What are we doing with sand?

Review of the World in a Grain, by Vince Beiser

During my holidays bikepacking in Belgium, I had the chance to finish reading the history and uses of sand told in the book “The World in a Grain” by Vince Beiser. It was an interesting, more than a fun read. Still, I regret that it focuses so much on US history instead of giving a slightly broader perspective on a subject that involves the whole world.

Sand is an integral part of our daily lives, from its use in concrete to glass to the silicon in electronics. However, not all sand is of the same quality, and not all sand can be used. For example, sand from the desert can’t be used in construction because of its grains' structure. Extracting sand from the bottom of rivers leads to many environmental concerns that directly affect people leaving closeby.

The book tells the story of some environmental activists subject to the violence created by the illegal extraction of sand from protected areas. Moreover, sand is drained from the ocean floor to build artificial islands, such as in Dubai, and maintain the shoreline in places like California or Miami.

Even though the book is easy to read, I felt that the author is always pushing some condescending remarks when he writes about other countries. The way he summarizes others' history and customs, especially Asian countries, gives it a snobbish sounding tone. This is only a feeling I had, but not the core message. It is very similar to how reading to Harari makes me feel.

The book uses sand as a trigger to tell other stories, such as how the highways were built in the US, or how the maintenance of civil infrastructure is organized. I regret that it does not give a broader perspective. The examples he picks from around the world are not about the evolution of sand uses, but only about contemporary stories, such as the shortage of sand in Singapore, the artificial islands in Dubai, and the violence in India.

As with many of the planet's resources, we are eventually going to run out of sand, and we don’t know what to do or how to replace its use. Sadly, the book does not explore other alternatives. It briefly mentions some recycling projects, but nothing that could be a game-changer.

Personally, the book made me think about a couple of things. In The Netherlands, where I live, the bottom of many present-day lakes was used as sources of clay for construction. That explains why some of them are so deep, considering the overall shallowness of rivers. Moreover, the shore and the dunes that keep the sea from flooding the country are heavily shaped by men's hands.

Close to Buenos Aires, where I grew up, it is very common to see ships extracting sand from the river's bottom. This is, partially, needed for keeping passages open in a very shallow waterway. It really made me wonder where does all the sand used for building infrastructure actually comes from. I bet rivers like the Paraná or Uruguay carry a massive amount of sediments, but how can those be used sustainably?

Something I missed in the book is the discussion about oil sands, which are already having a devastating effect on Canada's landscape. It also neglects to mention how recycling of glass works or if it has a sufficient impact to make it more relevant.

Sand seems like an almost trivial resource but is a fundamental part of the world we have built. No skyscrapers, cell phones, nor protection against floods can be possible without sand. Contrary to what I believed, it is a relatively scarce resource. The overexploitation is already becoming evident in many parts of the world.

The World in a Grain was a good summer read, but in the end, I think it will be an inconsequential book. Though, the author is doing a great job reporting about the violence associated with sand around the world. I do believe that work is much more relevant and eye-opening.