Book Review: The World In A Grain

Cover page The World In A Grain by Vince Beiser.

Last Saturday, a special Dutch season started: Sinterklaas1. He traditionally arrives in a steam ship in some camera pleasing port and starts his tour through the country. Eventually he commemorates his name day (December 6th) by leaving presents for all children on the eve before. Usually this is celebrated with children and/or parents giving each other presents in elaborate packaging and clumsy rhymes. So, this might be a good occasion to recommend a book for your wish list.

Somewhere I found a copy of ‘The World in a Grain’ by Vince Beiser2. Actually, it was the subtitle, ‘The Story of Sand and How It Transformed Civilization’ that caught my attention. As you may have noticed, I am very interested in sand. And, it is good, to occasionally take a step back and contemplate how our product contributes to civilisation and the world as we know it.

Photo of American-Canadian journalist Vince Beiser (Credit: Wikipedia).

Vince Beiser3 is an American-Canadian journalist and the book is easy to read. The chapters are arranged to the subject where sand is coming from and its contribution to society. Beginning with the origin of sand, the erosion of rock, and the locations where it ends up and can be extracted. The most basic application of sand is construction sand to create infrastructure: reclaimed land, ballast material for roads and railways, general landscaping etc. Than, the applications become more refined: concrete, asphalt, fracking, foundries, glass making, eventually all the way to high end products as computer chips and smart phones. Each application requiring its own type of sand.

Soil sample exhibit at the Damen Dredging Experience.

Proceeding through the book, you will be surprised about how dependent we’ve become on such a small unit of our universe. And that is exactly where Beiser is alarming us about. Not only that at some point in the future, sand will become a scarce commodity, it already is. As with all scarce materials, they become precious and attract activity that is not always benefitting all stakeholders. This usually involves violence and crime. And Beiser has been exploring this dark side of the trade for his book.

His experience as criminal-justice journalist has helped him to uncover social injustice, where some greedy individuals were profiting from resources that ought to serve the wellbeing of all mankind. Beautiful beaches that have been scooped away. Rivers that changed their course and deprived communities from irrigation. Pastoral landscape, that was torn up and left behind devastated. He visited some sites and spoke to victims and activists. At some occasions, he was even threatened himself.

Progressing through the book, I even felt ashamed that I was taking part in an industry that allegedly rapes nature and deprives future generations of their rightful heritage. He reported severe cases from undeveloped countries, but even well-known names in our dredging industry have been mentioned. According to Beiser, there is no direct solution, as the demand is still on the rise, but I think there is: cooperation in governance. Share with others the experience on sand mining, the market possibilities and communicate with all stakeholders involved. Personally, I am involved in CEDA4, but there are many more platforms: IADC, EuDA, EMSAGG, PIANC etc. And as always: think about what you are doing and what does it leave future generations with.

OK, one last bonus link for those who don’t like reading a whole book. I think the producers of the Dutch children’s TV show ‘Buitendienst’5, last Friday, have been reading this book also.

Het grote zandmysterie (Credit: De Buitendienst).

References

  1. Sinterklaas, Wikipedia
  2. The World in a Grain, Amazon
  3. Vince Beiser, Wikipedia
  4. Dredging Management Commission, CEDA
  5. Het grote zandmysterie, NPO Zapp

See also