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How sand transformed civilization

How sand transformed civilization

Preface. No wonder we’re reaching peak sand. We use more of this natural resource than of any other except water. Civilization consumes nearly 50 billion tons of sand & gravel a year, enough to build a concrete wall 88 feet (27 m) high and 88 feet wide right around the equator.    

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Vince Beiser. 2018. The World in a Grain. The Story of Sand and How It Transformed Civilization. Riverhead Books.

Riverbeds and beaches around the world 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.

In 1950, some 746 million people—less than one-third of the world’s population—lived in cities. Today, the number is almost 4 billion,

The overwhelming bulk of it goes to make concrete, by far the world’s most important building material. In a typical year, according to the United Nations Environment Programme, the world uses enough concrete to build a wall 88 feet high and 88 feet wide right around the equator.    

There is such intense need for certain types of construction sand that places like Dubai, which sits on the edge of an enormous desert in the Arabian Peninsula, are importing sand from Australia.

Sand mining tears up wildlife habitat, fouls rivers, and destroys farmland.

Thieves in Jamaica made off with 1,300 feet of white sand from one of the island’s finest beaches in 2008. Smaller-scale beach-sand looting is ongoing in Morocco, Algeria, Russia, and many other places around the world.

The damage being done to beaches is only one facet, and not even the most dangerous one, of the damage being done by sand mining around the world. Sand miners have completely obliterated at least two dozen Indonesian islands since 2005. Hauled off boatload by boatload, the sediment forming those islands ended up mostly in Singapore, which needs titanic amounts of sand to continue its program of artificially adding territory by reclaiming land from the sea.

…click on the above link to read the rest of the article…

Peak Sand

Peak Sand

Preface.  Sand Primer:

  • Without sand, there would be no concrete, ceramics, computer chips, glass, plastics, abrasives, paint and so on
  • We can’t use desert sand because it’s too round, polished by the wind, and doesn’t stick together. You need rough edges, so desert sand is worthless
  • Good sand  is getting so rare there’s an enormous amount of illegal mining in over 70 countries.  In India the Sand Mafia is one of the most powerful, will kill for sand. It’s easy to steal sand and sell there.
  • This has led to between 75%-90% of beaches in the world receding and a huge amount of environmental damage.
  • By 2100 all beaches will be gone
  • Australia is selling sand to nations that don’t have any more (like the United Arab Emirates, who used all of their ocean sand to make artificial islands)
  • Sand is a big business, sales are $70 Billion a year
  • concrete is 40% sand

How Much Sand is needed?

  • 200 tons  Average house
  • 3,000 tons  Hospital or other large building
  • 30,000 tons per kilometer of highway
  • 12,000,000 tons  Nuclear Power Plant (that’s equal to nearly 250 miles of highway)

Half of all sand is trapped behind the 845,000 dams in the world.


Fountain, H., et al 2019. Melting Greenland Is Awash in Sand. New York Times.

Glaciers grind rocks into silt, sand and gravel.  Greenland hopes that there’s enough sand for them to become a sand exporter, if the environmental damage isn’t too high.

That won’t be easy.  Nearly all sand is mined within 50 miles of its destination because it costs too much to move it more than that.  So Greenland would have to find a way to make moving sand profitable.

A way to find the sand is required as well, since much of what the glacier produces is a fine silt that isn’t suitable for concrete.

…click on the above link to read the rest of the article…

Science magazine on Peak Sand 2017 and 2018

Science magazine on Peak Sand 2017 and 2018

[ Sand is essential to make concrete, glass, silicon for computer chips, and many other products (longer list in Peak Sand), so no wonder top journal “Science” has had two articles on this topic.

Sand mining also ruins ecosystems, lessens biodiversity, impairs water and food security, makes storm surges and tsunamis more destructive, ruins drinking water with salty water, and salinization of cultivated land reduces and even prevents land from being farmed.

In India, illegally mining sand has become very lucrative and the “Sand Mafia” in India has become one of the most powerful and violent organized crime groups. They’ve killed hundreds of people so far in “sand wars”.  As a consequence of sand mining, death stalks people in other ways; standing-water pools created by extraction have increased the prevalence of malaria and other diseases.

These two articles have been shortened.

Larson, C. 2018. Asia’s hunger for sand takes toll on ecology. Science 359: 964-965.

Across Asia, rampant extraction of sand for construction is eroding coastlines and scouring waterways.

Already, scientists have linked poorly regulated and often illegal sand removal to declines in seagrasses in Indonesia and in species such as the Ganges River dolphin and terrapins in India and Malaysia. In eastern China’s Poyang Lake, dredging boats are sucking up tens of millions of tons of sand a year, altering the hydrology of the country’s largest freshwater lake, a way station for migratory birds.

Used to make concrete and glass, sand is an essential ingredient of nearly every modern highway, airport, dam, windowpane, and solar panel. Although desert sand is plentiful, its wind-tumbled particles are too smooth—and therefore not cohesive enough—for construction material. Instead, builders prize sand from quarries, coastlines, and riverbeds.

 …click on the above link to read the rest of the article…

Olduvai IV: Courage
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Olduvai II: Exodus
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