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.
(This is a machine transcription. We'll fix this eventually and edit it for proper grammar and accuracy.)
[0:04] I'm David Torcivia.
[0:06] I'm Daniel Forkner.
[0:08] And this is Ashes Ashes, a show about systemic issues, cracks in civilization, collapse of the environment, and if we're unlucky the end of the world.
[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.
I don't like sand. It's coarse and rough and irritating and it gets everywhere.
[0:44] That movie gets a lot of flak, Daniel, but it's actually right about a lot of things, or at least that scene is.
[0:52] You mean the fact that sand gets everywhere?
[0:54] Well, yeah, that's about the only part that's right, but it is absolutely true. We see sand in every part of our life.
[1:01] You got sand castles on the beach.
[1:03] The beach itself. Sandboxes.
[1:06] Cat litter boxes.
[1:09] Pocket sand.
[1:10] The sand that you put on shuffleboard tables, you know what I'm talking about?
[1:16] Yeah, but I think more important than that is Sandstorm.
[1:27] You know, David, these are all the things that people think about when they hear the word sand. They also think about how Dubai imports all their sand from Australia to build their superstructures, despite being in the middle of the desert.
[1:42] Wait, what?
[1:43] Oh yeah, everybody knows that, David. Sand is used in construction for so many things, it's 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 for construction from Australia. They can't use desert sand, of course, because that sand has been weathered down by wind over long periods of time, and wind is such a forceful agent of erosion, knocking all those bits of sand together, that they become rounded to the point where it's kind of like stacking up marbles to try and create something out of it. It just won't work, and that's why most of the construction sand we use is course, it has a lot of angles, those individual sand pieces really lock in together like Lego blocks especially when added to cement. So, yeah, a curious fact for you there.
[2:42] I feel like you're getting a little bit ahead of ourselves right there, Daniel, with that oddball factoid, but maybe we should start with why we're talking about sand and exactly what sand is in the first place.
[2:55] Well, David, we're talking about sand 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 of pretty much every aspect of our lives, at least the infrastructure that our lives are directed on, and it's a big industry worth billions and billions of dollars. People fight over it, people die over it, and unfortunately, well, we're running out David.
[3:25] And that's really the focus of the episode today, which is something we'll explore in detail throughout this show. But before we get started in exactly how sand is running out and why that's happening, we should instead look and define exactly what we mean when we're talking about sand. Sand itself is obviously pretty small, we're all familiar with it, but there's actually a specific definition for what qualifies as sand.
[3:48] That was actually surprising to me, David, because, well, I guess I had actually never thought about what specifically is sand. And you've heard that riddle that goes, like, how many grains of sand does it take to create a mound or something like that, you know, so I always figured it was kind of like an abstract thing, like, you know, what is sand? Oh it's all that on the beach, you know, I don't try to define it but I know it when I see it.
[4:11] Well as you know, Daniel, we love quantifying everything we can in the world around us and sand is no different. Sand, to qualify as sand, has to be a loose collection of hard material with an individual grain size of .06 millimeters to 2 millimeters diameter. Any smaller than that and what you have is something called silt, and any larger, well that's gravel.
[4:33] Ah, see that makes a lot of sense to me now.
[4:37] And it doesn't end just there Daniel. Sand is defined into a wide variety of different types based on its hardness, its shape, the size, the color, the purity. All these things can vary from place to place because of natural erosion processes, like you've already talked about, as well as where the sand comes from in the first place. Most sand that we encounter is quartz. You've seen the crystals before, those white clear things that somebody's selling to charge your energy or whatever. Well most of that breaks down eventually and becomes the sand that we're familiar with in our beaches, though those also have shells and other components, but that is what we typically think of when we think of sand. But that's not the only type of sand. Maybe you've 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 sand on its way to turning into silt.
[5:31] Well, quick clarification there for you, David, you said just now hard rock but earlier you said the definition of sand is any collection of hard material. And that's important because sand doesn't have to be rock, it could be crushed up shells, or even plastics, that have formed through the weathering process of tides on beaches. And there are some beaches where the sand is actually just crushed up shells from animals. And in the case of desert, of course, that sand comes from the fact that all that clay and what used to be soil and other sediment 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 hurls all these particles at each other repeatedly, over and over, until it 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. If you have all this rock that's been uplifted and formed into mountains, well eventually parts of those rock break off, you know boulders that fall down, whatever. And they get picked up by rivers. Those rivers transport these rocks downstream, they erode them, knocking them together, and all this gets broken down and down, gets deposited on riverbeds, 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 and coasts all around the world. And it's important just to point that out, because this process of which rock is broken down from mountains, carried through and 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.
[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 move 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, that's more than twice the amount of sand that every single river in the world moves annually. That's a lot of sand.
[8:04] That is a lot of sand. It's 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, for instance, we stop so much of that sediment from coming down the river and depositing itself on the ocean floor and beaches. When we build up our coastal developments, our ports, our 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?
[8:44] Well, 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 in all of our devices. All of these are made possible by and wholly depend upon sand in order to exist in the first place.
[9:03] Okay, so you mentioned concrete and glass, obviously huge big inputs of modern construction. What are some other things made of sand?
[9:11] I mean, paint.
[9:12] Well 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 with sand. So are the roofs and the floors above and below you.
[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 at 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 separate it, and pull the oil out, you're 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 the United States.
[9:57] We use sand at water sanitation plants, where we get our drinking water, and it's used to filter some of the debris and other things out of the water.
[10:06] And like I mentioned earlier, sand also has its place in high-tech industries. Silicon chips, fiber optic cables, all the things that make our modern technological life possible, depend initially on very specialized, highly purified types of sand.
[10:21] Yeah, and what's interesting about these computer components that sand is used for is that, if you 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 that was for our modern development, I mean that's what enabled telescopes, microscopes, and enabled so much scientific discovery and technology that has enabled us to progress. But now, like you mentioned, it also enabled the small components which have given birth to the digital technology revolution that has reshaped the entire world as we know it. And it's such a simple thing, just grains of rock.
[11:02] This episode is brought to you by big sand, invest in sand today. No, but it really does feel like we're shilling for sand here, Daniel, but that's just because it's such a huge part of our way of life, an element that we just never really think about. In fact, can you think of a single natural resource that we use more than sand?
[11:22] Oil, David. No, ummm.
[11:25] Think even more basic than that.
[11:28] No, not fish Daniel. We're the very, the fundamentals here, I'm talking water and air.
[11:34] Oh okay, so we take more sand, you're saying, than we do oil.
[11:38] Yeah, believe it or not that's actually true! But where are all the people crying peak sand, Daniel?
[11:44] They're 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 air in there. But sand is not just valuable as an economic resource. In Episode 34 "Irreplaceable" we discussed how the environment provides so many valuable services that we all need to survive, and sand is an important component for many of these services. For example, we covered the loss of freshwater in Episode 30 "Parched" and how we are extracting water faster than it can naturally recharge in 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 riverbeds 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. So, 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 floods, which we'll get to in a little bit. And, David, we mentioned that we're running out of sand and that's because we demand it so much. 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.
[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 than the US 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. And cement, 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% sand, which means for every single ton of cement used in construction, over 7 tons of sand are needed for the final concrete pour.
[13:48] Yeah and obviously much of this demand, David, is driven by urbanization. I mean, we have enough people globally that are migrating to cities every year, that that migration plus the construction to accommodate it is the equivalent of building eight New York Cities 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 course is, you know, to get to this oil that's in tightly packed shale rock. They use sand and they mix it with liquids, like water, and they just, blast it at this shale 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% of total industrial sand production in 2003, but by 2014 that share had jumped to 72% of all industrial sand production. And one more stat I'd like to throw at you, David.
[14:52] I'm ready.
[14:53] 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.
[15:09] That's a lot of sand.
[15:10] And that's a lot of activity. As you would expect, all this activity is having an impact not just on our ability to acquire the sand economically, which is, I guess, what most people focus on, most articles focus on, is hey we're running out of sand and this is 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, there's 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.
[15:45] Well, and that's only considering the sand mining that we know about. And much of it, especially in the developing world where 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. And this is part of the problem in tackling this issue, is because nobody's exactly sure how big of an issue it even is, because there's just so little data on it because no one has really been tracking sand use up until relatively recently. But the use of sand and civilization is not new and in fact goes back thousands of years.
[16:16] Let's talk a little history then, David.
[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 an early form of concrete to support beams in certain structures over two millennium ago.
[16:32] The Greeks created brick mortar from sand.
[16:35] In Morocco there are actually whole sand cities built by ancient groups, who constructed their entire house out of nothing but sand.
[16:44] What's really interesting to me, 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, a whole 1,300 years later, that inventors in Europe started figuring out how to make this concrete again. And this is what transformed modern civilization. And 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.
[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, that people really began to harness the full potential of sand and began using it on a colossal scale. It was during this period that sand went from being a resource used for widespread but artisanal purposes, to becoming the essential building block of civilization. The key material used to create mass manufactured structures and products demanded by a fast-growing population."
[17:59] Now he mentioned in there, David, that this was the first time we were using sand outside of artisanal purposes and at 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 how sand 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 2,000 years ago and it's still the largest structure in the world built with unreinforced concrete - but without those the 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 1900s were entirely made of wood, brick, or stone, with glass windows remaining a rare and expensive luxury.
[19:18] In 1904, not including city streets, the entire United States had a grand total of 141 miles of paved road.
[19:27] That's crazy.
[19:28] I know, but listen to this: 15 years later, or exactly 100 years ago, when a future President Dwight Eisenhower volunteered for a cross-country military convoy as a young officer, the idea of crossing the US by automobile was an unthinkable proposition. Entire cities existed without a single paved road to connect them. That trip is what helped inspire Eisenhower to launch the US Interstate Highway System, which transformed the US economy and way of life in ways that are absolutely impossible to understate. Also impossible to understate is the great quantity of sand that had to be employed in the process. Every single mile of US highway requires some 40,000 tons of aggregate. To be more specific, each lane mile requires that much. So if you have a six-lane highway, each mile represents 240,000 tons of aggregate.
[20:19] That's crazy. And I think that's just something to think about for a minute, which is if where 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. And 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 feats that came later of people flying around the world. It just didn't happen.
[20:51] But you add a little sand to the mix, Daniel, and here we are in our suburban sprawl hell. But that's another episode.
[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. And that's 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 gonna physically run out. But it's totally possible to run out of sources that are economic for your construction and growth needs, right?
[21:26] Yeah, this is an important concept that comes up anytime we're talking about scarcity. You have true scarcity which is when it's just unavailable to be found anywhere, and then you have the sort of economic scarcity when, yeah it exists 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. And right now as it stands, our civilization has depended upon the access to very economically affordable sand. 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, well that starts getting expensive economically in terms of dollar signs, as well as environmentally, for all the costs that go with transporting something and extracting it from somewhere else.
[22:21] Yeah, exactly. Like we mentioned desert sand, it's there, it's abundant, but we can't use it for construction because of the way it's built. Similarly, there's a lot of dredging of ocean floors going on to collect sand, but this is more expensive than the sand that you could get inland from quarries 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 mere transportation and sourcing. 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, and 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.
[23:20] It's not hard to see why that is. Sand ultimately is nothing more than just ground up, smashed, eroded rock. So hauling it is extremely heavy and expensive. It's why almost all construction sand is sourced as close as possible to build sites. The transportation of sand alone can account for more than 60% of the entire cost of acquiring it. In fact, most of the time sand is often free if you come up and take it out, you just have to get it where it needs to go. And that 60% transportation cost is if you're already sourcing it from a local quarry. For most construction applications it's a deal-breaker if the aggregate has to be shipped more than 60 miles to the build site. But to illustrate this concept, that sand economics is all about transportation and where you source it from, there's an interesting story in the early history of sand in the United States. Many of the most wealthy industrialists of America got their start in the sand and gravel business and Henry Kaiser was one of them. Known for Kaiser Steel, or maybe more familiar Kaiser Permanente health system, Kaiser Aluminum, and the 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. But it was in the 1930s that he landed his first dam construction job, the Shasta Dam in California.
[24:37] Kaiser owned a mine just a few miles from the dam site, but it could not 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, just search Shasta Dam conveyor belt. The innovation was so successful that Kaiser eventually won a contract to help them build the Hoover Dam.
[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's 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 sand 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 quarries with a certain type of sand. And in fact, David, there are entire 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 the challenge of supplying the 2015 European Games that was held in Baku, Azerbaijan.
[26:07] "Baku has beaches. It's on a peninsula on the western shore of the Caspian Sea, but the sand is barely suitable for sand bathing, much less volleyball. So Napton's crew searched the region and found a large deposit with the ideal mixture of particle sizes in a family-owned mine in the Nur Mountains in southern Turkey, 800 miles to the west. The mine is within shelling distance of the Syrian border. Napton had planned to transport the sand across central Syria, through Iraq, around Armenia, and into Azerbaijan from the northwest in two convoys of more than 250 trucks each. But geopolitics intervened, so instead Napton and his crew bagged the sand in 1 1/2 ton fabric totes, trucked it west to Iskenderun, and craned it onto ships. "We did five vessels, five separate trips," Napton said.
[27:06] “The route went across the Mediterranean, up the Aegean, through the Bosporus, across the Black Sea, and into Sochi. From there, they took the sand by rail through Russia and Georgia, around Armenia, and across Azerbaijan. The Syrian exodus was on at the time and we saw people walking for their lives," he said, "but these were the first ever European games, so everything had to be right."
[27:28] That's a long-winded story, Daniel, but you don't 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 and highway system, access to sand deposits are strained further by the fact that much of the ground is now covered up with concrete. And 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 neighborhoods where residents don't want big mining quarries in their backyards.
[28:03] This is a big problem in Canada going on right now.
[28:05] But these are all talking about how difficult it is to access that sand, and we're totally glossed over the fact that the process of extracting this sand in the first place is often extremely destructive.
[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 miners alike try to get hold of that precious sand. In the Midwest United States, forests are being clear-cut to get at a particular sand that’s useful for the fracking industry. And where some of the biggest destruction is occurring is in river deltas where so many people live, David.
[28:55] What exactly is a river delta, Daniel?
[28:57] Well let me tell you, David. So, you have a river, starts in the mountains, and it goes past the mountain, then eventually gets to the ocean right?
[29:07] I mean, I guess so.
[29:08] Well, the delta is formed when a river reaches the ocean. The current that has been carrying all this sediment begins to slow down as the water approaches, and as a result all that sediment begins to settle and accumulate. Eventually this build-up forms a delta plain, with smaller distributaries of water that sneak through it, eventually making their way to the ocean, depositing even more sediment. And it's in these deltas where some of the most fertile soil in the world can be found, and also where some of the earliest human civilizations formed. And today these deltas attract the attention of sand miners because of all the sediment, which is wreaking havoc on places like the Mekong Delta in Vietnam.
[29:53] Here's a quote from the book The World in a Grain. "In Vietnam, researchers with the World Wildlife Federation believe sand mining on the Mekong River is a key reason the 15,000 square mile Mekong Delta, home to 20 million people and source of half of all the country's 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 region's land every day. Already thousands of acres of rice farms 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 induced sea level rise and partly by direct human intervention. For centuries the delta has been replenished by sediment carried down from the mountains of Central Asia by the Mekong River. But in recent years, in each of the several countries along its course, miners have begun pulling huge quantities of sand from the riverbed to use for the construction of Southeast Asia's surging cities. Nearly 50 million tons of sand are being extracted annually, enough to cover the city of Denver two inches deep." "The sediment flow has been halved," says Marc Goichot, a researcher with the World Wildlife Fund's Greater Mekong program. “That means that while natural erosion of the delta continues, its natural replenishment does not. At this rate nearly half the delta will be wiped out by the end of this century.”
[31:15] Displacing countless people, David, but humans are not the only species affected by this, as we've talked about. There was a study done in 2016 of a 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, decimating populations through pollution, removal of vegetation, and direct damage to fish eggs.
[31:42] And similarly, in 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. And it's really sad how the vast majority of these sand miners in developing countries are just locals who have no good job prospects, and take these jobs digging out sand in 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. And we talk more about this process in Episode 36 "Slaves to Progress," how so many people in the developing world are forced into labor that ultimately undermines their entire livelihoods. And this sand mining is no exception, and it results in a type of cannibalization of the local economy because while laborers mine for sand to make a paycheck, other locals who work in fishing find their catches dwindle and everyone ends up losing.
[32:51] Now we mentioned how river deltas are hot spots for sand, but so are the rivers themselves before they even reach the deltas. And there's a ton of destruction associated with this riverbed mining. Riverbed mining erodes the riverbanks, as Daniel mentioned, and can cause infrastructure built up around rivers, like bridges, to eventually collapse. People along the Mekong River in Vietnam have had their houses and shops collapse from this riverbank erosion. And mining can also allow deep ocean water to find its way up into the dredged floor, contaminating the water table. Of course this ruins local agriculture and drinking supplies. We've talked about this before in Episode 2, where we discussed the flooding that occurred in Houston from Hurricane Harvey. And one of the factors that made this flooding so bad was the sand mining that had 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 populations decimated from this same activity. But perhaps more profoundly from a biodiversity perspective, there is a whole layer of sediment on the bottom of rivers, known as the hyporheic zone, that teems with invertebrate and microscopic life. This layer is totally destroyed from sand extraction.
[34:21] In fact, David, there was a 2014 study that found that not a single river in India has been untouched by this mining. From the paper, "Sand miners are digging to a depth of about 15 meters 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 we'll get to, we need to remember that nature does not distinguish between what is legal and illegal. From the paper, "In this connection it is also noteworthy that the dubious eco-friendly policy announced by certain state governments providing for sand extraction up to two meters is utterly myopic and disastrous to sand-associated life because much of the hyporheic life is confined to the upper one meter or so of the sediment."
[35:27] But, Daniel, we got to admit that not all species are losing out from this practice.
[35:33] Really, David.
[35:34] Yeah, there's actually one type of species that benefits hugely from sand mining.
[35:40] Oh, okay, I guess that's good. You know, silver lining in everything, right?
[35:43] Yeah, and it
[35:44] Got to keep optimism alive.
[35:45] And that happy optimistic species is the mosquito.
[35:49] Oh, I was hoping you were gonna say panda bear.
[35:52] No. A 2013 paper examining mosquito larvae populations in Iran found that the standing pools created from sand extraction provided the most successful breeding habitat for mosquitoes. The most abundant species being a common malaria vector. So, that's another thing.
[36:10] Silver lining, David.
[36:12] But the damage isn't just done to these riverbeds, Daniel. We talked before about fish trawling off the coast and how this can destroy marine habitats. Well, ocean dredging for sand is very similar in practice to trawling techniques. The practice of ripping the sand out of the bottom of the ocean floor uproots vegetation, creates massive dust plumes that block sunlight and suffocate fish, and destroy coral reefs by just directly ripping them out. If that weren't enough, dredging sand off the ocean floor also erodes nearby beaches. One beach in California loses 8 acres of beach land annually from a nearby ocean sand mine and by 2100, 67 percent of southern California's beaches will be gone. But the other coast also has to worry. Half of all beaches in Florida are labeled as critically eroding and, in fact, beaches all over the world are disappearing. The rate at which sand deposits on beaches in South Africa, Kenyan and other African coasts has been dramatically decreased by sand mining.
[37:08] Which reminds me, David, of this really interesting and unfortunate phenomenon going on in Florida. So like we mentioned how sand gets deposited on beaches from rivers, that's not the only way. Many beaches also receive sand from the ocean currents which uplift sand from distant ocean floors and carry it far distances. And many of these Florida beaches get their sand from further up the Atlantic coast, but because of all the coastal development that has occurred that sand 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 quarries 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, is in 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 that 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] And so we 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 mafias, David. The mobsters, the gangs who are behind so much of this illegal sand mining all over the world.
[39:18] While 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 in many cases murdered because of their investigation of these sand mafias. In many countries, including India, much of Northern Africa, and huge swathes of Southeast Asia, these sand mafias have moved into locations, secretly and illegally stealing sand, sometimes in the day, sometimes at night, often times from just the side of a river. Ship it up, pack it up, put it on a truck, ship it to where it needs to be used for construction, many times 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, where people are literally murdering each other over the illegal export of sand.
[40:22] And I don't want to go too in-depth with this, David, there's a ton of articles on it. It's actually the main focus, if you Google sand running out, a lot of these articles and investigators focus on the sand mafia component and I suspect it's because.
[40:37] Mafias are sexy.
[40:38] It, yeah well it's sexy, it's good clickbait, 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, creating the incentive for illegal sand mining. And 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. And this black market value is estimated at over 2 billion dollars annually.
[41:13] And of course with so much of this activity the people actually doing the work, the labor day-to-day, are just simple people trying to make a buck - using hand tools, driving tractors, finding sand wherever they can, mostly in riverbeds, while the profits 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 occur not just in India, 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, Hungary, and a lot of it is occurring in Southeast Asia like Cambodia, Malaysia, Thailand and Indonesia, all which are pressured by Singapore to export sand to help them build up their land reclamation projects. And in 2016, 3,000 people were arrested in Vietnam alone for illegal sand mining in protected areas. It occurs in Northern Ireland and Scotland, in the Caribbean islands and Jamaica, and of course the United States, and so much more. Like you mentioned, David, there's a lot of it that goes unreported.
[42:24] The scale of all this mining, Daniel, is really staggering. And the fact that it happens in so many countries all around the world, like you mention the main one is India, but even in Western countries where there is, supposedly a tighter adherence to the law. Northern Ireland, Scotland, the United States, this is still happening, these illegal sand minings and the mafias that they spawn.
[42:46] Right, and 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. Well, at the end of the day this destructive and unsustainable extraction is going to happen, legally or otherwise, so long as these trends in urbanism and construction continue to be driven in large part by international finance.
[43:20] For 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 the sand we take, and that "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." 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." 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 eight New York Cities 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 sand that cannot be met by legal and sustainable means because the growth itself is unsustainable.
[44:42] These mafias exist because if you only took sand from these rivers, and these deltas, and these quarries 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 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.
[45:09] And as we've discussed at length on this show, and the point we have to continue to drive home, is that we cannot continue to have an economy premised on infinite growth without destroying the world in the process. You can't grow capital indefinitely without some underlying physical extraction or expansion, and the Earth simply has limits that don't play by the rules of this financial fantasy. And I think Singapore, David, is a great example of this, where the country is so small, yet for whatever reason attracts so much investment, that 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 their return on 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 countries, 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 gonna continue to support these unsustainable practices, and any half-hearted government attempt to cap it is inevitably going to spawn illegal activity.
[46:35] And the legal 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 destroys the environment.
[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. And this is not the first time that we've heard this sort of thing from a major 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 didn't give us a timeline for the use of sand left in the IMF article, but the economic use of sand and what is cheap, is definitely going to be something that comes sooner rather than later.
[47:23] And the thing with sand is that when we "run out" it's not the end of the world in terms of infrastructure or construction. We can use recycled concrete, we can make new sand, but all those processes are expensive, and the cost of construction and growing becomes that much more expensive. And even more than that, the costs 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 especially right now here in the United States with our aging bridges and roadways, is that the costs of repairing these are going to be much higher than it was the first time that we built them. And that's unsustainable. That's a death spiral for civilization, another topic we talk about on this show a lot, but how did we get here in the first place - with local communities destroying their environment in order to source this sand 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 cliché the tragedy of the commons, Daniel.
[48:23] Ah yes, David, the tragedy of the commons, something you learned in Economics 101. That theory proposed by Garrett 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 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 erosion or the depletion of that grass, ultimately harming everyone. He's so incentivized to do so because if he doesn't, his 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.
[49:15] Exactly, and it's a very nice little fairy tale, but unfortunately, ultimately that's all it is, a fairy tale. A convenient lie sold to economic students in order 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. And that's because when people collectively own their community, and they're responsible on their environment, they tend to protect it instead of depleting it as quickly as they can to make a profit. But when you take that local community out of the equation, when you ship this profit 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, but because nobody is responsible for it. Because the profits are being shipped out somewhere else.
[50:10] That's a great way to phrase it. I mean so many economists 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 so beautifully, you can still own land yet not be responsible for it. It's crazy that you can own a sand mine but live halfway around the world, extract all that sand, get the profit of it, and when that village nearby collapses you don't care because you don't live there, it doesn't matter to you. And so this idea that private property rights are the solution to protecting resources is really flawed. And 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, he later changed his mind, largely on the work done by Elinor Ostrom, an economist who got the Nobel Prize for her work studying the economies of commons and the methods that locals used to protect them all over the world. And Garrett Hardin later realized that he wasn't actually talking about the commons, but the unmanaged commons. 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 from.
[51:26] Well, Daniel, real quick because this is sort of a big concept and something that we really should be not teaching anymore in economic classes, at least the way that it's normally 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.
[51:45] She was known for studying fisheries, and how local communities protected the resources of fisheries and prevented 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 how most of this fishery is owned and operated by a local cooperative that had experimented 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] And essentially the method that this cooperative came up with is every September a list of all the people who would be fishing was made, and then the cooperative would create a map of all the regions that could be fished.
[52:37] And then each fisherman on this list would be assigned a region. And every day, who fished what region would cycle, and would change. So maybe one day you get the most productive site and because of that you're gonna make sure you wake up early and you fish it 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 she makes a good point about how this was a self-enforcing community practice. "The list of fishing locations is endorsed by each fisher and deposited 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 bright and 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 spots and will be willing to defend their rights using physical means if 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."
[54:14] That's a lot of fish.
[54:16] Yeah, but that's just one example and an important point that she makes, David, is that this whole tragedy of the commons metaphor is not suitable for all resources. It's a metaphor that has been broadly applied by policymakers to enforce property rights, or some kind of central authority to impose its will on local peoples.
[54:37] But, ultimately, the 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 puts 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, where agricultural land is being stripped for the sediment underneath the topsoil, or where rivers are being stripped of their sediment destroying the habitats of river dolphins and other 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.
[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 that environmental destruction that happened every time that we decided we need a new road, or a sidewalk, or a building, or a 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, these sand mafias, the developers who push this 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 is set up. It's supposed to encourage this kind of innovation, entrepreneurship as we call it. But in a global system, and that's really what we have now because the ways that we've connected this Earth, both economically, 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, and drained away.
[56:57] And that is the story of this episode. That's the story of the sand, where for some reason because of these gross economic incentives, it makes sense to ship sand from Australia to Saudi Arabia to build giant high-rises in the middle of the desert, constructed by slaves, thousands of lives lost in this process, to build a play place, basically, for the rich and powerful of the world that stop by on their connecting flights to whatever site their business may take them. And the hubris even, I mean look, with it we built a fake Earth out of this sand, in the water there off of Dubai, maybe you've seen the pictures, they've mostly washed away now because it turns out sand gets carried away in the current and it has to be constantly replenished, but that is not a sustainable or responsible use of these resources. And the economic incentives that drive these are not something that benefits all of us but rather a few small select elite who are more than happy to sacrifice that global health for their own personal profit, or even their own personal enjoyment in many cases, when they're not even making money off of it but it's something that is fun, or easy, or convenient to them. And that's the real tragedy of the commons that we see today. They are no different than the example of the greedy shepherd who 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.
[58:20] Well speaking of parables, David, maybe we all should have read the Bible because here 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 our structures that will literally last 50 to 100 years. And so we have quite literally, David, built our collective houses on a foundation of sand. Something that I know is advised against in the Good Book.
[58:50] But a thought comes to me, David. Going a little bit off topic, but we've discussed in part how there's a sleight of hand going on when people today espouse the idea that we live in the best of times, something we devoted an entire episode to, 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 at speeds and distances that outmatch 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 abilities per se, but by deleting whole chunks of the Earth in order to shorten the space we have to travel between points. Consider this, David, one thousand 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 an 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. Well if you were to walk from one coast to another in 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. We have replaced wetlands, forests, swamps, villages and towns, indigenous tribes, ancestral lands, animal breeding grounds and much, much more with concrete.
[1:00:53] Yes, that concrete allows our cars and our trains to travel at 80 miles an hour, uninterrupted for hours and hours. But is this what the ancient god kings would have wanted? Is this what anyone with a sense of imagination would have wanted, to sacrifice life 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 on cookie cutter designs created to satisfy the needs of efficiency and predictability, so that profit continues to return at an acceptable percentage?
[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 was the proliferation of interchangeable, deliberately monotonous chain stores, fast food restaurants, and gas stations that sprouted up in self-contained clusters near 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, a chain that 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 of their personalities, smothering regional character under a blanket of sand and gravel. That numbing sameness reduces the landscape to a blur, interpreted at regular intervals by over-bright outposts of gas stations and fast food chains, replicated in slightly different configurations right across the entire country, so that you can have breakfast at a Denny's in the morning in Nashville and dinner at what appears to be exactly the same Denny's that evening in Minneapolis. The interstates connect towns and cities, but are disconnected utterly from them and the land they pass through." As always, that's a lot to think about. But think about it we hope you will.
[1:03:01] You can read more about all these topics, find lots of interesting articles on those sand mafias, and read a full transcript of this episode on our website at ashesashes.org.
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[1:03:46] You can also find us on your favorite social media network @ashesashescast. 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.