'The World in a Grain'

Vince Beiser, Riverhead, 304 pages, $28. Blessings are hard to come by in American journalist Vince Beiser's impassioned and alarming report on sand. Sand's predominant commercial use is as a constituent of concrete, and so much construction is going on worldwide as rural people migrate to cities en masse that sand is coveted by builders and made off with by pirates, Beiser writes in "The World in a Grain: The Story of Sand and How it Transformed Civilization." Dredging up that sand causes great harm to the environment, he writes, including to flood plains where sand normally serves as a buffer against storms. Sand-enabled construction has given rise to ever bigger houses, in suburbs ever more distant from the urban job sites to which the house owners drive, burning ever more fossil fuel, enhancing the greenhouse effect and exacerbating global warming — so that in Beiser's artful telling, the planet is caught up in a vicious, sand-fueled cycle. Beiser particularly hones in on China, where the aforementioned mass migration is most acute. Calling China "the world's largest consumer of concrete and the most voracious consumer of sand in human history," he notes that, ironically, the country also has too much of the wrong kind of sand — the desert variety — which is being added to by surging development. China says it is solving the environmental effects by planting trees, millions upon millions of them, creating the "Great Green Wall." Beiser, however, is skeptical. What's easy to know, he says, is that the fate of sand exemplifies humans' increasing overconsumption of natural resources.