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The Story Of Sand In 'The World In A Grain'


Sand. It's everywhere, even in places you don't expect.

VINCE BEISER: Windows, silicon chips, the silicone elastic band in your underwear, wine refining, concrete. Every concrete building that you see anywhere in the world - shopping malls, office towers, apartment blocks - is made out of concrete. And concrete is basically just sand and gravel that's been stuck together with cement.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: But sand is actually running out. Author and journalist Vince Beiser writes about this in his new book, "The World In A Grain." And he joins us from NPR West. Welcome to the program.

BEISER: Thanks. It's great to be here.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: I want to start with the obvious. How are we running out of sand? It would seem to be an infinite resource.

BEISER: It would seem. Well, in fact, there is an awful lot of sand in the world. It's, in fact, the most abundant thing on the planet. But at the end of the day, there's only so much of it like anything else in the world. And how we can be running out of it is it's also the resource that we consume more of than anything else except for air and water. So you put it all together, especially concrete, and we are using 50 billion tons of sand every year. That's enough sand to cover the entire state of California.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Wow. And there are different types of sand, though. You point out in your book sand in water is more important for industrial use than desert sand.

BEISER: Yeah. One of the great ironies of the whole issue is desert sand, which, you know, we have so much of, is basically useless. And the reason for that is the No. 1 thing that we use sand for is making concrete. And desert sand is too round to work in concrete. Desert sand has been worn down through thousands of years of erosion by wind tumbling and tumbling it and tumbling it. So the grains - the actual grains themselves end up kind of rounded with their edges and corners broken off, whereas sand that you find in riverbeds and on beaches and at the bottom of the ocean is more angular. So it locks together much better to form concrete.

It's like the difference between - if you imagine trying to build something out of a stack of marbles, as opposed to trying to build something out of a stack of little, tiny bricks.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So there's a lot that we should really know about sand and don't. You have a lot of sand facts in this book. So give us a rundown of what we need to know to understand where we're at with this resource.

BEISER: So I think the most important thing to know is that, even though nobody ever thinks about sand, it's the most overlooked, most taken-for-granted thing in the world. It's actually the most important solid substance in the world because without sand, we have no modern civilization. And there's so much demand for sand right now. Cities are growing so fast. And, in some places, the demand has gotten so extreme that organized crime has actually gotten into the business. Believe it or not, hundreds of people have actually been murdered over sand in the last few years.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: This has enormous, also, geopolitical implications. China is using sand to make man-made islands in the South China Sea. As you point out, that that area is home to 10 percent of the world's fish, oil deposits, natural gas. So if they have more territory, they can claim more of those resources. How is that playing out?

BEISER: In a nutshell, you can use sand to build artificial land. And this has become much easier and much cheaper as technology has advanced in the last 10, 20 years. And China is really at the forefront of this. They've built up the world's biggest dredging fleet, which means they can haul up more sand from the bottom of the ocean to build artificial land than any other nation on earth. Well, what China has done is they took control of a bunch of little rocks and reefs called the Spratly Islands, which were literally just some rocks until about 10 years ago when they put these dredges to work and just built islands, full-scale islands, on top of these rocks, islands that are big enough for military ships to dock in, for soldiers to be stationed on. It means countries can literally change their borders. They can change the shape of their coastlines.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Let's look at Florida. You discuss what sand extraction is doing there.

BEISER: So what I wrote about in the book about Florida is another crazy angle to the whole disappearing sand business, which is this. A lot of our beaches all over the world are disappearing. Now, the problem is all beaches are constantly eroding, right? Wind and waves are constantly pushing sand grains off into the ocean. Now, in the normal course of things, that sand gets replenished in two ways. One is that currents, ocean currents, bring new sand from other places and wash it up on the beach. Number two is that rivers bring more sand to the beach.

Well, human beings are blocking both of those processes. On rivers, we've built so many dams that the flow of sand has really been cut off. And along the coast, we've built so many marinas and jetties and built up just so much stuff that it blocks the flow of sand. So the result is natural erosion continues. Natural replenishment does not. And so those beaches are literally disappearing.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: And so what does this mean when we talk about running out of sand? What does that look like? Does it mean that sand just becomes more valuable, and, therefore, you have to charge more for it? What does the future look like?

BEISER: Yeah. I mean, it's not that we're going to suddenly run out of sand, right? There's not going to be, like, you know, gangs of biker mutants like in "The Road Warrior" fighting for the last, you know, few grains of sand. There's a lot of sand. But the problem is it's getting harder and harder to get it. We're having to go further to get it and do more damage to get it. It's similar in some ways to what's happening with oil and gas, right? There's still plenty of oil and gas in the world, but the stuff that's the easiest and cheapest to get is pretty much tapped out. So all that, A, bad for the environment; B, drives up the price of sand. The price of sand is actually - in the United States, the price of sand has actually quintupled in about the last 30 years.

And that is almost certainly one of the reasons that housing prices keep going up - because, again, sand is one of the main components that buildings are made out of. So if that continues, prices - the prices of basically everything, all of the sort of most basic aspects of life are going to go up and might go up fast.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So what is the solution when we rely on sand for so much?

BEISER: Here in the United States and in most of the developing world, we don't have - sand mining does some damage to the environment, for sure. But it's not nearly as bad as it is in much of the developing world. Why? Because we have a pretty good system of rules and regulations and good enforcement of those rules. In a lot of places around the world, places like India, Indonesia, et cetera, they either don't have those laws, or those laws are just ignored because there's so much corruption in the system. There's also - technology can help out in some ways. Like, for instance, there's folks working on new types of concrete that use less sand or that replace sand with things like shredded plastic or bamboo.

But at the end of the day, we can't think about just sand in isolation. We have to look at sand as just one of many natural resources that we're overconsuming, that we're just using up way too much of, right? But the planet literally just doesn't have enough stuff. So the only real long-term solution is we all have to find a way to live smaller, to consume less, to come up with a lifestyle that's sustainable for 7 billion people.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Vince Beiser wrote the new book "The World In A Grain." Thank you so much for joining us.

BEISER: Thanks for having me.

(SOUNDBITE OF FLOAT 11'S "REMIND ME") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.