A fresh history of “the most important solid substance on Earth, the literal foundation of modern civilization.”
Books on a single, familiar topic (salt, cod, etc.) have an eager audience, and readers will find this an entirely satisfying addition to the genre. In his first book, journalist Beiser, whose work has appeared in Wired, Mother Jones, and elsewhere, has done his homework, and he delivers often surprising information about sand’s role from low tech to high (construction, glass, electronics) without neglecting the painful consequences of its skyrocketing production over the past century, which has made it a source of serious environmental damage. Next to air and water, humans use more sand (largely silica, silicon dioxide) than any material, mostly to make concrete for buildings and roads. Desert sand isn’t suitable, writes the author, so “riverbeds and beaches around the world are being stripped bare of their precious grains. Farmlands and forests are being torn up. And people are being imprisoned, tortured, and murdered. All over sand.” Of course, it takes sand to make glass, which was not cheap until after 1900, when machines put an army of glassmakers out of work, and bottles and picture windows became routine consumer products. Far less—but far more purified—sand becomes silicon chips and similar high-tech essentials. Beiser devotes the second half of the book to the process of moving sand from place to place. The iconic beaches we take for granted are often artificial creations, eroding steadily, supporting a massive, multibillion-dollar, government-subsidized industry to truck in sand. An area the size of Connecticut has been reclaimed from the sea for airports, homes, or luxury resorts by vacuuming sand from the sea bottom or importing it, often illegally, from the beaches and land of poor countries.
A successful if disturbing argument that there is more to sand than meets the eye.