In 1996, the Olympic beach volleyball players complained about the sand. Since then, sand experts have provided a less firm version that cuts the chance of an injury.
Where are we going? To whether we will run out of sand.
The Different Grains of Sand
Reading about the multiple varieties of sand, I thought of Eskimos having 50 words for snow–including “piegnartoq,” the snow that keeps your sled moving.
One handful of sand might be composed of crushed marble while another could be quartz, shells, and bits of plastic. Sand could be more or less firm. How much water it absorbs will vary. And yet, the only other name for sand is aggregate.
Because of sand’s many textures and characteristics, it has countless uses. We need sand for our water filtration and septic systems. A typical home has more than 100 tons of sand in its foundation, driveway and windowpanes. Since one mile of a single lane road needs close to 38,000 tons of sand, China will need gargantuan amounts for the 165,000 miles of roads it plans to build by 2030.
And that is the problem. The world requires so much sand that the UN says we might not have enough. An economist might disagree.
Our Bottom Line: The Doomster or the Boomster?
Thirty years ago, a biologist and an economist made a bet, Paul Ehrlich predicted global ecological calamity. Disagreeing, Julian Simon (1932-1998) said the market would come to the rescue.
The bet involved the prices of five commodities (chromium, copper, nickel, tin and tungsten). Ehrlich said prices would rise during the next ten years because of shortages; Simon said they would fall because of the market’s response. (The results of the bet are here.)
Simon’s reasoning returns us to sand. When supply is inadequate, price goes up and inspires innovation. Production might become more efficient. Substitutes might be developed. Through the incentives created by a high price, the market nudges us toward figuring out new products and processes that preserve or replace what we had been using.
So, when we hear that Singapore is the world’s highest per person user of sand at 5.4 tons per inhabitant (UN 2014), we can ask if they have the incentive to create a replacement.
My sources and more: Thanks again to the always captivating David Owen for his New Yorker article on sand. Much drier, this UN sand report is only for those of us really interested in sand. Alerted to the sand threat, I also took a detour to the Washington Post for the many words for snow and enjoyed the article. Finally, if you are really interested in the Ehrlich/Simon bet, The Bet and an Econtalk podcast have the whole story.