Beneath our paving stones, paved roads, walls, windows, computers, industry, and more, is a collection of hard material no larger than a speck. Sand is the fundamental building block of modern civilization, mined and extracted more than any other natural resource after water, and this fact should give us pause. Where does all this sand come from in the first place? What are the environmental consequences of sand mining? Most importantly, what happens when access to this most basic component of modern life begins to run out? Our modern civilization may pass, like sand through an hour glass.

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Chapters

  • 02:42 Why Sand?
  • 03:31 What is Sand and Where is it?
  • 08:40 Why do we care about sand?
  • 16:09 Some History
  • 20:59 Economics of Sand Scarcity
  • 28:05 Destructive nature of Sand Extraction
  • 39:07 Sand Mafias
  • 48:06 Tragedy of the Unmanaged Commons
  • 58:50 The Best of Times?

(This is a machine transcription. We'll fix this eventually and edit it for proper grammar and accuracy.)


David Torcivia:

[0:04] I'm David Torcivia.

Daniel Forkner:

[0:06] I'm Daniel forkner.

David Torcivia:

[0:08] And this is ashes ashes it show about systemic issues cracks in civilization collapse of the environment and if we're unlucky the end of the world.

Daniel Forkner:

[0:18] But if we learn from all of this maybe we can stop that the world might be broken but it doesn't have to be.

David Torcivia:

[0:44] That movie gets a lot of flack Daniel but it's actually right about a lot of things or at least that's the way it is.

Daniel Forkner:

[0:52] You mean the fact that sand gets everywhere.

David Torcivia:

[0:54] Well yeah that's about the only part that's right but it is absolutely true we seized and every part of our life.

Daniel Forkner:

[1:01] You got sand castles on the beach.

David Torcivia:

[1:03] The beach itself sandboxes.

Daniel Forkner:

[1:06] Cat litter boxes.

David Torcivia:

[1:09] Pocket sand.

Daniel Forkner:

[1:10] The stand that you you put on shuffleboard tables know I'm talking about.

David Torcivia:

[1:16] Yeah but more important than that is sandstorm.

Daniel Forkner:

[1:27] You know David these are all the things that people think about when they hear the word sand I also think about how do buy imports all their sand from Australia to build their superstructures despite being in the middle of the desert. Oh yeah everybody knows that David sand is used in construction for so many things used alongside gravel and cement to create concrete. But in Dubai they've run out of their supply of construction sand that they dredged from the ocean floor around the United Arab Emirates and so they have to ship all their sand or construction from Australia. They can't use deserts and of course because that's and has been weather down.

[2:17] Other rosion knocking all those pizzas and together that they become, round it to the point where that it's kind of like stacking up marbles to try and create something out of it just won't work that's why most of the construction sand we use as course it has a lot of angles, those individuals and pieces really lock in together like Lego blocks especially when added to cement self a curious fact for you there.

David Torcivia:

[2:42] I feel like you're getting a little bit ahead of ourselves right there. Daniel with that Oddball factoid maybe we should start with why we're talking about sand and exactly what sand is in the first place.

Daniel Forkner:

[2:55] David we're talking about stand because. As small as it is it's not insignificant in fact it is found at the very core of our civilization it is the building block. Pretty much every aspect of our lives at least the infrastructure that our lives are directed on and it's a big industry. Billions and billions of dollars people fight over it people die over it and unfortunately well we're running out David.

David Torcivia:

[3:25] And it's really the focus of the episode of today which is something to explore in detail throughout this show but before we get started in exactly house and is running out and why that's happening we should instead look and Define exactly what we mean we were talking about sand. Send it to his obviously pretty small world from miliar with it but there's actually a specific definition for what qualifies as send.

Daniel Forkner:

[3:48] That was actually surprising to me David because well I guess I had actually never thought about, What specifically is sad and you've heard that riddle that goes like how many grains of sand does it take to create a mount or something like that, you notice it so I always figured it was kind of like an abstract thing like you know what is sand all that on the beach you know I don't try to Define it but I know it when I see it.

David Torcivia:

[4:11] Well as you know Daniel wheel of quantifying everything we can in the world around us and sand is no different Sands qualify as sand has to be a loose collection of hard material with an individual grain size. .06 mm2 2 mm diameter is smaller than that and what you have is something called silt and any larger well that's gravel.

Daniel Forkner:

[4:33] I said that makes a lot of sense to me now.

David Torcivia:

[4:37] And it doesn't in just their Daniel Sanders to find into a wide variety of different types based on its hardness its shape the size the color that curity always things can vary from place to place because of natural erosion processes like you've already talked about as well as where the stand comes from in the first place. Most fans that we encounter is quartz. You've seen the crystals before those white clear things that somebody selling to charge your energy or whatever but most of that breaks down eventually and becomes the sand that we're familiar with and our beaches that there's also has shells on the components but that is what we typically think of when we think of Stan but that's not the only type of sand maybe you seen the Black Sands of Hawaii those are made from destroyed volcanic rocks or the Red Sands in different parts of the world or the White Sands of White Sands Dune in the United States which is made from gypsum, any hard rock that can weather down ultimately will become stand on this way to turning into sill.

Daniel Forkner:

[5:31] Well quick clarification there for you David, you said just now hard rock the earlier you said the definition of sand is any collection of hard material and that's important because Santa doesn't have to be rock you could be crushed up shells or even plastic, that have formed through the weathering process of tides on beaches and under are some beaches where the sand is actually just crushed up, shells from animals and in the case of desert course that sand comes from the fact that all that clay and what used to be so loyal and other settlement, becomes loose when an area becomes arid there's no more roots to hold it down and so it just gets picked up by the wind and like we mentioned that wind pearls all these particles at each other repeatedly over and over until just gets broken down broken down, those hard Jagged edges of the individual grains get chipped off and you get these round silky-smooth Dunes of sand. But David like you mentioned the most common form of sand is quartz and the most common way that this sand is deposited on our beaches on our Ocean Floors and under the topsoil all around the world is a very simple geological process, and it starts in mountains you have all this rock that's been uplifted informed into Mountains will eventually is part of those Rock.

[6:54] Rocks Downstream that gyro them knocking them together in all this gets broken down and down gets deposit on River beds and eventually makes its way to the River delta where it gets transported to the ocean and from there the tides deliver it to beaches Coast, all around the world. And it's important just to point that out because this process of which rock is broken down from mountains carry through an eroded Through Rivers, deposited on the earth somewhere and then eventually uplifted once again into a mountain this is a process that can take hundreds of millions of years.

David Torcivia:

[7:30] I think it's enough geology right here Daniel as interesting as I find it I think what we really should be focusing on is how much sand there is and how much we're constantly moving around for the various needs we have as a civilization. In fact we moved 40 to 50 billion tons of sand every year extracting this Mass from the earth and placing it wherever it's needed for our Industries and just to put that in perspective Daniel, it's more than twice the amount of sand at every single river in the world moves annually that's a lot of sand.

Daniel Forkner:

[8:04] That is a lot of sand is kind of hard to imagine that we can be extracting more sand than the earth is supplying but there's another part of that David which is that flow itself is interrupted, and diminished by our development when we Dam a river Princeton's we stop so much of that settlement from coming down the river and depositing itself on the ocean floor and beaches when we build up our Coastal developments our ports are beach resorts all of this can impact the ability for the ocean currents to transport sediment up and down the coast and can affect beaches somewhere else. But enough of that David why do we care.

David Torcivia:

[8:44] Will Daniel sand is the invisible glue that holds so much of our modern life together, everything from concrete which is ubiquitous to Glass to the Computing chips and all of our devices all of these are made possible by and holy depend upon send in order to exist in the first place.

Daniel Forkner:

[9:03] Okay so you mention concrete and glass obviously huge big inputs of a modern construction what are some of the things made of sand.

David Torcivia:

[9:11] I mean paint.

Daniel Forkner:

[9:12] Will sticking on construction for a second yeah you've got paint and what that goes on is walls and so much of the walls in your house or your office building is constructed in some part. Saint who are the roofs and the floors above and below you.

David Torcivia:

[9:28] But it's not just these obvious construction places that we find sand but also in places that we don't think of it all, your toothpaste for example Daniel very likely has some sand in it as an abrasive. Sand is critical for fracking actually so when you inject Wastewater and stuff into a well to Frack it and separated and pull the oil out your also injecting Frac sand with that this is a very important part of the process that allows us to have such cheap oil that we see right now especially here in United States.

Daniel Forkner:

[9:57] We use sand at Water Sanitation plants where we get our drinking water and its use to filter some of the debris and other things out of the water.

David Torcivia:

[10:06] And like I mentioned earlier stand also has its place in high-tech Industries silicon chips Fiber Optic Cables all the things to make our modern technological life possible depend initially on very specialized highly purified types of sin.

Daniel Forkner:

[10:21] Yeah what's interesting about, these computer components that sand is used for is that you can think about it David sand has been more than once the Catalyst for a new revolutionary technology. You mentioned glass and if you think about how important I was for our modern development I mean that's what enabled telescopes microscopes. In the neighborhood so much scientific discovery and technology that has enabled us to progress, but not like you mentioned it also enabled the small components which I've given birth to the digital technology Revolution that has reshaped the entire world as we know it, it is such a simple thing just grains of Rock.

David Torcivia:

[11:02] This episode is brought to you by big sand and that's the sand today. Nobody really does feel like we're showing for Saint Jude because it's such a huge part of our way of life and element that we just never really think about in fact can you think of a single natural resource that we use more than sand.

Daniel Forkner:

[11:22] Oil David no.

David Torcivia:

[11:25] Think even more basic than that Snapfish Daniel were the very the fundamentals to Europe I'm talking Water and Air.

Daniel Forkner:

[11:34] Okay so we we take Morse and you're saying then we do oil.

David Torcivia:

[11:38] Yeah believe it or not that's actually true but we're all the people crying Peaks and Daniel.

Daniel Forkner:

[11:44] The right here David on ashes ashes. I mean that's a pretty profound thing to realize that we use sand more than any other resource except water and yeah I guess you could throw are in there but sand is not just valuable as an economic resource, in episode 34 Irreplaceable we discussed how the environment provide so many valuable services that we all need to survive and sand is an important component for many of these services for example we cover the loss of freshwater and episode 30 part. And how we are extracting water faster than it can naturally recharge and so many places of the Earth but through our industrial activity we also undermine, that rate at which water can recharge itself when we extract sand from River beds because the sediment on River floors is what helps slow down that water flow, it traps some of that water and allows it to seep down into underground aquifers, without that sand the water just keeps flowing faster and bypassing those natural water storage tanks. Not to mention increasing the risks and power of sludge which we'll get to in a little bit. And did we mention that we're running out of sand that's because we demanded so much you you mentioned 50 billion tons of sand every year twice the rate at which rivers are recharging that, the construction industry alone spends 130 billion dollars on Sand every single year.

David Torcivia:

[13:09] Much of this ultimately goes to creating concrete and much of that concrete is currently consumed by China who has made more cement in just three or four years that he was did in the first 100 Years of the 20th century that includes building all those major cities as well as the entire interstate highway system. Today China produces half of the world's supply of cement in 7 of course is not made from Sand but the cement industry is the largest consumer of gravel and sand and most concrete is only 10% cement but 75% which means for every single ton of cement used in construction over 7 tons of sand are needed for the final concrete pour.

Daniel Forkner:

[13:48] And obviously much of this demand David is driven by organization, and we have enough people globally that are migrating to City's every year that that migration plus the construction to accommodate it is the equivalent of building 8 New York City every single year. And you mentioned that sand is used in oil extraction like fracking and this is surprising to me I figured that it would be a small input for the fracking industry. And this process that they use it for of courses you know to get to this oil that's in tightly packed shellrock that you said and they mix it with liquids like water and they just, blasted at the Shell Rock to break it open get to the oil or natural gas and keep those Wells open. But it's no small input according to the US Geological Survey the fracking industry used only 5%, a total industrial stand production in 2003 but by 2014 that share had jumped 72% of all industrial sand production and one more stat I'd like to throw at you David. When we talk about mining the earth I think a lot of people imagine coal or diamonds or gold or something like that. But in fact in 2014 sand mining accounted for 85% of all Global mining activity.

David Torcivia:

[15:09] It's a lot of sand.

Daniel Forkner:

[15:10] It's 11 it's a lot of activity as you expect all this activity is having an impact not just on our ability to acquire this and economically. Which is I guess what most people focus on most articles focus on his way we're running out of sand and it's becoming more expensive and this is causing a lot of conflict a lot of problems but. Can you imagine how much of an environmental impact this is having especially when so much of the sand mining occurs in places like Rivers where you have very sensitive ecosystems of a lot of species in migration and those rivers are kind of the blood vessels of the Earth in so many ways but we'll get to that in a minute David.

David Torcivia:

[15:45] That's only considering the sand mining that we know about and much of it especially in the developing world were a lot of these problems are most pronounced is not reported so the numbers might be even greater than it sounds like at first glance it is part of the problem in tackling this issue is because nobody's exactly sure how big of an issue would even is, because there's just a little date on it because no one has really been tracking Santa use up until relatively recently but the use of sand and civilization is not new and if I goes back thousands of years.

Daniel Forkner:

[16:16] Let's talk a little history then David.

David Torcivia:

[16:18] Just very briefly sand has been used in some type of building support for thousands of years at this point the ancient Mayans used early form of concrete to support beams and certain structures over to Millennium ago.

Daniel Forkner:

[16:32] The Greeks created brick mortar from Sand.

David Torcivia:

[16:35] In Morocco there are actually hols and cities built by the ancient groups who constructed their entire house out of nothing but sand.

Daniel Forkner:

[16:44] What's really interesting to meet David is how the Roman Empire was kind of the first to truly make concrete. For the use of advanced architectural Construction in the same sense that we use it today, but after the Roman Empire fell in the 5th Century the knowledge of concrete making disappeared and it wasn't until the 18th and 19th century eyehole 1300 years later. That inventors in Europe started figuring out how to make this concrete again. And this is what transformed modern civilization and in here's a quote from the book called the world in a grain a great resource if you want to learn more about the history of sand and how it's used all over the world today.

David Torcivia:

[17:28] But it was only with the Advent of the modern industrial world in the decades just before and after the turn of the 20th century, are people really began to harness the full potential of sand and begin using it on a colossal scale it was during this. That's and went from being a resource to use for widespread artisanal purposes. Becoming the essential building block of civilization. The key material used to create Mass manufactured structures and products demanded by a fast-growing population.

Daniel Forkner:

[17:59] Now he mentioned in their David that this was the first time we were using sand outside of artisanal purpose isn't in the first I thought that doesn't make sense to me because what about those Roman structures that are still standing to this day made of concrete, were those not more significant than mere artisanal creations. But I realized that the important difference is house and became today the essential building block of civilization. It's reasonable to assume that without those impressive architectural structures the Romans built and impressive they were the pantheon was built 2000 years ago and it's still the largest structure in the world bill with unreinforced concrete, but without those Roman Empire could still have expanded still could have maintained its Empire in some form. But the growth of our modern civilization that we have today is quite literally David impossible without sand. The sprawling Road networks in the US for example are what kicked off rapid suburban sprawl, and the explosive post World War 2 growth and while yes we do have you know historical examples of concrete structures that have stood the test of time, the vast majority of buildings up until the 1900 were entirely made of wood brick or stone with glass windows remaining a rare and expensive luxury.

David Torcivia:

[19:18] In 1904 not including city streets the entire United States had a grand total of 141 miles of paved Road.

Daniel Forkner:

[19:27] That's crazy.

David Torcivia:

[19:28] I know but listen to this, 15 years later or exactly 100 years ago when the future President Dwight Eisenhower volunteered for a cross-country military Convoy the young officer the idea of crossing the US by automobile with an unthinkable proposition, entire cities existed without a single page road to connect them. Is what helped Inspire Eisenhower to launch the u.s. interstate highway system which transformed the US economy and way of life in ways that are absolutely impossible to understand. Also impossible in the state is the great quantity of sand that have to be employed in the process. Every single mile of US Highway require some 40000 tons of aggregate. Be more specific each lane my require so much so give a six-lane highway each mile represents 240,000 tons of a cat.

Daniel Forkner:

[20:19] That's crazy and I think that's that's just something to think about for a minute which is if we're here in the United States roads are so ubiquitous and such a fundamental part of the way we live, we take them for granted no doubt in many places around the world have similar experiences but. Just consider that 100 years ago the idea of taking an automobile from one coast of the United States to the other. It was on par with those feet that came later of people flying around the world it just didn't happen.

David Torcivia:

[20:51] Where you at a little sand to the mix Daniel and here we are in our suburban sprawl hell but that's another episode.

Daniel Forkner:

[20:58] Indeed. Let's come back to a concept real quick David though that we started this episode with and this is the reason we should all care not that we're running out of sand and we need to clarify what that means because. There's so much sand on the earth it's not like we're going to physically run out but it's totally possible to run out of sources that are economic for your construction and growth needs right.

David Torcivia:

[21:26] Yeah this is an important concept that comes up anytime we talkin about scarcity, you have true scarcity which is unavailable found anywhere in any of the sort of economic scarcity when yet exist in certain places but it's just too expensive to extract or to move or whatever it is to make it useful in any sort of productive manner. Right now as it stands our civilization has depended upon the access to very economically affordable send. Because it's nearby because there's a lot of it when you're building a building and you need thousands of tons of sand to be mixed into the concrete to make that building, to be used in the foundation whatever it is you need that to be cheap because you need a lot of it and when you start having to import that thousands of miles across countries across borders. Will it start getting expensive economically in terms of dollar signs as well as environmentally for all the cost that go with transporting something and extracting it from somewhere else.

Daniel Forkner:

[22:21] Yeah exactly like we mentioned deserts and it's there, it's abundant or we can't use it for construction because of the way it's built similarly there's a lot of dredging of ocean floor is going on to collect sand, but this is more expensive than this and that you could get Inland from Corey's because for one it has a lot of salt and that has to be filtered out before it can be used same thing with a lot of beach sand. So the more you look into sand from an economic perspective the more it becomes clear that the challenges that businesses must innovate around, have less to do with some kind of production or application or anything technical like that that we might think of but so much more to do with mirror transportation and source. The great technology of our civilization is the sand itself sand is the technology. And the great challenge for businesses is how do we get it how do we move it from point A to point B which is really profound when you think about it David because it's literally the Earth itself.

David Torcivia:

[23:20] It's not hard to see why that is Sam ultimately is nothing more than just ground up. Smashed eroded Rock So holding it is extremely heavy and expensive. Almost all construction sand is sourced as close as possible to build sites. The transportation of stand alone can account for more than 60% of the entire cost of acquiring it in fact most of time sand is often free if you come up and take it out. You just have to get it where it needs to go in at 60% Transportation cost is if you're already sourcing it from a local Quarry, for most construction applications it's a deal-breaker the aggregate has to be shipped more than 60 miles to the build site, Padilla Street is concept that's an economics is all about transportation and where you Source it from there's an interesting story in the early history of stand in the United States. Be the most wealthy industrialists of America got their start in the sand and gravel business and Henry Kaiser was one of them, Nova Kaiser steel or maybe more familiar Kaiser Permanente health system Kaiser Aluminum and a Kaiser Family Foundation he got his wealth early on by stripping California's land of its topsoil and using the rock underneath to build roads. It is in the 1930s that he landed his first Dam construction job the Shasta Dam in California.

[24:37] How's your own damn mind just a few miles from the dam site but it cannot work out a favorable deal with any transportation company to haul it from the mine to the dam. So instead he constructed a massive world record 10 mile long conveyor belt to convey Rock non-stop directly from the mine to the construction site, it's a really interesting idea and there are amazing pictures online if you want to go look it up and just heard shot the damn conveyor belt, animation was so successful at Kaiser eventually won a contract to help them build the Hoover Dam.

Daniel Forkner:

[25:07] That's super interesting the idea of just a massive conveyor belt 10 miles long but there's a more recent example that I think is really interesting and it comes from 2017 World beach volleyball tournament that was held near Lake Ontario. Before which 35 tractor trailers full of sand drove 2.5 hours from a nearby Quarry to Supply San to the exact specifications of the international beach volleyball sand standards, no doubt the location of the tournament was chosen in part based on the location of available Cory's with a certain type of sand, David there are in Tire businesses dedicated solely to the logistics of supplying sand for these beach volleyball events all over the world, so here's the New Yorker describing one contractor in this business dealing with a challenge of supplying the 2015 European games that was held in Baku Azerbaijan quote.

[26:07] Baku has beaches it's on the peninsula on the western shore of the Caspian Sea but the sand is barely suitable for sand bathing much less volleyball. So knaptons crew searched the region and found a large deposit with the ideal mixture of particle sizes in a family-owned mine in the northern mountains in southern turkey 800 miles to the West. The mine is within shouting distance of the Syrian border matching had planned to transport the stand across central Syria, through Iraq around Armenia and into Azerbaijan from the Northwest into convoys of more than 250 trucks each. But geopolitics intervened so instead knapton and his crew.

[27:06] At the Asian through the bosporus across the Black Sea and into Sochi, from there they took the Sand by rail to Russia and Georgia around Armenia and across eyes are by Jean the steering Exodus was on at the time and we saw people walking for their lives he said but these were the first ever European games. Everything had to be right.

David Torcivia:

[27:28] That's a long-winded story Daniel but you'll have to go across all these borders to find these problems with sand. Here in the us where we built our economy on a foundation of Rapid physical expansion through that National Interstate in highway system access the sand deposits are strange further by the fact that much of the ground is now covered up with concrete, because we built so many Suburban neighborhoods construction companies have a harder time getting permits to mine quarries because more often than not the ideal site is located close to neighborhood where residents don't want big mining Quarries in their backyard.

Daniel Forkner:

[28:03] Is a big problem in Canada going on right now.

David Torcivia:

[28:05] But these are all talking about how difficult it is to access that sin and we're totally glossed over the fact that the process of extracting the sand in the first place is often extremely destructive.

Daniel Forkner:

[28:16] That's absolutely right destructive not just to the foundations of the Earth the environment but also to the species that depend on these habitats since 2005 David, there have been more than 20 islands of Indonesia that have been completely dredged off the face of the Earth, as both legal and illegal minors alike try to get hold of that precious stand. In the Midwest United States Forest are being clear-cut to get at a particular saying that useful for the fracking industry. And where some of the biggest destruction is occurring is in river deltas where so many people live David.

David Torcivia:

[28:55] What exactly is a river Delta Daniel.

Daniel Forkner:

[28:57] Well let me tell you David so you have a river starts in the mountains and it goes past the mountain that eventually gets the ocean right.

David Torcivia:

[29:07] I mean I guess so.

Daniel Forkner:

[29:08] Well the Delta is formed when a river reaches the ocean the current that has been carrying all this settlement begins to slow down as the water approaches and as a result all that settlement begins to settle and accumulate. Eventually this build-up forms a Delta plane, with smaller distributaries of water that sneaks through it eventually making their way to the ocean depositing even more sediment and it's in these Delta's were some of the most fertile soil in the world can be found, and also where some of the earliest human civilizations formed in today these Delta's attract the attention of sand miners because of all the settlements. Which is wreaking havoc on places like the Mekong Delta in Vietnam.

David Torcivia:

[29:53] Here's a quote from the book The World in a grain. In Vietnam researchers with the World Wildlife Federation beliefs and Mining on the Mekong River is a key reason the 15,000 square mile Mekong Delta, on the 20 million people and source of half of all the countries food and much of the rice that feeds the rest of Southeast Asia is gradually disappearing, the ocean is overtaking the equivalent of 1 1/2 football fields of this crucial Regions Land everyday. Already thousands of Acres of rice Farmers have been lost and at least 1,200 families have had to be relocated from their Coastal homes all this is caused partly by climate change and do sea level rise and partly by direct human intervention. For centuries the Delta has been replenished by sediment carried down for the mountains of Central Asia by the Mekong River. But in recent years in each of the several countries along its course. Minors have begun pulling huge quantities of sand from the riverbed to use for the construction of Southeast Asia searching cities. Nearly 50 million tons of sand are being extracted annually enough to cover the city of Denver 2 in deep. The sediment blow has been had since Mark was shot a researcher with the World Wildlife Fund is greater Mekong program, that means the well natural erosion of the Delta continues its natural punishment does not at this rate nearly half a Delta will be wiped out by the end of this century.

Daniel Forkner:

[31:15] Displacing countless people David but humans are not the only species affected by this as we've talked about. There's a study done in 2016 of the lake in Ethiopia and its surrounding rivers and the scientists found that sand mining interrupted migratory Paths of certain fish species and even disrupted spawning grounds.

[31:42] The United States many companies mine for sand in floodplains. And this can lead to River capture where nearby water is redirected and flows into the pits and grooves of these mines. Which leads migratory fish like salmon and other species into a death trap in addition to collapsing Riverbanks and damaging nearby infrastructure. It's really sad how the vast majority of these sand Miners and developing countries are just locals who have no good job prospects and take these jobs digging out sand and their local rivers and in Lakes because they need a paycheck they need a way to get by. But it's work that ultimately destroys their own local ecosystem, we talk more about this process and episode 36 slaves to progress how so many people in the developing world are forced into labor that ultimately, undermines their entire livelihood, and this sand mining is no exception that results in a type of cannibalization of local economy because while labor is mine for sand to make a paycheck other locals working fishing find their catches dwindle and everyone ends up losing.

David Torcivia:

[32:51] Noah mentioned how river deltas are hotspots for sand butts or the rivers themselves before they even reach the Deltas and there's a ton of Destruction associated with this riverbed mining River bit mining of Roads the Riverbanks and can cause infrastructure built up around Rivers. Bridges to eventually collapse people on the Mekong River in Vietnam at their houses and shops collapsing is Riverbank erosion, a minor can also allow deep ocean water to find its way up into the dreads floor contaminating the water table of course this ruins local Agriculture and drinking supplies. We talked about this before in episode to where we discuss the flooding that occurred in Houston from Hurricane Harvey, what are the factors that made this flooding so bad with the sand mining that have been going on in the San Jacinto river which allowed the water to flow all the more powerfully destroying countless homes and businesses, similarly sand mining made the destruction from the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami much worse than it would have been had these natural systems been left intact.

[33:49] Of course River mining also has terrible consequences for biodiversity in addition to those migratory fish species mentioned earlier river dolphins have been disappearing from important wintering grounds in rivers connecting India and Bangladesh. A species of crocodile has seen its population is decimated from the same activity. But perhaps more profoundly from the biodiversity perspective there is a whole layer of sediment on the bottom of rivers there is a hyperbole example. Teams with in vertebrae and microscopic life this layer is totally destroyed from Sand extraction.

Daniel Forkner:

[34:21] It's like David there was a there was a 2014 study, the found that not a single River in India has been Untouched by this mining from the paper quotes and minors are digging to adapt, I'm about 15 me with the help of machines and even extracting the Earth after touching the river floor, the highly fragile hyporheic habitats and their Associated biota are gouged out along with their homes as it were. And David the authors go on and this is an important point because while so much of the news surrounding this topic is focused on the so-called sand mafias which will get to we need to remember that nature does not distinguish between what is legal and illegal, from the paper quote in this connection it is also noteworthy that the dubious eco-friendly policy announced by certain state governments providing for sand extraction up to 2 a.m. Utterly myopic and disastrous to stand Associated life because much of the high. Life is confined to the upper one meter or so of the settlement.

David Torcivia:

[35:27] But Daniel we got to admit that not all species are losing out from this practice.

Daniel Forkner:

[35:33] Really did.

David Torcivia:

[35:34] Yeah there's actually one type of species that benefits hugely from Sand mining.

Daniel Forkner:

[35:40] Oh okay I guess that's good you know silver lining in everything right got to keep optimism alive.

David Torcivia:

[35:44] Yeah and it and it happy optimistic species is the mosquito.

Daniel Forkner:

[35:49] Oh hoping you were going to say panda bear.

David Torcivia:

[35:52] No A 2013 paper examining mosquito larvae populations in a ran from the standing pools created from Sand extraction provided the most successful breeding habitat for mosquitoes be most abundant species thing in common malaria vector. So that's another thing.

Daniel Forkner:

[36:10] Silver Lining David.

David Torcivia:

[36:12] But the damage isn't just done to these riverbed Daniel we talked before about fish trolling off the coast and how this can destroy Marine habitats. Ocean dredging for sand is very similar in practice to trolling techniques. The practice of ripping the sand out of the bottom of the ocean floor up which medication creates massive dust plumes that blocks sunlight and suffocate fish and Destroy coral reefs by just directly ripping them out. If that weren't enough during standoff the ocean floor also a Rhodes nearby beaches what beach in California loses 8 Acres of Peachland annually from a nearby ocean sand mine and my 2167 percent of Southern California beaches will be gone. But the other coast also has to worry. Half of all beaches in Florida are labeled as critically a roading and beaches all over the world are disappearing the Rita withstand deposit on beaches in South Africa Canyon and other African Coast has been dramatically decreased by sand mining.

Daniel Forkner:

[37:08] Which reminds me David of this really interesting and unfortunate phenomenon going on in Florida, so like we mention how sand gets deposited on beaches from River that's not the only way many beaches also receive sand from the ocean currents which outlets and from distant Ocean Floors. Far distances and many of these Florida beaches get their sand from further out the Atlantic coast but because of all the coastal development that has occurred that's and, doesn't flow and the situation is desperate for many Florida beach cities whose economies depend almost entirely on beach tourism so much so that in an ironic tragic twist, cities are digging up sand from Cory's inland. And trucking them to their dwindling beaches in a completely unsustainable and desperate attempt to hang on as long as possible while destroying even more land Inland to do so.

[38:05] And of course as you would expect climate change has only exacerbated these Trends one of the fastest-growing uses of sand in the US for example, isn't building the levees and other structures that we need to protect coastlines and Riverbanks against rising sea levels and floods. But once again there's a problem with this and there's an irony which is. These defense interventions are blocking some of the tides and rivers from delivering sand to other places. On the Mississippi River many of the levees there are blocking the flow of sediment and causing Louisiana to lose some 16 square miles of wetlands every single year.

[38:45] It's always see that our attempts to protect ourselves from environmental destruction in some cases can cause even more destruction just somewhere else. But maybe that's because we're trying to defend something. That shouldn't have been built in the first place maybe it's because we're trying to create these permanent installations of civilization everywhere and that's a point we can make later on but let's get to the mafia David the mobsters. The gangs were behind so much of this illegal sand mining all over the world.

David Torcivia:

[39:18] Well the term sand Mafia might sound a little bit I don't know Silly almost these are nothing to joke about, there are countless stories of people losing their lives of journalists being threatened and even a mini cases murdered because of their investigation of the sand mafias in many countries including India much of Northern Africa. And huge swathes of Southeast Asia Houston mafias have moved into locations. Secretly and illegally stealing sand sometimes in the day sometimes at night often times from just this side of the river ship it up, pack it up Brianna truck ship it to where it needs to be used for construction, mini X employing people locally for this practice and at the same time destroying their local environment to get the sand out of there, but what's their option either they have to take this money and get paid for it or they get threatened and possibly lose their lives it's something almost unimaginable but this is the kind of crazy situation that is created with an economic system that is just so far out of control or people are literally murdering each other over the illegal export of sand.

Daniel Forkner:

[40:22] And I don't want to go to in-depth with this David there's a ton of articles on it's actually the main focus if you you know Google sand running out a lot of these articles and investigators focused on the sand Mafia component and I suspect it's because.

David Torcivia:

[40:37] Mafia so sexy.

Daniel Forkner:

[40:38] It yeah what sexy it's it's good quick baby but also it's a way to offset responsibility it's really easy to just blame, you know foreign governments for being incompetent or all these reasons which ultimately takes the focus away from why this demand exists in the first place, grading the instinctive for illegal sand mining in the country that gets the most attention is India it's one of the most infamous countries for illegal sand mining at the moment, with diverse criminal cartels controlling much of the industry in this black market value is estimated at over 2 billion dollars annually and of course with so much of this activity.

[41:16] The people actually doing the work Labor Day today are just simple people trying to make a buck using hand tools driving tractors finding sand wherever they can mostly in River beds, why the prophets flow up to these cartels who control these networks and pay off the officials and murder journalists who attempt to expose them and like you mentioned these illegal operations are not just an idiot but in North Africa. It's estimated that of all the construction sand used in Morocco half of it is sourced illegally this is happening in Crimea hungry, and a lot of it is occurring in Southeast Asia like Cambodia Malaysia Thailand and Indonesia all which are pressured by Singapore to exports and to help them build up their land reclamation projects, and a 2016 3000 people were arrested in Vietnam alone for illegal sand mining in protected areas. Acres in Northern Ireland and Scotland, in the Caribbean islands of Jamaica and of course the United States and so much more like you mentioned David there's a lot of it that goes unreported.

David Torcivia:

[42:24] This scale of all this mining gang it was really staggering and the fact that it happened in so many countries all around the world, like boy like you mention the main one is India but even in Western countries where there is, supposedly a titer adherence to the law Northern Ireland Scotland by the United States this is still happening he's illegal sand Mining and the mafia is if they spawn.

Daniel Forkner:

[42:46] Right and we we have to look at the systemic reason for why they're happening right and while all these articles and books. When they look at these illegal mafias they cry government corruption or incompetency or they say something about how, you know they need more law enforcement to stop these gangs will at the end of the day this destructive and unsustainable extraction is going to happen, legally or otherwise so long as these Trends and urbanism and construction continued to be driven in large part by international finance.

[43:20] Example in a 2015 article published by the international monetary fund. The author builds the case that the demand for sand is unsustainable that we are outstripping the Earth's ability to replace us and we take, and that quote mining bans imposed by some countries and meant to mitigate the environmental impact have only further decreased supply of the highly sought-after riverbed and Coastal sand and pushed prices up sharply, end quote but then David literally two sentences later the author States, lack of Regulation and weak enforcement of the few rules there are have opened the door to Illegal mining in quotes, so I guess we can admit that Global development is unsustainable and we can admit that attempts at regulating this only exacerbates the demand for sand, and we are going to conclude that the problem is developing country government and competency, this incompetency and Corruption occurs because the 8th New York City's that we have to build every year have to be built. If we're going to satisfy International Investment demands these mafias exist to satisfy a demand for sad that cannot be met. Buy legal and sustainable knees because the growth itself is unsustainable.

[44:42] These Matthews exist because if you only took sand from these rivers and he's Delta's and he's Corey's at the same rate that it is being naturally replenished. Then we'd have to Halt all this building in the first place and to be fair to the author of this this IMF article. He does advocate for international regulation to curb our sand production, but coming from the IMF that's a total contradiction since the organization is dedicated to Growing financial investments and as we've discussed at length on the show.

[45:12] And the point we have to continue to drive home is that we cannot continue to have an economy printest on infinite growth, without destroying the world in the process you can't grow Capitol indefinitely without some underlying physical extraction or expansion and the Earth simply has limit that don't play by the rules of this financial fantasy and I think Singapore David is a great example of this work, the country is so small yet for whatever reason attract so much investment, it is literally trying to build out the Earth it's increased its land size by well over 20% since 1965, and that's because once the skyscrapers have been built once the industry has been attracted in order to continue growing its economy to continue satisfying, bankers and investors to give them the return of their money to continue to invest in their country they have to physically expand, and that's what's going on in all of our country, in all of our civilization it's just hidden by the fact that a lot of us have a lot of land to go around and we can spread these activities far and wide in such a way that we don't immediately recognize the repercussions but as long as our economy is built in this way we're going to continue to support these unsustainable practices in any half-hearted government attempt, to cap it is inevitably going to spawn illegal activity.

[46:35] And illegal activity that is occurring should be illegal anyway because like the authors of that paper studying the Indian Rivers even what is legally permissible still destroy the environment.

David Torcivia:

[46:48] So Daniel I think there's a couple things there I really want to focus on and one of them was this line you mentioned in passing that from this IMF report they felt like sand was being used faster than it was being replenished, it's not the first time that we've heard this sort of thing from I need to report we talked about this with topsoil in episode 16 what we reap, and how we only have a few Decades of topsoil left they can give us a timeline for the use of sand left in the IMF article but the economic use of stand and what is cheap, he's definitely going to be something that comes sooner rather than later and the thing was Sam is Dead when we run out quote run out.

[47:28] It's at the end of the world in terms of infrastructure or construction I we can use recycled concrete we can make new sand blows processes are expensive, and the cost of construction and growing becomes that much more expensive even more than that the cost of repairing all this infrastructure that we have built out with this concrete that lasts only 50 to 75 years something we're starting to see specially right now here in the United States with our aging Bridges and roadways, is that the cost of repairing these are going to be much higher than it was the first time that we built them and it's unsustainable, at the death spiral pre-civilization another topic we talked about on the show a lot, but how did we get here in the first place with local communities destroying their environment in order to a source this and that was shipped Halfway Around the World to build things that we probably don't need in the first place this reminds me of that old economic. Cliche the tragedy of the commons.

Daniel Forkner:

[48:23] Oh yes David the tragedy of the commons something you learned in economics 101 that theory proposed by. Jerrad Hardin in 1968 with that metaphor of the cow herders or whatever animal they were, all trying to graze their animals on a spot of grass open to everybody and of course David the the individual farmer wants to put more and more of his animal on the grass so that he can get the direct benefit from that, even if the long-term consequence is the erosions or or the depletion of that grass ultimately harming everyone he's so incentivised to do so because if he doesn't, is neighbor will and his neighbor will put more cows on that grass and get richer at his expense until eventually all the grass is gone.

David Torcivia:

[49:15] Exactly and it's a very nice little fairy tail but unfortunately ultimately that's all it is very Tale, a convenient lie sold to economics doing sooner to teach them that people are inherently greedy and heading out for what's theirs first and foremost but in fact the idea of the commons has lasted for thousands of years many centuries in Western Europe without this ever happening it is because when people collectively own their community and they're responsible on their environment bitching to protect it instead of depleting it as quickly as they can to make a profit, will you take that local community out, of the equation when you ship this Prophet wherever it's going around the world you end up with things like these sand mafias and you end up with a real tragedy of the commons one that is not created because the people collectively owned this property because nobody is responsible for it because the profits are being shipped out somewhere else.

Daniel Forkner:

[50:10] That's a great way to phrase it that I mean so many economist, who use the tragedy of the commons to advocate for ideas use it to advocate for private property rights then I think you said it's so beautiful you can still own land yet not be responsible for it's crazy that you can own, you know a sand mine but live Halfway Around the World extract all that sand get the prophet of it and when that Village nearby collapse if you don't care because you don't live there it doesn't matter to you, so this idea that private property rights are the solution to protecting resources is really flat and it's in it's worth pointing out that Garrett Hardin the one who really defined this idea in the literature although he was not the first and certainly not the last, you later changed his mind largely on the work done by Elinor Ostrom a economist who got the Nobel Prize for her work studying the economies of comments and the methods that locals used to protect them all over the world, and Garrett Hardin later realize that he wasn't actually talking about the comments but the unmanaged comments. And it's easy to see how you can still have private property rights but through owners who don't manage the resources that they ultimately profit.

David Torcivia:

[51:26] Well then you real quick because this is sort of a big concept and something that we really should be. Teaching anymore in economic classes at least the way that is totally presented to those 101 students like you mentioned let's give a little quick practical example from Elinor Ostrom about a real Commons that was functioning in a healthy and sustainable way.

Daniel Forkner:

[51:45] She was known for studying Fisheries, and how local communities protected the resources of fisheries and prevent people from overexploiting them and one example that she writes about in her book. Governing the commons from 1990 comes from a relatively small fishery of approximately 100 local fishermen and from her book she writes, I'll most of this fishery is owned and operated by a local Cooperative that had experiments it for many years to figure out the best way. To protect the fish resources while giving everyone a chance to make their livelihood from fishing off of it.

[52:22] In a sense of a method that this Cooperative came up with his every September a list of all the people who would be fishing was made in the Cooperative would create a map of all the regions that could be fish.

[52:37] And then each fisherman on this list would be assigned a region and everyday who fished what region would cycle and would change, the maybe one day you get the most productive site and because of that you going to make sure you wake up early and you fished all day but then the next day you come back and you have a less productive spot and it prevents people from hoarding one specific spot in the fishery at the detriment to everyone else and it's a system that worked really well and if she makes a good point about how this was a self-enforcing Community Practice, quote the list of fishing locations is endorsed by each Fisher and deposit with the mayor once a year at the time of the lottery, the process of monitoring and enforcing the system is however accomplished by the Fishers themselves as a byproduct of the incentive created by the rotation system, on a day when a given Fisher is assigned one of the more productive spots that fisher will exercise that option with certainty, all other Fishers can expect that the assigned Fisher will be at that spot brighten early consequently an effort to cheat on the system by traveling to a good spot on a day when one is assigned to a poor spot has little chance of remaining undetected cheating on the system will be observed by the very Fishers who have rights to be in the best spot and will be willing to defend their right using physical means of necessary.

[53:58] Their rights will be supported by everyone else in the system the others will want to ensure that their own rights will not be usurped on the days when they are assigned good sites. The few infractions that have occurred have been handled easily by the Fishers at the local coffee house and quote.

David Torcivia:

[54:14] A lot of fish.

Daniel Forkner:

[54:16] Yeah but that's just one example in an important point that she makes David is that this whole tragedy of the commons metaphor is not suitable, for all resources it's it's a metaphor that has been broadly applied by policymakers to enforce property ride for some.

[54:39] Best way to determine, how to extract a resource and how to use it is by communities themselves using models that they can enforce and using models that they all collectively agree on is in their best interest and that requires a case-by-case analysis, that put Power into the hands of locals and I imagine this sand is no exception if we want to prevent, locals from destroying their habitats in places like India were agricultural lands being stripped for the sediment underneath the topsoil or where rivers are being stripped of their settlement destroying the habitats of river dolphins another species, then we would have to give that power back to those locals to actually give them a reason to care about their communities because right now the international finance system. Profits precisely by taking that power away but I suppose that's a tall order.

David Torcivia:

[55:34] So much of this Daniel is exacerbated by the way that, these things are out of sight and out of mind when we look at a beautiful new structure a building a monument a roadway a bridge whatever it might be we don't think about the places that the resources that were used to create that ultimately came from. Maybe if we knew the pain the environmental destruction that happened every time that we decided we need a new road or sidewalk or building or Mall, we'd be less excited about getting those installed in the first place. In this way we are suffering from a sort of global tragedy of the Commons in terms of the global suffering of the earth some, beach sand mafias the developers who pushed his construction are more than happy to use up the natural resources of this Earth and to inflict pain on others in order to profit for themselves, and this is the way our economic system setup supposed to encourage is kind of innovation entrepreneurship as we call it. Beneath a global system and that's really what we have now because the ways that we've connected this Earth both economically and politically as well as culturally, we are now in the midst of a global tragedy of the commons because we have so precisely privatized everything down and because we don't ultimately own anything or have any say over how these resources that should belong to all of us are managed exploited.

[56:57] And that is the story of this episode that's a story of the stand where for some reason because of these gross economic incentives it makes sense to ship stand from Australia to Saudi Arabia to build giant high-rise in the middle of the desert, constructed by slaves thousands of lives lost in this process to build a PlayPlace basically, for the rich and Powerful the world to stop by on their connecting flights to whatever site their business may take them and they hubris even I mean look with it we build a fake Earth out of this sand, in the water there off of Dubai, maybe seen the pictures in a mostly washed away now because it turns out stand gets carried away and in the current and have to be constantly replenished but that is not a sustainable or responsible use of these resources, any economic incentives that drive these are not something that benefits all of us but rather a few small select, Elite we're more than happy to sacrifice that global, for their own personal profit or even their own personal enjoyment in many cases when you're not even making money off of it but it's something that is unknown or easy or convenient to them. That's the real tragedy of the Commons at we see today they are no different than the example of the greedy, Shepherd wants his cattle to eat as much grass as possible to make sure nobody else can get it in even if ultimately that means the field will die the cattle will die and the farmer will starve and die.

Daniel Forkner:

[58:20] Was speaking of Parables David maybe we all should have read the Bible because their we are building our entire civilization from sediment that takes hundreds of millions of years to accumulate, and we use it to construct building blocks that then go into our buildings and other structures that will literally last 50 to 100 years and so we have quite literally David built our Collective houses, on the foundation of.

[58:52] Doing a little bit off topic but, we've discussed and tart how there's a sleight-of-hand going on when people today as far as the idea that we live in the best of times something we devoted an entire episode 2 episode 23 the best of times, and one of the reasons that we apparently live in the best of times is because we can travel the world on planes and Trains and Automobiles it speeds and distances without match even the imagination. Of ancient god Kings.

[59:23] But I want to suggest to you that this idea is also a sleight-of-hand that obscures the fact that we've made it possible to travel the world, not by expanding our bilities per se but by the leading whole chunks of the Earth in order to shorten the space we have to travel between points, consider this David 1000 years ago if you wanted to Traverse an entire continent you would have to move at a slower pace of course, but you would also pass through and infinitely more diverse and rewarding world. Consider the number of habitats you would have to pass through the species you would encounter I mean forget a thousand years ago even 100 years ago when it was impossible to drive across the United States and you know we mentioned in an earlier episode how, the biodiversity in North America was so much greater that at one point Americans, would witness the entire Sun being blocked out by billions of carrier pigeons will if you were to walk from one Coast to another and some country many years ago you would pass through hundreds of Worlds a true adventure, an odyssey if you will. But today we've made it possible to get from one place to another by laying down a Great White Foundation of concrete we have covered up those habitats.

[1:00:48] Rides at Central and animal breeding ground and much much more with concrete, yes. Concrete allows our cars and are trained to travel at 80 miles an hour uninterrupted for hours and hours what is this what the ancient god Kings would have wanted this what anyone with a sense of imagination would have wanted to sacrifice live, for some arbitrary ability to cover distance in space is it really meaningful to go from one town to the next when all the world follows the same model of space and Design when every single neighborhood is built by the same conglomerate of companies who Design Homes not based on Community Values but I'm cookie cutter designs created to satisfy the needs, of efficiency and predictability so that profit continues to return at an acceptable percentage.

David Torcivia:

[1:01:39] Once again from the world in a grain.

[1:01:42] One unexpected side effect of laying down all those sand and gravel roads Across the Nation with the proliferation of interchangeable deliberately monotonous chain stores fast food restaurants and gas stations, that's brought it up and self-contained clusters are the interstates off ramps, These Chains explicitly aim to provide an experience as predictable safe and easily accessed as the highways themselves those great rivers of pavement that carry customers to their doors it was no accident that one of the advertising slogans for Holiday Inn, achena found success by building hundreds of motels near freeways and interstates was Holiday Inn the best surprise is no surprise. In this way freeways have helped to Rob many places other personalities smothering Regional character under a blanket of sand and gravel. That numbing seemed this reduces the landscape, do a blur interpreted at regular intervals over bright Outpost of gas stations and fast-food chains replicated and slightly different configurations right across the entire country so that you can have breakfast at a Denny's in the morning in Nashville had dinner and what appears to be exactly the same Denny's that evening and Minneapolis the interstates connect towns and cities, but I disconnected utterly from them and the land they pass through as always that's a lot to think about I think about we hope you will.

[1:03:01] You can read more about all these topics on lots of interesting articles on the sand Mafia and read a full transcript of this episode on our website at ashes ashes. Org.

Daniel Forkner:

[1:03:12] As always a lot of time and research goes into making these episodes possible and we will never use ads to support this show if you like the show would like us to keep going you are listener can support us by giving us a review, recommending us to a friend discussing these ideas with your family and community, and by sending us some love on a patreon account go to patreon.com ashes ashes cast, where you can support us there also we do have an email address it's contact at ashes ashes. Org send us your thoughts will read them we appreciate them.

David Torcivia:

[1:03:46] You can also find us on your favorite social media Network at ashes ashes cast next week we're taking a look back at privacy and we hope you'll tune in for that but until then this is ashes ashes.