The Lone and Level Sands

August 7, 2018   •   By David Astrofsky

The World in a Grain

Vince Beiser

SAND MIGHT SEEM like a substance too cheap to sell. Beaches are littered with it, golf courses keep piles of it, dig down near a riverbed and you’re likely to find it before long. In 2012, however, the California Department of Conservation declared the state possesses only about a third of the sand it will need for the next 50 years. In fact, Vietnam’s Ministry of Construction reported in 2017 that in less than 15 years they’d be out of the stuff entirely. Whether you use a cell phone, paint walls, or pour concrete, it turns out you’re utilizing one of the most overlooked yet vital resources the earth has to offer. And it is fast becoming more rare and precious than ever.

Vince Beiser, the author of the surprisingly detailed new book The World in a Grain: The Story of Sand and How It Transformed Civilization, has delivered an inevitable warning cry to generations of citizens who historically seemed to have taken sand for granted. In a time when the scarcity of natural resources has been made more than abundantly clear, this book is the hitherto missing argument for a civilization that should not only value the sand beneath its feet, but also work globally to protect it. As Beiser writes, “Ultimately there’s only one long-term solution: human beings have to start using less sand. For that matter, we have to start using less of everything.”

An acclaimed journalist whose work has been featured in Wired, The Atlantic, and Rolling Stone, among other publications, Beiser has fixed his aim on a resource that has ostensibly slipped through the grasps of pop culture’s consciousness. A work partially structured around an accessible history of civilization’s dependence on sand, Beiser takes the reader through the socioeconomic impacts the commodity continues to have on everyday life.

While Beiser’s book is dense, with well-researched historical material (covering everything from the utilization of sand in the construction of Roman bathhouses to the use of high-purity silicon dioxide particles in the contemporary computer chip), Beiser never leans too heavily on what another author would presume to be the common reader’s ignorance of sand. His informal research is delivered gracefully: not in order to condescend or perpetually amuse, but to guide the reader. His book is not a mere collection of fun facts — except for a few interludes composed of factoids breaking up Beiser’s earnest narrative rhythm. These histories build upon one another in a carefully organized structure, laid with the precision of one of Frank Lloyd Wright’s concrete architectural wonders (a feat impossible without the use of sand, of course).

The book itself is divided into two parts, the first dealing with sand’s role in 20th-century industrialization, and the second concerning sand’s effect on the 21st century’s globalized digital world. Ultimately, these narrative pillars work toward a foreshadowed conclusion that is perhaps Beiser’s most powerful chapter aside from his whirlwind introduction. The seed of this work was planted by a piece Beiser previously published in Wired, regarding murder and the Indian sand mafia. The story of a threatening encounter with such shady sand miners kicks off this historical journey into the dunes of civilization, and what I imagine was a long and tedious stint in the library for Beiser.

The author does his best work when venturing out of the sandbox of scientific explanation and into the field of human nature. Beiser displays an attractive affinity for beginning each chapter with a glimpse into the perspectives of either a historical figure or a present-day survivor, groping their way through the problems sand has presented them with. With these personal stories — whether relating the young Dwight D. Eisenhower’s experiences on the United States Army’s cross-country convoy preceding the paving of the interstate highways, or discussing Aakash Chauhan, an unflinching advocate against India’s sand mafias — Beiser grips the reader, while providing evidence of sand’s multilayered history.

Where the writing seems to take off and leave the mere logistics of granules and grains behind is when Beiser calls upon the tools of journalism to tell his story. Whether in Chippewa Falls, Wisconsin, or India, he exhibits a flair for detailing the human drama through prose. The exacting clarifications — of things like the difference between concrete and cement — are intriguing, working compassionately not to leave the reader in the dust, but they can sometimes get monotonous. On the other hand, the nuance and restraint with which the view from a Chippewa County ranch home is depicted becomes an absorbing if not empathetic scene. It is in such moments where Beiser, lending a peek into the lives of those contending with sand mining companies in their backyard, brilliantly weaves the human with the technical.

The story of sand is an ancient one, and prefacing each of the book’s two parts are excerpts from Jorge Luis Borges and the Gospel of Matthew. William Blake is even cited in the first chapter. But the author doesn’t lean on the annals of literature for citations that would otherwise free him from the responsibility of forging his own perspective. Beiser maintains a historian’s distanced gaze throughout his research, but furnishes us with a conclusion that is all his own. He is not simply calling attention to the supposedly most overlooked natural resource in the world. He is making a case for the way civilization views natural resources as a common collective. Through Beiser’s careful research, and by putting a grain of sand under the microscope of his journalistic gaze, the author holds us accountable not only for the manner in which we overlook specific substances, but how we neglect to observe the natural world as a whole.

Alerting the human race to the necessity of reducing, reusing, and recycling is nothing new. Surely, in Beiser’s book we learn tons about a substance that has been power blasted and dumped by the truckload into the ocean for years — something no one seems to notice or care about save for a few mindful activists, many of which Beiser gets to know personally in his travels around the world. But the bigger question Beiser is tugging at with his final chapter might just be how humankind’s common disregard for sand could reflect the ways in which it is presently failing to perceive of, as Beiser writes, “build[ing] a life for 7 billion people on a foundation sturdier than sand.” He hasn’t stuck our noses in the desert soil merely to remind us of what we’re lying on whenever we go to the beach. He’s signaling, possibly, that what we don’t know about sand only illuminates the arrogant path with which we’ve strode so blindly to the shores of 2018: a time when oil, water, trees, and land are no longer thought to be infinite. As if they ever should have been.


David Astrofsky is a writer and filmmaker hailing from Boston, Massachusetts.