The first reaction of everybody I speak to on this matter, mine included, is incredulity – “you’re winding me up”. I then became so intrigued that I extracted the salient points from three 2014 German language films addressing this issue. I have created a 4-page PDF summary which you can download from here.
At first, briefly, a wave of despair flowed over me (“another example of human ignorance”), this was then quickly replaced by my customary attitude “now that we have identified the problem, let’s find solutions”.
This issue of sand however brilliantly highlights the interconnectedness of everything:
Desert sand is not suitable for concrete. The right sand for building needs to be shaped by water and is mostly created and carried down to sea by streams and rivers from the high mountains. Except, 850,000 dams across most rivers of our planet have now interrupted this natural cycle. As a consequence we are forced to dredge rivers, lakes, beaches and the oceans for sand. This accelerates the flow of rivers, which causes additional damage and flooding. 90% of the world’s sandy beaches are vanishing because of the illegal removal of sand due to the operation of huge vacuum ships just off-shore. Each sucks up as much as 400,000 cubic meters of sand daily from close to the oceans’ shores, which undermines the shelf that keeps sandy beaches in place.
We use 15 billion tonnes of sand each year, which is the equivalent of a convoy of huge trucks reaching seven times to the moon and back. We annually make the equivalent of 2 tonnes of concrete per head of the world’s population. We consume twice as much sand as nature can now produce. Because sand is not to be found everywhere, thousands of sand-miles are added to most building sand as it gets shipped from places like Australia to Dubai. Dubai’s vanity building, the Burj Khalifa, alone required sand that, if carried by a convoy of lorries, they would have circled the world 5 times over (and the building is 90% empty!).
In countries with high rates of homelessness our economic system has encouraged speculators to build homes and flats and keep them empty (e.g. 56% in China; 50% in Mumbai; 30% in Spain).
By 2025 three-quarters of humanity is expected to live along the seaside, which means more sea defences and buildings, which in turn prevent beaches from expanding inland when storms strike and forces them out to sea, where as sand they will be sucked up and lost forever in concrete structures. Morocco offers an ironic lesson – concrete, much pirated from sandy beaches, is poured into hotels designed to attract the tourists representing the 1/3 of us who love holidaying at the seaside – except, the sand has gone and the tourist will either find ugly rocky outcrops, or sand is pumped on-shore at great expense and further undermining the natural balance of the ocean shore.
Sand extracted from the sea causes more damage that dragnet fishing! Sand extraction weakens the fine balance that keeps islands in place – in Indonesia islands are simply vanishing (25 so far), which not only destroys the homes of people, but also creates geo-political shifts as a country’s national maritime boundaries are measured from the shores of its outer-most islands. In the Maldives hundreds of islands have been lost, beaches that were 60 metres wide have vanished and more than 80% of the country is less than 1 m above sea level. Here, almost every grain of sand is of importance.
Significantly one of the films from which I learned about our sand problem was made and shown on Swiss TV. It points out that not only has Switzerland’s extensive hydro-electric industry been a major contributor to preventing sand from reaching their lakes and the sea from the High Alps, but that Switzerland’s leadership in concrete technology has made concrete the preferred building material even in areas where previously sustainable materials like bamboo, mud, timber, straw, bricks and other natural materials prevailed. Recognising this, a number of Swiss research bodies are currently seeking to demonstrate that, for instance, timber buildings are as fire and earth quake resistant as any concrete structure, even in multi-story configurations.
If there was any doubt about using principally sustainable materials for our LightLiving Laboratory, this insight has reinforced the determination to go 100% sustainable. The story of sand helps illustrate our ignorance of so much so well (the pdf or the original films contain much more) that I wish a brilliant film maker would take up the theme and create a full circle, 360 degree visual illustration of how symptomatic the story of sand is for our skewed economic system and attendant ignorance of nature’s cycles. Perhaps there is another symbolism in the fact that as we literally have been building so much of our world and society on sand, we are now being forced to find new materials as our traditional one is rapidly running out?
The good news, as so often the case when given time, is that our mistakes do become apparent and give us a chance to redress them. Paradoxically, in doing so, we are brought back to where we should have been in the first place – in close partnership with nature! The impetus to start building homes with natural materials has just received a major boost.
Another by-product of returning to nature is that using natural materials will impose natural height constraints on buildings, which will prevent little men from compensating for self-perceived inadequacies by building taller and taller buildings. The symbolism of the Tower of Babel reaches way beyond voice originated language!
My thanks go to my brother Michael and the videos he brought to my attention. It is from these that I extracted the information for this quick summary and the longer PDF covering our sand dilemma (all films are in German) –
“Sand, the New Gold” shown on Swiss National Television
‘EF’ in his YouTube Series for ‘Seekers After Truth’, under the deliberately provocative heading “Does Anybody Really Need Sand?”
“Sand, The New Environmental Time Bomb” produced by the German TV service 3sat