Vince Beiser, Canadian-American journalist shone light on an entirely new kind of problem in a talk with Elon University communications students on Monday: the war over sand, a struggle which is happening under people’s noses all over the world.
“Sand is the most important solid substance in the world, it’s the literal foundation of modern civilization,” says Beiser, “sand is the thing our cities are made of.”
Sand, he explains, is the backbone of all products in the world; everything from the concrete in the foundation of
your home to the laptop screen you are sitting and looking at is somehow made from sand. Basically everywhere all over the world, he explained, our cities are made from sand. And everything we know is a huge pile of sand glued together by cement.
“There’s a lot of sand in the world,” says Beiser, “but, at the end
of the day, it’s a finite resource…cities are growing more than ever before because we are in the middle of an urbanization boom.”
Beiser explains that every day, 65 million people move into cities all over the world, which leads to expansion and the higher demand for the sand to build them from the ground up.
How and where do people get all this sand? Sand that builds our cities and homes comes from sand harvesting, both legal and illegal from groups in need of the material across the world. Beiser explains how large groups tap into resources all over the world to extract sand never meant for their consumption and sell them to large construction companies. For instance, he spoke of a freshwater lake in China that is the largest sand mine in the world, where boats and divers dig up tons of sand and bring it back to the land for their free usage. The same goes for a river in India he spoke more about, where divers plunge down and scoop up buckets of sand to extract.
All of this sand mining is causing problems all over the world, explains Beiser, which is why groups are getting together to protest the situation. This has started an illegal sand mining system all over the world wherein a large group of people dabble in illegal sand procuration.
“Believe it or not,” says Beiser, “there is a whole black market in sand.”
He went on to speak about secret groups who, all over the world, trespass in locations where they dig up tons of sand during the night and drive away with it in trucks, bringing it to the “hotels and cities they’re springing up right down the road.”
Beiser explained how many resources in the world are renewable and can be reused, where, after their first use, they can later be turned into something else and can serve an alternate purpose. Should this be possible for sand, he explains, it wouldn’t be outlandish to keep using it as a resource. However, oftentimes, “when you build something out of concrete,” says Beiser, “you are using that sand permanently, you’re taking it out of circulation for good.”
He explains that most buildings, when built, intend to stay there for 50 or 100 years, sometimes even more, which pulls sand out of the world for that amount of time. Not to mention what happens after buildings are torn down, wherein that sand remains cracked in a landfill
somewhere, never being able to return to its previous form.
Frankly, the way Beiser sees it is that there’s no foreseeable substitute for the resource, meaning that the world is going to have to alter the way it uses resources in order to diminish their dependence on sand.
“Sand is the most common substance in the world, but it’s going very quickly,” says Beiser, explaining that we’re going to have to alter everything we know in order to grapple with this problem.