised, especially in the developing world.At the moment, India has the deepest cesspools of illegal sand mining. Local sources value the unauthorized industry at about $2.3 billion, and hundreds of farmers, police, and bureaucrats have been killed in recent years for opposing so-called “sand mafias”—organized crime rings building their houses on sand.There is an enormous demand for supply that is diminishing rapidly. The black market would not exist if the demand were not so great. But people need homes to live in and roads to drive on, and technologies like smartphones and computers are so integrated into society that they have become more necessities than luxuries.
6. The world is experiencing a sand shortage that may never be resolved without the collective intention to consume less.There is a global sand shortage of which the world is mostly unaware. As far as most people are concerned, sand is what you feel between your toes on the beach when you go on a vacation—not the foundation of modern civilization. So what is the solution to a conundrum that most do not realize is a conundrum?One potential option for lessening the social and environmental damage of sand mining is stiffer government regulations. Some governments are taking steps to better regulate sand mining. A number of countries in northern and western Europe have prohibited any form of river sand mining, which have proven harmful to local wildlife and people alike. The United States requires mining companies to restore the land they tear up in the process of mining sand.Activism is another helpful avenue to raise awareness of the problem and check any companies breaking regulations. In Los Angeles County, there have been several proposed sand mining sites, but objections and concerted campaigns from people worried about property values and environmental impact are joining forces to slow the roll of the sand industry.Of course, we cannot be naïve about the costs of activism. A sand mine closing in one place probably means another will open elsewhere. We obviously don’t want a sand mine in our neighborhood. It is an eyesore. But we all want the results those mining efforts make possible: cell phones, laptops, malls, and modern infrastructure. If we are honest, we do want sand mines—we just want them in someone else’s neighborhood.           With sand mining being pushed further from cities, costs of transport are higher and the diesel needed for the machinery transporting sand is exorbitant: 50 million extra gallons of diesel for trucks alone—just in the state of California. Some efforts merely change the environmental costs rather than eliminating them.Part of the reason new homes are so expensive in many cities is because concrete is so much more expensive. Concrete is more expensive because sand prices are rising. Sand prices are rising because growing demand is meeting shrinking supply. And now, these hikes are exacerbated by rising costs of transport incurred as we push sand mining operations away from cities. Even crippling the black market sand operations raises sand prices because it redirects demand to the formal economy.Regulation is a less tenable option in the developing world, especially in countries that do not enforce the regulations. Bribes and corruption become the currency in many places. The palm greasing is probably the main factor allowing illegal sand mining to continue. In India, Cambodia, and Sri Lanka, there are confirmed links between politicians and the continuation of illegal mining operations.Another potential avenue for reducing the negative impact of mining is collective consumer action, which looks for fair and direct trade certified products, like the coffee industry has done. What if consumers insisted on the same ethical standards from sand and aggregate suppliers? No one wants to fund organized crime rings in the developing world, right?Hopefully innovation can also lend a hand in maximizing a limited sand supply. If researchers can find ways to make concrete last longer, the sand we do have can go further. There are, for example, certain bacteria that can mend fissures in concrete, helping concrete heal itself. Man-made sand is yet another option (albeit an expensive one) that countries like Japan have utilized since prohibiting marine sand mining in 1990.Like other vital resources, we have plenty of sand left, but the risk of completely running out of sand is less than running out of sand that can be harvested efficiently and in a way that does not harm the environment or local populations.Any discussions of solutions should be prefaced with the reminder that it is complicated. The possibilities discussed here are small scale or makeshift solutions. In the end, ameliorating the problem in a more comprehensive way will probably come down to consumers learning how to be content with less.

Categories: Articole de interes general

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