Limits To Growth – The Global Shortage of Sand

I wrote previously that The Club of Rome sponsored a report by MIT in 1972 titled “The Limits to Growth”, which found that earth’s non-renewable resources can support a global population of about 6 billion. The focus was on tracking and modeling the extent to which population, food production, depletion of resources, pollution, and industrialization would cause declines in many aspects of human civilization including economic growth, population numbers, and quality of life.

It did not consider the multiplying affects of climate change.

Beach Sand Mining - Madagascar

Beach Sand Mining – Madagascar

The authors were predicting a significant change to global humanity in the 2015 – 2020 timeframe. Forty years later the their forecast is lining up with the current ecological overshoot problems we are facing as a result of 7 billion voracious human inhabitants.  I like the term “Peak People” to define this situation.

An interesting and illustrative symptom of Peak People is the worldwide shortage of sand. Who would have guessed this was a problem? (interesting movie on the topic, and a great U.N. piece here.) Sand suitable for cement production, hydraulic fracking and other construction is now becoming scarce. In many developing countries the problem is so severe that sand is being removed from beaches and coastal waters to support infrastructure development rather than to support tourist and pleasure industries. (with enormous environmental and habitat damage) In Dubai, sand from Australia was barged in to provide the correct type of beach-quality sand, as the plentiful desert sand found there is lightweight silt that blows away with the slightest breeze and is not easily usable for cement construction, let alone beaches.

Global cement prodVarious types of sand were generally thought to be in large supply. Silica, which is used to manufacture silicon for semiconductor chips and crystalline solar cells, was thought be in inexhaustible supply, as its root element, Silicon, is the second most abundant element in the earth’s crust. But large scale damming of rivers blocked the natural flow of silica-rich sand from the mountainous regions, and when combined with growing global industrial demand, has resulted in the drying up of accessible low cost supply. Consequently there is a mining boom in full gear globally to strip the last known silica sand quarries as well as hoard construction quality sand. A good example of the latter is the boom taking place in the upper Midwest United States, where most of the output is supporting the oil and gas industry fracking boom.

While I have always viewed Peak People from the agricultural, water, climate change, and biodiversity lens, the depletion of sand due to human activity was more than surprising and it’s another validation of The Limits to Growth thesis on resource depletion. Up until recently, technology has delayed the impact of over population especially in agriculture but I believe it will require hyper-accelerated innovation and new classes of material science to continue the current “business as usual approach“.

How do we transition to a sustainable and stable civilization that leverages the limitless human creative and technological capacity that is responsible for the quality of life we currently enjoy?

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