Our world is built on a foundation of sand, and believe it or not, it’s running out.
Little known fact: Practically every skyscraper in every one of the world’s cities is essentially made of sand. As are nearly all shopping malls, condo complexes, office towers, parking garages, airport terminals, dams and other large structures. America builds with concrete — gabillions of tons of it — and concrete is nothing but sand mixed with a bit of gravel and water, then bound together with cement and a few other ingredients, and allowed to harden.
In addition, every glass window in those structures is made of melted sand. Then there’s the network of transportation routes we navigate to reach each of those buildings — millions of miles of highways, tunnels, streets, subways, sidewalks, and airport runways — all mostly made of concrete or asphalt — all comprised mostly of sand.
As evermore people migrate to cities, sand follows to accommodate them. Mountains of sand are poured into constructing new homes. “A typical American house requires more than a hundred tons of sand, gravel, and crushed stone… and more than 200 tons if you include its share of the street that runs in front of it,” David Owen reported this May in The New Yorker magazine.
Two other huge sand hogs are devouring ever-increasing volumes of this resource: Beach restoration and Big Oil fracking.
We humans are extracting an unbelievable amount of these tiny grains of rock to construct our modern life, using more sand today than any other natural resource besides water. Another little-known fact: The world is starting to run out of usable sand.
“Huh?” you might ask in disbelief. The planet has vast deserts that are spreading at alarming rates, and the climate-change forecasts say more and quicker desertification is coming at us. But the key adjective is “usable,” and desert sand grains are too small and rounded to make concrete or asphalt. And while nature does constantly create more sand, it can’t create nearly enough at a rate fast enough to keep up with the rapacious extraction by industries, governments and our world’s teeming population.
The rush to grab every last speck of sand on the planet is no day at the beach. Many billions of dollars are at stake, so the journey from nature to concrete draws many thousands of players vying for a cut of the profits. While many sand peddlers make some effort to minimize the damages, many more don’t care what their plundering is doing to the Earth and its inhabitants.
Thus, whether the operators are corporate elites or black-market gangs, much of the global sand trade is corrupt and barely monitored by officials. So, the humble commodity itself is being ripped from Mother Earth.
No nation is immune from this pandemic of madness:
- Farmers in Minnesota and Wisconsin are blaming the recent boom of sand mining throughout their area for polluting their water and air.
- In the Indian state of Kerala, the Manimala River has flowed for centuries over natural sand beds, serving the people there as a permanent aquifer. Since 2002, however, this natural deposit has been scooped out. Along the river’s route, several major bridges faced collapse, because the loss of sand had weakened their foundations. And with the sand gone, their river is now barely a trickle.
- In India, Cambodia, Indonesia, Kenya and elsewhere, environmental activists, journalists and defiant locals have been imprisoned and even murdered for standing in the way of the piles of “dirty money” being exchanged these days in the dark business of extracting innumerable tons of tiny rock specks.
Common, seemingly-abundant sand is not something that politicians, media or even the major environmental organizations have thought much about. Yet, there is an urgent need for us to pay attention, for sand is an invaluable, finite and fast-disappearing natural resource — one that is essential as a balancing force in Earth’s intricate ecology and as a building block for all of humanity.
At the very least, we can no longer afford to allow the world’s elites and profiteers to keep plundering this special gift from nature only to hoard it in their exclusive sandboxes. As Vince Beiser wrote last year in a New York Times op-ed, just as the world has been learning to “conserve, reuse, find alternatives for, and generally get smarter about how we use [other] natural resources… that’s how we need to start thinking about sand.”