The World in a Grain by Vince Beiser Book Summary

The World in a Grain, The Story of Sand and How It Transformed Civilization by Vince Beiser


Sand is the groundwork for virtually everything in modern life. The buildings you live and work in and the roads you drive on are made of sand. Sand enables modern life, but it’s starting to run out, and its mining and use destroy the environment. Award-winning journalist Vince Beiser illuminates what sand makes possible, why sand grips the human imagination, and offers insights into the political and environmental issues surrounding sand.


  • Sand is the most significant material in the world.
  • The invention of concrete – which sand and gravel comprise – transformed the way people live.
  • Asphalt and concrete changed the way Americans move from place to place.
  • Sand’s use in making glass shaped modern life.
  • Sand is crucial for making computer chips, and thus makes 21st-century life possible.
  • Fracking requires sand, and has made America a top oil and gas producer.
  • Beaches around the world are disappearing, and sand mining is a cause.
  • Sand islands in the sea are obliterating ecosystems.
  • Concrete is taking over the world.
The World in a Grain Book Cover

The World in a Grain Book Summary

Sand is the most significant material in the world.

You may think sand is the most ordinary substance, useful for recreational spots like beaches, but in fact it’s necessary for the greater part of the world most people live in today. If you consider how you live and work on an average day, much of what you do relies on sand. The buildings you live and work in, for example, contain vast amounts of concrete, of which sand is a foundational material. Sand is a crucial material in the windows you gaze out of in your office or living room. They are glass, which is made of sand, as are the roads and sidewalks you drive and walk on, and the shopping malls you visit. The chips that make your smartphone, iPad and laptop intelligent and useful require sand.

“You may not realize it, but sand is there, making the way you live possible, in almost every minute of your day.”

Sand makes 21st-century life possible. But sand has become scarce, and people pursue it fiercely. Earth’s population keeps growing, and people need more and more sand to live and work, especially in today’s digital, globalized economy.

The invention of concrete – which sand and gravel comprise – transformed the way people live.

The invention of concrete fundamentally changed human life as much as fire and electricity did. Necessary for the construction of massive buildings and the roads people travel on around the world, concrete manufacture relies on relatively straightforward materials. People make concrete by combining sand, gravel, cement and water, with sand and gravel as the dominant ingredients. The result dries into a hard, stone-like substance.

“Concrete is the skeleton of the modern world, the scaffold on which so much else is built.”

Concrete has all the weaknesses and limitations of stone, but when iron and steel reinforce it, it offers a variety of uses. Reinforced concrete helped the people of the 20th century realize their ambitions. Reinforced concrete made the construction of the Panama Canal feasible, changing shipping routes for the entire world. The Hoover Dam across the Colorado River was once the world’s biggest, and demanded vast quantities of sand and gravel, much of it mined a few miles from the dam. Reinforced concrete gave rise to a new architectural aesthetic, like the corkscrew shapes of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, for example.

Asphalt and concrete changed the way Americans move from place to place.

The United States today organizes around a vast network of interconnected paved highways and roads. In the early 20th century, few roads connected cities, and those that did were mostly unpaved. Following World War I, the US military believed America’s roads needed dramatic improvement. That was exactly what President Dwight D. Eisenhower did when he initiated construction of the interstate highway system, which eventually consumed thousands of tons of concrete and more than a billion tons of sand and gravel. In an era in which everyone wanted a car, good, paved roads proved crucial. By the middle of the 1950s, more than 50% of American families owned cars. Congress approved funds for this vast highway project, which would create some 41,000 miles of road, in 1956. It didn’t reach completion until 1991, at a price of close to $130 billion.

Sand’s use in making glass shaped modern life.

Glass is ubiquitous in modern life. People look out into their streets or their yards through glass. People drink from glass cups in rooms lit by glass bulbs. Glass makes it possible to see things it would otherwise be impossible to see. Glasses, cameras, microscopes and telescopes and everything they bring with them all depend on glass lenses. The sand that manufacturers melt down to make glass requires more specialized grains that are “95 percent pure silicon dioxide.”

“The booming cities don’t need sand only for concrete; they need if for glass. All those new buildings need windows. The new cars on the new highways need windshields.”

When former coal-mine child laborer Mike Owens invented a glass-bottle-making machine in 1903, he created something that the American Society of Mechanical Engineers called the “most significant advance in glass production in over 2,000 years.” Owens’s machine helped make glass bottles an everyday item worldwide. In 1952, a British engineer invented a process for making sheet glass that builders could use as windows in large buildings. Today, rapidly expanding cities all over the world need sand for concrete and for glass. The demand for glass, and the kinds of sand that glass can be made from, is only increasing.

Sand is crucial for making computer chips, and thus makes 21st-century life possible.

Sand in the form of “high-purity silicon dioxide particles” is crucial for manufacturing the hardware for digital technologies, including computer chips and fiber-optic cables.

“Most of us never think about how our high-tech industries depend on sand.” ”

Early on, engineers regarded silicon, which is a “semiconductor,” as a worthy material for creating the transistors that would drive and streamline computers. When Intel offered the first commercially available computer chip in 1971, it contained 2,250 transistors. A contemporary computer chip houses billions of transistors. Computer chips drive the internet and everything on it. Computer chips are one of the most intricate objects human beings manufacture, and sand is their basic element.

Fracking requires sand, and has made America a top oil and gas producer.

Fracking makes it possible to extract vast amounts of oil and gas from areas of North Dakota, Texas, Ohio and Pennsylvania. Fracking helps the United States lead the world in the extraction of oil and gas. Fracking requires sand. Specialists have long understood that shale rock contains significant quantities of hydrocarbons, but the density of shale makes it difficult for hydrocarbons to move out of it and form reserves. This can be sidestepped by fracturing, or fracking, the rock and injecting a “highly pressurized mix of water, chemicals and sand.” The hydrocarbons move through the cracks in the shale. The sand keeps the cracks open.

“America’s fracking fields are the latest front to which we have deployed armies of sand to maintain our lifestyle.”

The development of “horizontal drilling,” which enables reaching even more oil and gas resources, drove a dramatic expansion of fracking. Since 2003, the amount of sand used for fracking has increased exponentially. Fracking uses more sand than concrete, glass and silicon chips do. Fracking brings a variety of negative environmental effects – water resource pollution, earthquakes, and an increased risk of cancer and silicosis.

Beaches around the world are disappearing, and sand mining is a cause.

Everyone loves a beach with beautiful white sand. And beaches around the world are worth billions of dollars. In many places, like Fort Lauderdale, Florida, beaches are tourist attractions that employ a lot of people. Fort Lauderdale’s most vexing trouble is that its beautiful beaches are gradually vanishing. Traditionally, the sand on Fort Lauderdale’s beaches would go through a natural process of erosion and restoration. In the last century, the marinas and jetties that people have built along the Atlantic coast obstructed this natural process. Beaches around the world, from Southern California to Europe and Asia, are also vanishing.

“On shorelines around the world, in countries rich and poor, supine armies of sand offer themselves up as tourist attractions.”

Coastal development and river dams drive the destruction of beaches. River dams obstruct the movement of water and sand that restores beaches. Sand mining in rivers makes the situation even worse. Sand mining in South Africa has decimated the flow of sand to the beaches in Durban, and the dredging of San Francisco Bay may affect the beaches nearby. In Morocco, Algeria and Russian-occupied Crimea, smugglers illegally mine the beaches themselves.

With seas rising as a result of climate change and beaches vanishing, coastal communities are increasingly at risk. Since natural processes no longer maintain many beaches, people turn to artificial “beach replenishment,” which has become an industry worth billions. Federal and state governments have spent billions of taxpayer dollars reconstructing beaches around the United States. Beaches around the world have been rebuilt in this way. Sand mined to rebuild the beaches comes from other locations.

People tend to think of beaches as a part of the nature, but many beaches are “engineered environments built for profit,” and the original, natural beach and shore have vanished. The creation of artificial beaches can be damaging to the environment, because artificial beaches affect ecosystems and habitats. The only serious alternative to rebuilding beaches is the least likely event: moving cities farther away from the coast. Repairing beaches is unsustainable in the long run. Sand will simply run out.

Sand islands in the sea are obliterating ecosystems.

Austrian-born Josef Kleindienst is investing millions to turn a chain of artificial sand islands off the coast of Dubai in the Persian Gulf into luxurious holiday resorts with European themes. Kleindienst’s project may well be the largest group of artificial islands ever fabricated. His project uses hundreds of millions of tons of sand from the bottom of the Persian Gulf. With their cosmopolitan themes, the resorts may be singularly pretentious, but they aren’t the only attempt to build new land around the world. Similar projects are rising in China, Japan, Nigeria and California’s Pacific coast.

“The bigger question is, can the planet handle the whole way of life Dubai both represents and embodies?”

Building new islands in the sea with sand destroys the environment. Dredging large amounts of sand from the bottom of the sea annihilates entire ecosystems. And in places like China, the creation of new, offshore land masses can raise dangerous geopolitical issues. On artificial islands in the South China Sea, China immediately began constructing military installations, air and naval bases that raise alarms in the international community.

Concrete is taking over the world.

Since the turn of the millennium, nearly seven million people have moved to Shanghai. During that same period, more skyscrapers were built in Shanghai than exist in New York City, and the city added a major international airport and many new roads. Builders had to manufacture staggering amounts of concrete and use equally staggering amounts of sand. They mined most of that sand from the bottom of the Yangtze River and Poyang Lake, 400 miles from Shanghai. Sand mining wreaked havoc on the river and the lake. Humans need this much concrete and sand, because people are moving to cities everywhere in the world. In Africa, the Middle East, Latin America and Asia, cities are turning into “megacities.” Cities and the infrastructure that goes along with them couldn’t grow to this size or at this speed without the extensive use of concrete.

“The sands of time are running out.”

Once people believed natural resources were limitless. No one considered how humans might sustain their lives, with their houses and malls, laptops and cellphones, when Earth’s population is seven billion. Humans must now live lives on more durable and sustainable foundations. 

About the Author

Vince Beiser
Vince Beiser

Vince Beiser is an award-winning journalist.

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