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Good Reads  History & Other Humanities  Environmental History

The World in a Grain The Story of Sand and How It Transformed Civilization

By: Vince Beiser(Author)
294 pages, no illustrations
Publisher: Riverhead Books
Without resorting to alarmism, The World in a Grain is a brutal reportage highlighting an incipient resource crisis that beggars belief: we are running out of sand?!
The World in a Grain
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  • The World in a Grain ISBN: 9780399576423 Hardback Aug 2018 Not in stock: Usually dispatched within 2-3 weeks
  • The World in a Grain ISBN: 9780399576447 Paperback Aug 2019 Availability uncertain: order now to get this when available
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About this book

Except for water and air, sand is the natural resource that we consume more than any other-more than oil, more than natural gas. Every concrete building and paved road on Earth, every computer screen and silicon chip, exists because of sand. From Egypt's pyramids to the Hubble telescope, from the world's tallest skyscraper to the sidewalk below it, from Chartres' stained-glass windows to Chihuly sculptures to your iPhone, sand shelters us, empowers us, engages us, and inspires us. It's the ingredient that makes possible our cities, our science, our lives-and our future.

And we're running out of it.

The World in a Grain is the compelling true story of the hugely important and diminishing natural resource that grows more important every day, and some of the people who use it, sell it, recycle it, and destroy it. It's also a provocative examination of the serious human and environmental costs surrounding sand and the profound global significance, which has received little public attention. Award-winning journalist Vince Beiser delves deep into this world, explaining why sand is so crucial to modern life. Along the way, readers encounter sand pirates, become aware of child sand miners, and learn that not all sand is created equal: Some of the easiest sand to get to is the least useful. The result is an entertaining and eye-opening work, one that is both unexpected and involving, full of fascinating detail and populated by surprising people.

Customer Reviews (1)

  • A hard-hitting reportage
    By Leon (NHBS Catalogue Editor) 22 Nov 2018 Written for Hardback

    Human civilisation is hungry for many resources, and I feel that there is a general awareness that we are taking more than the planet can provide. Deforestation, overfishing, fossil fuel exploitation – I’d like to think these are all familiar concepts. But who knew that we have a sand crisis looming in our near future? Journalist Vince Beiser has written a hard-hitting reportage that convinces that, despite its ubiquity, even humble grains of sand are a finite resource.

    The first part of the book is a short history of science and modern civilisation. Beiser discusses the building of vast road networks (e.g. the US interstate highway system) and takes a trip down the history of science, where lenses in microscopes and telescopes revealed worlds until then unseen, ushering in scientific revolutions (see The Glass Bathyscaphe). The components in computers and high-tech gadgets require ultra-pure sand, while fracking requires a different kind of sand that is blasted into underground shale beds. And sand makes land. From tourist beaches and the hallucinogenic artificial islands that Dubai is creating for the super rich, to the geopolitical muscle flexing of China in the South China Sea where it is installing military bases on its new land. All of the above is completely dependent on sand.

    One of the take-home lessons is that not all sand is created equally. Grain size and smoothness are but two factors indicating you can’t just use any sand for any application. Where does all this sand come from? Well, pretty much everywhere! Open pit-mining, hilltop removal, river dredging, digging up of beaches, and the hovering up of enormous quantities of sand just offshore: sand mining is a vast, sprawling industry. And, as Beiser reveals, it is also poorly regulated in many places. Corruption and environmental degradation go hand-in-hand. There are fortunes to be made here, and there is a veritable black market in sand, ruled over by its own sand mafia who do not shy away from (lethal) violence towards anyone foolhardy enough to stand in their way.

    I have so far left the biggest culprit of all unmentioned: concrete. Primarily a mixture of sand and gravel, the concrete industry is the largest consumer of sand in this story. And we have to be honest, concrete is a wonderful construction material: strong, fire-proof, endlessly adaptable (there are thousands of recipes available for all sorts of specific purposes), and easily poured into all sorts of shapes… its benefits are plenty (see also Concrete Planet).

    Beiser starts his book off with concrete and returns to it by the end of the book after the above-mentioned tour. If, by then, you weren’t already sufficiently stunned by our demand for sand and the incredible impact of this extractive industry, the book turns into a brutal, pummelling read. There is no need for Beiser to be alarmist as the numbers themselves are staggering enough. Many formerly developing countries have gone through their own industrial-revolution-on-steroids growth spurts and have caught up with Europe and the US in a matter of decades. This means billions more consumers are in need of infrastructure (roads, houses, skyscrapers, factories, etc.) that all need sand. Vast quantities of it. Beiser quotes estimates of a global annual consumption of 50 billion tons of sand, double (yes, double!) of what it was just ten years ago.

    One of the most worrying aspects is that this has happened so quickly that we have yet to come to terms with the lifecycle of concrete. Nothing lasts forever. Most concrete structures have a life-span of 50-60 years, and many older ones are starting to fail (in myriad ways, as Beiser highlights). Once all this new infrastructure of the last few decades ages and needs to be replaced, where on Earth will we get the sand from? Already, there is a shortage of the right kind of sand in some sectors.

    What makes this book particularly refreshing is that Beiser takes the proverbial bull by the horns on several fronts. He highlights the typical hypocrisy of consumers (the central tenet of The Irresponsible Pursuit of Paradise). People oppose the polluting, destructive industries that extract raw materials from the natural world – often displacing them to other countries in the process – yet at the same time they are clamouring for the products made from these materials. Most importantly, Beiser points out that the triple whammy of rapid population growth, increased urbanisation, and increased living standards has added 1.2 billion more affluent consumers since 1990, and we can expect another 3 billion in the decades ahead. This is creating a demand for resources unlike anything that has ever come before. In my eyes, too few authors seem to be willing to connect the dots and call out the rather intractable problem of overpopulation (but see Should We Control World Population? to make a start).

    And, as Beiser urges the reader to realise, it’s not just sand, it’s pretty much everything (I was very pleased to see Beiser give a nod to The Elements of Power here – shortages of these rare metals is another topic that is not mentioned enough). At this rate, it is hard not to feel like we are heading for a Seneca-syle collapse (see The Seneca Effect).

    Beiser offers no palliative, nor does he expect any one of us to be willing to give up our creature comforts and head back for the caves. So, he leaves us with the hard questions: how much damage are we willing to do, where and to what? The fact that we have to worry about something so mundane as sand says much about the state of the planet. Eye-opening, engaging, and urgent, this is the kind of investigative journalism that needs to be widely read.
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Vince Beiser is an award-winning writer whose work has appeared in Wired, Harper's, The Atlantic, Mother Jones, and Rolling Stone, among other publications. A graduate of the University of California at Berkeley, he lives in Los Angeles.

By: Vince Beiser(Author)
294 pages, no illustrations
Publisher: Riverhead Books
Without resorting to alarmism, The World in a Grain is a brutal reportage highlighting an incipient resource crisis that beggars belief: we are running out of sand?!
Media reviews

"[An] impassioned and alarming report on sand [...] In Beiser's artful telling, the planet is caught up in a vicious, sand-fueled cycle."
Washington Post

"Beiser peppers research with first-person interviews in an engaging and nuanced introduction to the ways sand has shaped the world [...] stunning."

"Beiser's eye-opening study clarifies the science and the huge role of sand in heavy and high-tech industry. Perhaps most compelling is his exposé of sand mining, which obliterates islands, destroys coral reefs and marine biodiversity, and threatens livelihoods. A powerful lens on an under-reported environmental crisis."

"Whether in Chippewa Falls, Wisconsin, or India, [Beiser] exhibits a flare for detailing the human drama through prose."
Los Angeles Review of Books

"I thought I knew the basics of sustainability, but this lucid, eye-opening book made me feel like a dolt in the best possible aha-moment way: I'd simply never registered how much of the contemporary world – our concrete and glass buildings and asphalt roads and silicone-based digital devices and so much more – is entirely, voraciously sand-dependent. And the looming global sand crisis who knew?"
– Kurt Andersen, author of Fantasyland: How America Went Haywire: A 500-Year History

"A fresh history of 'the most important solid substance on Earth, the literal foundation of modern civilization.' Books on a single, familiar topic (salt, cod, etc.) have an eager audience, and readers will find this an entirely satisfying addition to the genre."
Kirkus Reviews

"The World In a Grain is nothing less than one of the best reporters working today unpacking the literal foundations of civilization. Everything we are, everywhere we live, is built on or out of sand, and Vince Beiser tells the best story of where that sand comes from, who moves it, and what they build from it. It's a whole new way of seeing the world."
– Adam Rogers, author of Proof: The Science of Booze

"Modern life, as Vince Beiser compellingly explains, is literally made of sand. Yet we have been so profligate with this seemingly inexhaustible resource that for many uses in many parts of the world we are running out. The World In a Grain is a chronicle of innovation and greed and heedless waste – in brief, the story of civilization."
– David Owen, author of Where the Water Goes

"A riveting, wonderfully written investigation into the many kinds of castles the world has built out of sand. You'll find something new, and something fascinating, on every page. Perhaps even in every paragraph."
– Nicholas Thompson, author of The Hawk and the Dove

"Sand shortage? Black market in sand? Secret sand heists? Who knew? I certainly didn't before reading this lively and eye-opening book about a material I'd always assumed almost infinite. Vince Beiser shows, with great skill, that this key component of our fragile, over-consuming planet we need to better understand, conserve and protect."
– Adam Hochschild, author of King Leopold's Ghost and Bury the Chains

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