Tuesday, August 7, 2018

Running Out of Sand . . . and Time

What crosses the minds of movie lovers when they think about sand? I’m betting they first recall a scene from Lawrence of Arabia: that mesmerizing view of Omar Sharif, on camelback and wearing full Arab regalia, slowly materializing out of a distant mirage and crossing the Sahara to protect his precious well. Then there are the Mad Max films, in which a sandy post-apocalyptic landscape is filled with blood, guts, and the roar of motorcycles. Art film enthusiasts may remember Teshigahara’s haunting Woman in the Dunes: a schoolteacher collecting insects in coastal dunes misses his bus home and ends up spending the night in the house of a local widow. She lives at the bottom of a sand quarry, and in the morning he discovers he cannot leave. (Naturally, existential dread ensues.)  A more cheerful view of sand shows up in those 1960s beach party movies, where pretty girls wear bikinis and Annette Funicello cavorts with Frankie Avalon.

But Vince Beiser’s view of sand is a great deal more nuanced. Vince is an L.A.-based investigative journalist interested in social justice, technology, and all things environmental. I first became aware of him when I was selecting a panel of award-winners for a conference of the American Society of Journalists and Authors. Vince had published, in Wired, a fascinating article called “The Deadly Global War for Sand.” It detailed a murder that took place in 2013 in a rural Indian village. The killers were part of a criminal gang. The victim had repeatedly gone to the authorities, trying to stop the thugs from illegally mining a valuable local resource: sand. “That’s right,” noted Vince in his article, “Paleram Chauhan was killed over sand. And he wasn’t the first, or the last.”

Vince’s investigations in India, which included a moment when his own life was in danger, have now led to a major new book, due out today, titled The World in a Grain: The Story of Sand and How It Transformed Civilization. Here’s how he introduces his subject: Except for water and air, sand is the natural resource that we consume more than any other—more than oil, more than rice. Every concrete building and paved road on Earth, every window, computer screen and silicon chip, is made from sand. It's the ingredient that makes possible our cities, our science, our lives—and our future.

And, incredibly, we’re running out of it.

Who knew? But by the time I’d finished Vince’s book I was a great deal more knowledgeable about what he calls “the most important solid substance on earth.” Sand (as a key ingredient in concrete, for instance)  has been essential in the building of our buildings and the paving of our roads. For Southern Californians, it’s not just something that pours out of our shoes after a beach trip. No—it’s helped to create our skyscrapers, our freeways, our picture-windows, our swimming pools, and our sunglasses. And, of course, our computers.  But not every kind of sand will suit every purpose. Sand’s purity, and the size and strength of its grains, make all the difference. That’s why sand thieves are at work across the globe, stealing primo-quality sand for high-rises in Singapore, pristine beaches in Florida enclaves, and whole man-made luxury islands in the Persian Gulf. Take the 120 million cubic meters of sand that have been piled up to create Dubai’s Palm Jumeirah, a zillionaire’s oceanic hideaway.

 It’s an intensely dramatic story, and Vince’s taut prose mines it for all it’s worth. In the process, he convinces the reader that something must be done before we come up empty. 



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