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

Human civilisation is hungry for many resources, and I feel that there is a general awareness that we are taking more than the planet can provide. Deforestation, overfishing, fossil fuel exploitation – I’d like to think these are all familiar concepts. But who knew that we have a sand crisis looming in our near future? Journalist Vince Beiser has written a hard-hitting reportage that convinces that, despite its ubiquity, even humble grains of sand are a finite resource.

The World in a Grain

The World in a Grain: The Story of Sand and How It Transformed Civilization” written by Vince Beiser, published by Riverhead Books in August 2018 (hardback, 294 pages)

The first part of the book is a short history of science and modern civilisation. Beiser discusses the building of vast road networks (e.g. the US interstate highway system) and takes a trip down the history of science, where lenses in microscopes and telescopes revealed worlds until then unseen, ushering in scientific revolutions (see The Glass Bathyscaphe: How Glass Changed the World). The components in computers and high-tech gadgets require ultra-pure sand, while fracking requires a different kind of sand that is blasted into underground shale beds. And sand makes land. From tourist beaches and the hallucinogenic artificial islands that Dubai is creating for the super rich, to the geopolitical muscle flexing of China in the South China Sea where it is installing military bases on its new land. All of the above is completely dependent on sand.

One of the take-home lessons is that not all sand is created equally. Grain size and smoothness are but two factors indicating you can’t just use any sand for any application. Where does all this sand come from? Well, pretty much everywhere! Open pit-mining, hilltop removal, river dredging, digging up of beaches, and the hovering up of enormous quantities of sand just offshore: sand mining is a vast, sprawling industry. And, as Beiser reveals, it is also poorly regulated in many places. Corruption and environmental degradation go hand-in-hand. There are fortunes to be made here, and there is a veritable black market in sand, ruled over by its own sand mafia who do not shy away from (lethal) violence towards anyone foolhardy enough to stand in their way.

“sand mining is a vast, sprawling industry [with its own] black market […] ruled over by its own sand mafia who do not shy away from (lethal) violence”

I have so far left the biggest culprit of all unmentioned: concrete. Primarily a mixture of sand and gravel, the concrete industry is the largest consumer of sand in this story. And we have to be honest, concrete is a wonderful construction material: strong, fire-proof, endlessly adaptable (there are thousands of recipes available for all sorts of specific purposes), and easily poured into all sorts of shapes… its benefits are plenty (see also Concrete Planet: The Strange and Fascinating Story of the World’s Most Common Man-Made Material).

Beiser starts his book off with concrete and returns to it by the end of the book after the above-mentioned tour. If, by then, you weren’t already sufficiently stunned by our demand for sand and the incredible impact of this extractive industry, the book turns into a brutal, pummelling read. There is no need for Beiser to be alarmist as the numbers themselves are staggering enough. Many formerly developing countries have gone through their own industrial-revolution-on-steroids growth spurts and have caught up with Europe and the US in a matter of decades. This means billions more consumers are in need of infrastructure (roads, houses, skyscrapers, factories, etc.) that all need sand. Vast quantities of it. Beiser quotes estimates of a global annual consumption of 50 billion tons of sand, double (yes, double!) of what it was just ten years ago.

One of the most worrying aspects is that this has happened so quickly that we have yet to come to terms with the lifecycle of concrete. Nothing lasts forever. Most concrete structures have a life-span of 50-60 years, and many older ones are starting to fail (in myriad ways, as Beiser highlights). Once all this new infrastructure of the last few decades ages and needs to be replaced, where on Earth will we get the sand from? Already, there is a shortage of the right kind of sand in some sectors.

“One of the most worrying aspects is that […] we have yet to come to terms with the lifecycle of concrete”

What makes this book particularly refreshing is that Beiser takes the proverbial bull by the horns on several fronts. He highlights the typical hypocrisy of consumers (the central tenet of The Irresponsible Pursuit of Paradise). People oppose the polluting, destructive industries that extract raw materials from the natural world – often displacing them to other countries in the process – yet at the same time they are clamouring for the products made from these materials. Most importantly, Beiser points out that the triple whammy of rapid population growth, increased urbanisation, and increased living standards has added 1.2 billion more affluent consumers since 1990, and we can expect another 3 billion in the decades ahead. This is creating a demand for resources unlike anything that has ever come before. In my eyes, too few authors seem to be willing to connect the dots and call out the rather intractable problem of overpopulation (but see Should We Control World Population? to make a start).

And, as Beiser urges the reader to realise, it’s not just sand, it’s pretty much everything (I was very pleased to see Beiser give a nod to The Elements of Power: Gadgets, Guns, and the Struggle for a Sustainable Future in the Rare Metal Age here – shortages of these rare metals is another topic that is not mentioned enough). At this rate, it is hard not to feel like we are heading for a Seneca-syle collapse (see The Seneca Effect: Why Growth is Slow but Collapse is Rapid).

Beiser offers no palliative, nor does he expect any one of us to be willing to give up our creature comforts and head back for the caves. So, he leaves us with the hard questions: how much damage are we willing to do, where and to what? The fact that we have to worry about something so mundane as sand says much about the state of the planet. Eye-opening, engaging, and urgent, this is the kind of investigative journalism that needs to be widely read.

Disclosure: The publisher provided a review copy of this book. The opinion expressed here is my own however.

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3 comments

  1. Since publication of the book, David Weintraub has been actively thinking and writing about the moral and ethical quandaries. For interested readers, he sent me the following links

    “Before We Settle on Mars, Let’s Make Sure It’s Not Already Occupied,” Zoccalo Public Square, 20 June (http://www.zocalopublicsquare.org/2018/06/20/settle-mars-lets-make-sure-not-already-occupied/ideas/essay/)

    And for readers outside of Europe (I think these links are unaccessible in Europe due to the GDPR malarkey)
    – “Is a Trip to Mars Premature?”, op-ed in Baltimore Sun, 22 June (http://www.baltimoresun.com/news/opinion/oped/bs-ed-op-0624-mars-life-20180618-story.html)
    – “We need to know if there is life on Mars before we send humans there,” op-ed in Los Angeles Times, 30 April (http://www.latimes.com/opinion/op-ed/la-oe-weintraub-life-on-mars-insight-lander-20180429-story.html).

    Like

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