Oil and other non-renewable fossil fuels (coal, natural gas) are the lifeblood of industrial civilization, providing more than 80% of our commercial energy supplies to run power plants and motor vehicles, among myriad other devices. Soil nourishes crops (our food supplies), trees, and other vital plant life with nutrients and water, as well as providing a firm substrate in which roots can anchor. And humans can’t survive more than a few days without water; indeed 60% of our bodies consist of it.
But other crucial resources are entirely taken for granted and overlooked, although we are surrounded by them or enveloped in them. Like air – try surviving for just five minutes without it. With every breath we take, we humans betray how utterly dependent we are upon our environmental milieu and its endowment of natural resources.
Or take sand. Bland, simple sand. We consume more of it than any resource except air or water. And while we could survive more than five minutes or five days without sand, modern civilization couldn’t cope for five months without it.
Award-winning, Los Angeles-based journalist Vince Beiser has penned a paean to sand, a fascinating natural and human history of this incredible, ignored ingredient, The World in a Grain of Sand: The Story of Sand and How It Transformed Civilization. Published in 2018, this book tells the compelling story of the most important overlooked raw material in the world today – ordinary sand – and the critical role it plays in our modern lives.
Beiser underscores that, however vast supplies of sand may appear to the untrained eye, they are not inexhaustible, and growing human demands are raising the specter of scarcity and conflict:
The supply of sand that can be mined sustainably is finite. But the demand for it is not. Every day the world’s population is growing. More and more people…want decent housing to live in, offices and factories to work in, malls to shop in, and roads to connect them. Economic development as it has historically been understood requires concrete and glass. It requires sand.
The main ingredient of sand is the mineral silicon dioxide (SiO2), also called silica. Silicon is the second most abundant element in the Earth’s crust (28%), after oxygen (47%). So the two elements that comprise the mineral that comprises sand are the two most common ones in the solid ground beneath our feet.
Here is how Beiser evokes the marvel and the paradox of sand:
It’s the humblest of materials, something that seems as trivial as it is ubiquitous.
But sand is the main material that modern cities are made of. It is to cities what flour is to bread, what cells are to our bodies: the invisible but fundamental ingredient that makes up the bulk of the built environment in which most of us live.
Sand is at the core of our daily lives. Look around you right now. Is there a floor beneath you, walls around, a roof overhead? Chances are excellent they are made at least partly out of concrete. And what is concrete? It’s essentially just sand and gravel glued together with cement.
Beiser’s evocative description of the utter dependence of contemporary civilization upon unassuming, inert sand is reminiscent of the late geologist Walter L. Youngquist’s 1997 book Geodestinies: The Inevitable Control of Earth Resources over Nations and Individuals. In the first chapter of that book, “Minerals Move Civilization,” Youngquist wrote:
The highways on which civilization moves in a very literal sense are made either of concrete (limestone and sand and gravel with some gypsum and clay) or asphalt (from an oil well) with crushed rocks mixed in for durability. An average asphalt road is about ten percent tar. Without the tar it would just be a gravel road. But even the gravel road is made from minerals.
Like Beiser’s specific concern about rising pressures on limited sand supplies, Professor Youngquist was very concerned about the increasing, unsustainable demand growing human populations in the United States and elsewhere are placing on finite stocks of all non-renewable natural resources.
Beiser informs us that round sand grains shaped by wind in the world’s expansive deserts are not suitable for making concrete. This leaves the more angular sands on beaches and riverbeds, which are being “stripped bare of their precious grains. Farmlands and forests are being torn up. And people are being imprisoned, tortured, and murdered. All over sand.”
Humans are now consuming an estimated 50 billion tons of sand and gravel annually, enough to cover the entire state of California and twice as much as we were using just a decade ago. (A doubling time of one decade implies an average annual rate of increase of seven percent, completely unsustainable, exponential rate of increase.)
Beiser reports that in overpopulated India, “sand mafias” are mining sand illegally to support the country’s building boom, and ruthlessly killing those who stand in their way.
In the U.S., shortages of sand are also a huge issue for some beaches, like those of Southern California, which are being “starved” of the very substance that lends them their iconic character, coveted by shorebirds, surfers, and beach bums alike. When sources of sand dwindle, beaches become narrower, steeper, and less attractive.
The Scripps Institution of Oceanography reports that: “human population growth has led to urban sprawl, hardened watersheds, and damming of rivers. The result is sand-starved beaches.”
The population of L.A. increased 45% from 1970 to 1990 and the area of developed land grew even faster. San Diego County's population has increased five-fold since 1950 while Orange and Riverside counties grew 10-fold. Almost all of Southern California’s net population growth in recent decades is due to immigration.
At one time, up to 90% of the natural sand supply for California beaches was deposited there by rivers and streams. Now those sources have been stopped. The impervious surfaces of streets, parking lots, and other hard structures decrease the amount of sediments created by precipitation and runoff. Urban drainage systems are designed to control runoff and minimize flooding; they inadvertently prevent the transport of sediment and pollutants to waterways and eventually to the ocean.
Dams as well as urbanization have altered natural watersheds. More than 480 dams have been constructed in California watersheds draining to the Pacific Ocean. These dams capture sediments and sand that would once have been transported to California’s beautiful sandy beaches.
In conclusion, as Beiser writes in a recent article in Foreign Policy, overpopulation and exponentially rising demand for sand as a building material ensure that battles taking place even now over mining sand in India are just the beginning of “the coming sand wars.”
Updated: Fri, Oct 11th 2019 @ 9:11am EDT