Kerr Center

President’s Note: Book Review: The World in a Grain

President’s Note: Book Review: The World in a Grain

The book I am reviewing covers a topic you probably wouldn’t consider important for sustainable agriculture unless it was part of your soil.

The book’s title is The World in a Grain: The Story of Sand and How It Transformed Civilization, by Vince Beiser. The basic message is how important sand is to modern life, and that we are running out of it.

It left me wondering about all those photos I have seen of the Sahara Desert in Africa, and all the sand. It turns out that windblown sand does not have the correct shape for use in concrete, and the grains are contaminated with other minerals, making it unsuited for use in glass.

So what do we use sand for? Concrete (cement + aggregate + sand), asphalt (petroleum product + aggregate + sand), glass, silicon for computer chips, fracking for gas and oil, and to rebuild beaches.

When you think of glass, realize that it’s not just windows in houses or skyscrapers, but glassware in your kitchen, car windows, lightbulbs, smart phones, fiber optic cables, fiberglass insulation, computer and TV screens, microscopes, telescopes, and camera lenses. Computer chips require very pure silica sand, and it is found in only a few locations.

I thought the oddest use of sand was for rebuilding beaches. It turns out that modern coastlines with wharves and docks have prevented the natural deposition of sand along some coastal beaches, leading to beach erosion.

In Florida, some beaches are rebuilt every five to six years using sand mined inland and hauled to the beach. The sand must be deposited at the correct slope, and tested to make sure it is the correct size and shape, for sea turtles who come ashore to lay eggs.

We are using sand much more rapidly than in the past, and today’s modern society is based on it. Agriculture relies on concrete for building foundations and warehouses. A processing house concrete floor can be washed down, promoting food safety. Computers and smart phones are very important to modern agriculture.

As a society, we tend to ignore or not realize the importance of the raw materials that make modern society possible. Sand is one of those. The book documents cases of illegal sand harvesting worldwide destroying farmland and beaches to feed the demand for construction projects. It is not easy to recycle sand from products made with sand.

The book doesn’t offer a solution to the problem – and in reality, there is no easy solution, but it does make you think how important something as simple as a grain of sand is to our modern life.