Built on Sand

Roman Mars:
This is 99% Invisible. I’m Roman Mars.

Roman Mars:
Today’s show is about something so tiny and unremarkable and ubiquitous. But I can’t quite believe we’re doing a whole episode about it. It’s sand. The tiny grains of eroded rock that we sculpt into castles at the beach. Sand might not seem like a topic worthy of our attention. But Vince Beiser wrote a whole book about sand. It’s called “The World in a Grain”. And I promise you it is fascinating.

Roman Mars:
Here’s my conversation with Vince all about sand and how it transformed our civilization.

Roman Mars:
When you were spending a few years on this, I imagine, and you told someone you were working on a book about sand, what was the look on their face? And how did you explain to them to make them understand how cool and important this is subject is?

Vince Beiser:
So every single time, I would get this look that was just like, “Huh?” Like, “Why am I trapped in a conversation with this person who’s so obsessed with the most boring thing on Earth?” And basically my comeback was, “Why would I write a book about what sounds like the most boring thing in the world?” And the reason is because sand is actually the most important solid substance on Earth. It’s the literal foundation of modern civilization.

Roman Mars:
Yeah. And so how do we use sand in our daily lives?

Vince Beiser:
So basically if you look around you right now, I don’t know where you are, but chances are excellent. No matter what kind of building or office or room you’re sitting in, the floor underneath you, the walls around, the ceiling overhead, the building you’re sitting in is probably made at least partly out of concrete. Just like every shopping mall, every apartment building, every office tower, everywhere in the world, from Beijing Lagos is made out of concrete.

Vince Beiser:
And what is concrete? Concrete is nothing but sand and gravel that’s been stuck together. The roads that connect all of those buildings, also made out of sand. They’re either concrete or they’re asphalt. Asphalt is also just sand that’s been glued together. The windows in every one of those buildings are made of sand. Glass is nothing but sand that’s been melted down. The silicon chips that power our computers and our cellphones, also made from sand.

Vince Beiser:
So in other words, without sand, no modern civilization. And here’s the real kicker. We are starting to run out.

Roman Mars:
How is that possible? It feels like there is so much sand in the world.

Vince Beiser:
There is a lot of sand in the world. It’s actually the most abundant thing on the planet. But we are also using way more of it than ever before in human history. We use more sand than any other natural resource in the world except for air and water. We use about 50 billion tons of the stuff every single year which is enough to cover the entire state of California.

Roman Mars:
Why don’t we just go to the Sahara and take all the sand there?

Vince Beiser:
Right. Great question. So there is of course practically infinite amounts of sand in the desert. The problem is that sand is pretty much useless to us. The reason is that desert sand has a different shape. The actual grains are shaped differently than the sand grains that you find at the bottom of rivers or on beaches. It’s been eroded by wind rather than water over thousands and millions of years. And as a result, the grains are a lot rounder and smoother than the grains that you find at the bottom of rivers.

Vince Beiser:
So the number one thing that we need sand for by far is concrete. And that desert sand just doesn’t lock together to form a strong stable structure that you need for concrete. It’s like the difference between trying to build something out of a stack of little marbles as opposed to a stack of little bricks. So all that desert sand, pretty much useless.

Roman Mars:
And so we have to get it from water-eroded sand that comes off of mountains and then accumulates in rivers and things like that? That’s the sand we need?

Vince Beiser:
Exactly. Exactly. And this is why it becomes such a problem because when you’re talking about extracting millions of tons of sand from the bottom of a lake or the bottom of a river, inevitably we are doing tremendous environmental damage to get that sand – ripping up river beds, stripping beaches bare, stripping lake bottoms bare, even digging it up out of the ocean causing huge environmental damage all over the world. And in some places, supplies have gotten so tight that organized crime has actually moved into the industry. There’s a black market in sand.

Roman Mars:
So the demand for sand is so intense that it’s actually leading to global conflict?

Vince Beiser:
It’s true. There is so much demand for sand that in many places around the world, people are being imprisoned, tortured and murdered by the hundreds over sand. And the violence is probably at its worst in India where they actually call them the sand mafia. But it’s by no means the only place. In Kenya, in Indonesia, in Gambia, in many other places around the world, same kind of thing. People are fighting and killing and dying over sand.

Roman Mars:
And you’ve actually witnessed some of this. In India, you witnessed some of the crime associated with the sand trade.

Vince Beiser:
Yeah, absolutely. This is what got me started on it. I just stumbled across an article about the murder of a farmer in India. And what really caught my eye was that he had been killed over sand. And at that point, I was like most people. I’d never even thought about sand in my life. I’d never given it a second thought beyond like, “Uh, how am I going to get this sand out of my bathing suit.”

Roman Mars:
Laughs

Vince Beiser:
But then I did a little more research and found that especially in India, hundreds of people have been murdered over sand in the last few years. And I just thought that was the craziest thing I’d ever heard. Like what in the world would make sand so valuable, so important that people would kill for it? And what I discovered was that sand is really the substance that we need to build cities out of. And in India, as in most of the developing world, right? In China, in Nigeria, in Indonesia, you name it; we’re building cities at a rate and at a speed that has never happened before in human history which means we need huge amounts of sand.

Roman Mars:
Beiser says that today massive amounts of sand are being moved around the world to fuel our growing appetite for glass and computer chips and asphalt. And over the years, sand has morphed from the literal ground beneath us into a commodity that’s mined and refined and sold in a global marketplace. And while sand is the basis of so many different products, by far the biggest driver of the demand for sand is the production of concrete.

Vince Beiser:
Yeah. The story of concrete is completely fascinating to me. I didn’t know anything about it until I started to research for this book. You make concrete by taking sand and gravel and gluing them together with cement. And you can make cement in a few different ways. But basically you take a substance like lime and you bake it down and it turns into a powder. And then when you mix that powder with water, it forms this paste that glues together all that sand and aggregate.

Vince Beiser:
But the real magic of it is it does more than just harden. It actually forms a chemical bond between all the constituent parts between the grains of sand and the gravel and the cement which is why it’s a great building material, right, because it’s really really strong. It’s really flexible.

Vince Beiser:
Anyway, so there are at least a couple three ancient civilizations that somehow figured out how to do this. The ancient Mayans used a form of concrete. Ancient Egyptians might have had a form of cement. But it was the Romans who really figured it out. And they actually used concrete in a really extensive way. They built roads out of it. They built aqueducts out of it. They built buildings out of it that are still standing today. Like Pantheon in Rome has a concrete roof that’s over 2000 years old. And it’s still standing.

Vince Beiser:
So here’s the really bizarre twist. So the Romans figured out how to use concrete, used it to great effect for centuries. But then when the Roman Empire collapsed, the world forgot how to make concrete. The secret of concrete making disappeared with the Roman Empire. And nobody built anything with concrete for about 1500 years.

Roman Mars:
Quick side note. I love this story because I feel like it’s this trope that you see on a lot of science fiction and fantasy that there’s this ancient forgotten knowledge that holds the key to the future. But the thing about that trope is that it basically never exists in the real world except for the story of concrete.

Roman Mars:
Concrete is this amazing technology that gets completely forgotten for hundreds of year until the turn of the century. And then it reemerges in a big way.

Vince Beiser:
And what really made the big change was an architect named Ernest Ransome. He was a British architect who had immigrated to the United States, set up shop in San Francisco. And he started tinkering around with cement and with concrete and figuring out different ways to perfect the mix. And eventually, literally through tinkering in his backyard, he came up with the idea of reinforced concrete which is concrete with those steel bars running through it. And that was Ernest Ransome’s great innovation.

Vince Beiser:
Basically he found it that by putting steel bars inside the concrete, the concrete would bind to those bars. And it would massively increase the tensile strength of the concrete. And he realized, “Wow. This is an incredible building material. I can build the walls and the roofs of structures with this stuff. And it’ll be cheap. And it’ll be strong. And holy smokes, this is the material of the future, ” through Ernest Ransome.

Vince Beiser:
So he ran around the country trying to sell people on this idea. And basically people laughed at him. They were just like, “Why in the world would we even try this crazy new building material. We build with stone. We build with bricks. We build with timber. These things have been tried and trusted for centuries. Why on earth would we take a chance on your wacky new idea?”

Vince Beiser:
So he literally tries for years and years to sell people on this idea. And he gets a few commissions. He manages to get a few buildings built out of concrete in a couple of different places, two or three of them in San Francisco where he lives.

Vince Beiser:
So then comes 1906, the great San Francisco earthquake. Massive earthquake, demolishes most of the city followed by an enormous fire that basically burns San Francisco to the ground. But when the smoke clears and the dust is settled, some of the very few structures left standing in San Francisco are Ernest Ransome’s reinforced concrete buildings. And that was a real turning point. People all around the country and in fact all around the world looked at that and said, “Wow. That concrete stuff, that really works. It withstood the earthquake. It withstood the fire. That stuff looks great.”

Roman Mars:
And in your book, you talk about how the new concrete industry that was developing really took advantage of these images from the San Francisco fire and the concrete warehouses that survived. There’s a way to argue that, “Hey, check out this amazing new fire-safe and earthquake-proof material.”

Vince Beiser:
Yeah, absolutely. They pushed themselves to builders, to engineers, to the general public in a really big way advertising themselves really as the material of the future. And in fact, it is. I mean concrete is an amazingly versatile and useful material. It’s very easy to work with. It’s cheap. And it’s really strong as long as you build it correctly.

Vince Beiser:
But you can see it. I mean I sort of trolled through a lot of newspapers of the time. And, I mean, it was almost like computers and digital technology in the 90s, just the way that journalists were writing about this stuff. It’s just like, “Oh amazing. Science has revolutionized our way of building. Nevermore will we have to worry about fire,” as though concrete was going to solve every problem known to man. It was really… People were just ecstatic over it.

Vince Beiser:
And in fact, Thomas Edison, he was just in love with concrete. He thought concrete was not only going to be an important building material. Basically you could build anything out of concrete. He built several completely all-concrete houses in which he furnished with concrete furniture. He even built a concrete piano that he sent touring around the country.

Roman Mars:
It does actually allow architects to be quite inventive because of its ability to be shaped in all different kinds of ways.

Vince Beiser:
Oh absolutely. Absolutely. I mean you look at things, structures like the Guggenheim or the Sydney Opera House. These incredibly fanciful and beautiful creations, you couldn’t make those things out of bricks or stone. Yeah, no, concrete has, in addition to making it easy to build really strong durable structures, it makes it possible to build some of the most beautiful and inventive structures in the world, not to mention the most useful. I mean things like these enormous dams, that’s really made possible the modern Southwest in a lot of ways.

Roman Mars:
In the Western world, we went through our phase of building a lot of concrete in the 20th century. And now there’s a huge growth in cities in Asia and Africa. So is that where a lot of the sand is going today?

Vince Beiser:
Yeah. I mean we’re still building of course in the Western world. We still use a lot of sand and a lot of concrete here. But it is absolutely dwarfed. The amounts that we use in the Western world is absolutely dwarfed by what’s going on in the developing world. And the reason for that is, number one, there’s more and more people in the world all the time, right? Population is growing. And more and more of them are removing into cities all the time.

Vince Beiser:
The same thing that happened in this country 100 years ago. People left the agricultural countryside. They left farming villages and moved into cities. Well the same thing is happening in India, in China, all over Africa, but on a much bigger scale and in a much faster rate, in a much more compressed timeframe. So to give you an idea, we’re adding the equivalent of eight New York cities to the world every single year.

Roman Mars:
Wow.

Vince Beiser:
Yeah. Here’s another way to think about it. The amount of concrete that we use every single year is enough to build a wall 88 feet high, 88 feed wide right around the equator every year. And most of that is happening in the developing world. And more than anywhere else, it’s happening in China. China is by far in a way the world’s number one consumer of sand and of concrete. Hundreds of million of people in China have moved from the countryside into cities in the last decade or two. And remember, of course, cities are made of concrete.

Roman Mars:
And so where is China’s sand coming from?

Vince Beiser:
Yeah. So the thing with sand is you always want to get it from somewhere close to where you’re going to actually use it because sand is very heavy. A cubic yard of sand weighs more than a ton. So if you have to transport it more than a few miles, the cost of it goes up very quickly. So basically builders in China and everywhere else are always looking for sand that’s close by.

Vince Beiser:
So think about Shanghai, for example. Shanghai is one of these cities that has just exploded in the last 20 years. More skyscrapers have been built in Shanghai in the last 20 years than there are in all of New York City. So obviously they are using just a staggering amount of sand. Where is it all coming from? Well in the early part of this century, they were getting most of it from the Yangtze River. They were just scooping it right off the bottom of the Yangtze River.

Vince Beiser:
And that caused a lot of problems. Number one, it was causing the riverbanks to literally collapse, right? When you dig out the middle of the river, the sides of that river often just collapsed taking with it agricultural land, villages. It snarls up shipping in a really terrible way. And it also does serious damage to the river’s ecosystem, right, because anything that was living on the bottom of the river obviously is gone. Their habitat has just been destroyed.

Vince Beiser:
And also, when you silt up the water like that, it blocks the sunlight from reaching the plants that are growing underneath the water so huge, huge damage. Then the Chinese authorities realized this. They were like, “Whoa, this is a serious problem for the Yangtze River which is an incredibly important resource for China. It’s the source of drinking water for hundreds and millions of people, fish, etc. etc. So they had to ban sand-mining on the Yangtze River.

Vince Beiser:
As result, sand miners just pushed their operations a few dozen miles upstream to the biggest freshwater lake in China. It’s called Lake Poyang. So Lake Poyang has now become the biggest sand mine in the world. It’s about 230 odd million tons of sand are scooped out of this lake every year. And that now of course is starting to generate its own set of environmental problems. It’s causing real damage to the many, many fish and birds that live there including endangered species like Freshwater Porpoises.

Vince Beiser:
So basically where does China get its sand from? It gets it from wherever is handy. And when you put that much pressure on whatever river or lake or whatever is handy, it causes problems inevitably.

Roman Mars:
Yeah. I mean is this a race to the bottom? Or are we just going to run out of sand?

Vince Beiser:
So we’re not going to completely run out of sand anytime in the foreseeable future. We’re not going to be fighting over the very last little pile of the last few grains on Earth. But what’s happening with sand is much more like what’s happening with oil and gas, right? There’s still a lot of it on the planet. But the stuff that’s easy to get out has been mostly tapped out. The stuff that’s close to the surface and cheap and easy to get our hands on is increasingly disappearing. And we’re having to go further and further and do more and more damage to get out the stuff that’s left.

Vince Beiser:
So the same thing that you see happening with oil where we’re having to do things like fracking and offshore oil drilling to get out the oil that’s left, a similar kind of thing is happening with sand. We’re having to dig deeper and deeper and do more and more damage to get out the dwindling supplies of sand.

Roman Mars:
Beyond the damage that you can inflict on the land by mining the sand, what is the cost of concrete to the planet?

Vince Beiser:
Yeah. So concrete has some very significant costs. Number one is carbon emissions. So manufacturing cement is, depending on how you measure it, either the second or the third biggest carbon dioxide emitter, greenhouse gas emitter on the planet. The energy that’s required, it takes a lot of energy to incinerate all the lime that you need to make cement, number one. And also the process itself gives off a lot of gases. So it creates somewhere in the neighborhood of 10% of all greenhouse gases are created by the cement industry. And of course you need cement to make concrete. So that’s number one.

Vince Beiser:
Number two is that by covering so much ground with concrete, you create in a lot of places what’s called the urban heat island effect. The sun’s heat gets soaked up and held by all that concrete. The temperature of cities can be raised by as much as 10 or 15 degrees just due to the fact that the concrete is retaining all of that heat. And that’s obviously a big problem in a world that’s getting hotter all the time.

Vince Beiser:
There’s another impact that it can have which is that it can make flooding worse because for the most part, concrete is not porous, right? Water flows over it. So for instance what happened in the last set of floods in Houston is it made those floods worse because when those rivers overflow their banks, all that water goes pouring into cities. And it has nowhere to go. It just flows through the concrete streets of the cities. So it can really exacerbate flooding in a really serious way.

Roman Mars:
Do we need to build with this much concrete as we do?

Vince Beiser:
No, in a nutshell. I mean listen, we need concrete, right? It’s not analogous to oil, right, which is something that we can actually replace with something cleaner and more sustainable with solar and wind. Concrete is a great building material. It has created safe, durable housing for billions of people the world over who didn’t have it 20 or 30 years ago. That’s to the good.

Vince Beiser:
So we need concrete. We got to keep using it. But yeah, we could use a lot less of it. How could we do that? Well, first of all by figuring out ways to restructure how we live so that we don’t need quite as much infrastructure, cars being the most obvious example. But also just by making things smaller. I mean I just got back. I was just giving some talks about my book in the Netherlands. And the size of the hotel rooms that I stayed in would shock any hotel-staying American. I mean they are tiny. There’s room for a bed – a single bed – and a little desk and a window and a little sink. And that’s it, right?

Vince Beiser:
I mean we could literally fit two or three of these rooms in the average motel six room. It’s shocking when you first walk into a room that size. But really, who cares? I was in most of these towns for one night. I’d go in. I’d do a little work on my computer. Go to sleep. Get up. Pack up and leave. I didn’t need more than that amount of space. If you think about all the millions of hotel and motel rooms in this country, we could easily cut many of them in half. Or houses, I mean Americans famously, we build giant houses. We love to have big huge sprawling tract houses. And the size of the average American home by the way has nearly doubled just in the last couple of decades. We don’t need that much space. You don’t need six bathrooms in your house. We could easily… You know? Really. We could easily cut down, create a system of extra taxes or tax incentives or whatever to encourage to live smaller. And I submit we would be no less happy living that way.

Roman Mars:
Right. Are there other materials we could be using?

Vince Beiser:
Yeah. So that’s the other thing. There is a lot of research going on around the world to come up with other materials that we could use in concrete rather than sand. So there are people who are looking at using bamboo or shredded plastic or recycled tires, shredded tires, or hemp. Actually there’s a product called Hempcrete which you can actually buy right now. And all those things I think help. I think they’re all to the good. I think they should all be encouraged.

Vince Beiser:
But at the end of the day, there’s only so far we can go with alternative materials because like I said we use 50 billion tons of sand and gravel every year. And even if we could replace all that sand with bamboo, where are we going to come up with 50 billion tons of bamboo every year, right? That would create its own set of problems.

Roman Mars:
Right. Right.

Vince Beiser:
I mean I think the real way to think about the sand crisis is to reframe the question. The question isn’t really what’s going to happen when we run out of sand. The question is what’s going to happen when we run out of everything. We shouldn’t just be thinking about it like, “How can we solve the problem of sand?” Because really it sounds familiar, right? We know that we’re using too much freshwater. We know that we’re cutting down too many trees. We know we’re harvesting too many fish out of the oceans. We know we’re burning too much fossil fuel. And now come to find out we’re using too much sand.

Vince Beiser:
Well to my mind, these are not separate problems. They’re all symptoms of the same problem which is that we’re consuming too much, right? The way that we live here in the Western World and that lifestyle that we’ve now exported to the rest of the world, it just consumes way too many natural resources. And the planet simply can’t sustain it.

Vince Beiser:
Now I think we’re going to hit that wall with water sooner than we’re going to hit it with sand. But ultimately, it’s the same problem which is just that the way that we live our lives just isn’t sustainable. We have got to find ways to build our cities, which is where most human beings now live, in ways that use fewer resources. That’s the only way we’re going to avoid total calamity.

Roman Mars:
Vince Beiser’s book is called “The World in a Grain”. There is so much more to this story of sand that we didn’t even touch on here including how glass changed civilization. That’s a big deal. So if you liked this discussion, you’ll love the book.

Comments (6)

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  1. Justin

    While you were discussing rebar and Ernest Ransome I was waiting for the callback to episode 81.

  2. Ari

    I noticed that a lot of this episode was dedicated to pointing out the problems that other countries have, while precisely skirting around talking about American consumption. There was some discussion, but the discussion included many positive qualities, a trait that the other countries weren’t afforded. I personally will find myself frustrated in many episodes with the way that 99 Percent Invisible will handle discussion of other countries. There is a lot of positive representation in a lot of episodes as well, and that’s really important, and it’s appreciated. However, when 99 Percent Invisible does not directly address issues that the USA has, ones that seriously impact the story that 99PI is telling, the show feels flat, shady, and Ameri-centric. That isn’t an additude that should be passively accepted/moderately adopted.

  3. Coorhagon

    Why dont Sand Miners get their sand from the ocean floor? Of course you would have to find a good balance where it is far ebough offshore but not too deep so that the soil isnt sand anymore. Also you would need to find a spot with not alot of endangered sea life. But based on the amount of sand needed the ocean would be a great source, also with rising sea levels it may help mitigate that problem by lowering sea levels by taken out all that sand.

  4. There is also an developing movement aimed at a fundamental re-imagining earthen based construction material as a basic multi-dimensional (structural, thermal resilience, IAQ) low-carbon material.

  5. Joseph

    Loved this episode!

    Only issue I had is when he talked about Americans would be happier with less. I like my house, and worked very hard to achieve it.

    Otherwise, I really love the show.

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