Award Winning Journalist and Author Vince Beiser on the Importance of Sand
January 13, 2019, 4:26 pm
Q. How did you become passionate about the topic?
A: As an independent journalist I read a lot of obscure, out-of-the-way publications, especially ones focussing on international issues. About four years ago I ran across an article in a little environmental website that told me 2 things: 1. sand is the most used natural resource on Earth after water; 2. there is so much demand for it today that people are causing tremendous environmental damage and even stealing and killing to get the stuff. I had never even thought about sand as a thing with any value at all. I thought this all sounded crazy—but I soon learned through my reporting that it was true, and a crucially important, badly undercovered story.
Q. What is the most surprising discovery you’ve found in your research (related to sand becoming a scarce resource)?
A: Certainly all the violence associated with the black market in sand—hundreds of people have been killed and many more injured, assaulted, and threatened over sand mining in recent years—was a real shock to learn about. But perhaps even more of a profound surprise was realising how utterly dependent our modern civilisation is on this humblest of materials. Skyscrapers, highways, windows, computer chips—all of them are made primarily out of sand. Even things like shampoo, cosmetics, paper and toothpaste use sand.
Q. How does the audience respond to the cause you are advocating? What do you think are the best ways to engage people to care about the climate and about resources such as sand becoming scarce?
A: The response to the book has been terrific. It has spawned op-eds in numerous influential publications including The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and Los Angeles Times, as well as Canada’s National Post and Globe & Mail newspapers. I have given talks on the subject at institutions ranging from high schools to Washington, D.C.’s Wilson Center, the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting, and many others. Dozens of radio and TV outlets including NPR, BBC, Canada’s CBC, and programs in China, Colombia, and New Zealand have interviewed me, and I have been quoted as an expert in numerous articles on the issue by other journalists, and cited in academic papers. People everywhere are astonished to learn that the issue even exists, let alone how serious it is.
Q. What is the scariest statistic you’ve come across? What measures – local, regional, global – excite you and make you optimistic about the future?
A: Scariest single fact: China has used more sand in the last few years than the United States did in the entire 20th century. That gives you a sense of the speed and scale with which the world—especially developing nations—is using titanic quantities of sand, primarily for concrete to build their exploding cities. (Including the UAE!) There is definitely growing awareness about the sand issue and equally importantly, about the fact that it doesn’t exist in isolation; it’s really just a symptom of the much larger problem of overconsumption of resources, about the unsustainability of modern life. That gives me hope.
Q. What are some of the initiatives being taken that can work to solve the issue?
A: Frankly, not much is being done yet. One or two of the big international environmental NGOs are starting to take up the issue, and it is getting a lot more media attention, so hopefully, that will start to change. Raising awareness is the first step. I’d love to see some kind of certification system set up to ensure that sand used in building projects etc. is sourced sustainably and legally—something like the Forest Stewardship Council.
Q. You’ve traveled across the globe researching the topic – what are the main commonalities of the issues? What are some of the specifics of the issue?
A: The key commonality is that sand is used as a building material pretty much EVERYWHERE. Every city and town on earth by now has concrete buildings and paved roads—which are made largely of sand. So it’s an issue that affects people in almost every country on Earth. In some places things are much worse than others, of course: India stands out as having by far the most violent and widespread black market sand industry—what they call their “sand mafias”. But there is violence caused by sand mining in other countries as well.
About the author:
Vince Beisser, the award-winning journalist and author of The World in a Grain, delves deep into the world of sand with his book, taking readers on a journey across the globe, from the United States to remote corners of India, China, and Dubai to explain why sand is so crucial to modern life.
His will hold a session at the Emirates Literature Festival on Friday 8 March 2019, between 6-7pm, in English with translation in Arabic.
Click here to book your seats now.