Paradise is a beach, we are told. Pristine white or coral pink. We leaf through brochures in search of perfect sand. There is a Paradise Beach on Barbados, and in Croatia, and Thailand, and South Africa, too. In every tourist-hungry part of the globe, in fact. The naturalist Desmond Morris believes that, as descendants of water-loving apes, we are hard-wired to seek out these places, lulled by the rhythmic advance and retreat of the ocean as we soak up the sun, sand grains trickling through our workless fingers.
And so much to go around. Man has always used sand as an analogy for the infinite, a limitless resource, ordinary and yet magical, incapable of exhaustion. When astronomers seek to impress upon us the size of the universe, they speak of stars being more numerous than grains of sand. There are quite a few grains, as it happens – 7.5 x 10 to the 18th power, according to researchers at the University of Hawaii. That’s 7 quintillion, 500 quadrillion – give or take the odd trillion.
Yet sand in the right places is anything but infinite. Our insatiable appetite for new buildings, roads, coastal defences, glass, fracking, even electronics, threatens the places we are designed by evolution to love most. The world consumes between 30 and 40bn tonnes of building aggregate a year, and half of this is sand. Enough material to build a wall 27m high and 27m wide around the equator. Sand is second only to water as a natural material extracted by humans, and our society is built on it, quite literally. Global production has risen by a quarter in just five years, fuelled by the insatiable demands of China and India for housing and infrastructure. Of the 15 to 20bn tonnes used annually, about half goes into concrete. Our need for concrete is such that we make almost 2 cubic metres worth each year for every man, woman and child on the planet.