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A World Constructed on Sand and Oil

Oil and sand are usually not typically commodities conjoined in discussions of world commerce. The primary is the motive engine of business and transportation, gasoline for heating and illumination, the spirit that animates a lot international politics. Even when priced cheaply—as I write, the worth of oil hovers round fifty {dollars} per barrel (or simply below 4 hundred {dollars} per ton)—it’s thought-about treasured. Humble, strange, oft-overlooked sand is, against this, the second most consumed good on this planet by quantity after water. It makes concrete and glass and electronics potential. In keeping with the UN Setting Programme, no less than fifty billion tons of sand (typically measured in combination with gravel) are used yearly, in distinction with 4 billion tons of oil. However sand is just not typically regarded as worthwhile: its commerce is extra home than international, and its market worth per ton is below 9 {dollars} in the US and much lower than that in the remainder of the world.
However there are similarities, too. Whereas China is the largest shopper of each merchandise, the US follows shut behind because the world’s second-largest shopper of oil and the third-largest consumer of sand. Relying on its market worth, crude oil is commonly the primary or second most exported good on this planet by worth. At this time’s comparatively low costs put crude oil exports in second place, after vehicles. On the finish of 2015, the U.S. authorities rescinded a forty-year ban on the export of crude oil from the States, and since then the nation has aggressively reentered the worldwide oil market, turning into the world’s third-largest exporter of petroleum and its refined merchandise, behind Saudi Arabia and Russia. (Regardless of being the most important oil producer, the U.S. is just not the world’s largest exporter, as a result of it consumes most of what it produces.) The overwhelming majority of the commerce in sand is home, and the U.S. and China extract the sand they want for development and business from their very own territories. The world’s largest importer of sand, nonetheless, is Singapore, which makes use of an incredible quantity of the stuff in its frenetic initiatives of land reclamation.

Change isn’t any theft.

—German proverb,
The 2 commodities converge in a single different regard. Their commodification and commerce maintain mirrors to international inequalities and ecological plunder. Each are produced over eons, the one a product of fossilization of prehistoric wildlife, the opposite the particles of rocks’ encounter with wind and water. Each tar and grime symbolize inferior materials. And but the second at which they grew to become pivotal to industrialization and urbanization, rocks are blasted, wells are drilled to sepulchral depths, rivers are dredged, seashores are bulldozed away to allow the transformation of those pure sources into commodities. The inexorable proliferation of oil and sand on the worldwide circuits of commerce tells us in regards to the shape-shifting methods of manufacturing, colonial types of exploitation, and our reckless wrecking of the worldwide environmental commons. It’s about how the commodification of prosaic on a regular basis issues impacts lives right here, now, and half a world away.
When you go searching you, you’ll inevitably see objects, locations, issues containing sand. Sand is dredged out of a riverbed or a seafloor in a single place and poured into the shallows in one other place to conjure land out of the ocean. Sand and gravel are used within the making of concrete, right this moment essentially the most extensively used constructing materials on this planet. Blended with tar, sand and gravel represent asphalt. The silica in sand is extracted to fabricate all grades of glass, in addition to semiconductors and built-in circuits utilized in electronics. Even hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, requires sand. The urbanization of the world, the meteoric progress within the manufacturing of electronics, and the enlargement of the usage of glass in every part from home windows and fiberglass to screens for vehicles and electronics all have elevated the demand for sand. However the largest shopper stays the development business.
All through human historical past sand and gravel have been used to lift buildings, pave roads, and make glassware. Monumental buildings of historic occasions—the Nice Wall of China, Roman aqueducts and amphitheaters, and ziggurats and pyramids in Mesopotamia and the Americas—used both early variations of concrete (mixing some adhesive with sand and gravel) or fired mud bricks created from a combination of sand and clay. The large blocks of stone for the pyramids in Egypt had been dragged into place on beds of sand. Glass-cutting methods had been employed within the Sassanian Empire, and glass windowpanes created from sand quartz and ash had been identified in Roman Alexandria almost two thousand years in the past, although they had been opaque, small, and thick. (Till the early trendy interval, glass panes had been—like many different applied sciences—reserved for elite sacred and profane establishments: cathedrals, jami’ mosques, and grand administrative buildings.) The wonderful Hagia Sophia, constructed within the sixth century, was illuminated by giant glass panes in its dome. Urbanization within the early trendy period fueled the utilization of sand and gravel wanted for the enlargement of cities and the arteries that facilitated circulation inside and between them. However till just lately, the sand and gravel used for these functions had been nearly at all times mined and transported regionally. (The exceptions had been prized development supplies corresponding to specifically coloured marbles and hardwood timber.) Transporting such heavy cargo utilizing both human or animal driving force was expensive and sluggish.

The Fortune Teller, by Caravaggio, c. 1595. © Musée du Louvre, Dist. RMN-Grand Palais / Artwork Useful resource, NY.

Oceanic transport of constructing supplies took off solely from the fifteenth century onward, with the colossal enlargement of maritime commerce throughout the globe that got here with colonialism. Sand and gravel weren’t instantly thought-about commodities to be traded throughout the seas; their large-scale maritime transportation was a facet impact of seaborne commerce itself. Ships are “in ballast” when not carrying cargo: when not laden, they float too near the floor of the ocean and may listing. Ships not in cargo have to hold ballast to sail true. Earlier than steamships fueled by coal (which acted as ballast), sand, gravel, and shingle had been used. Landscapes had been harvested for ballast, which was then dumped on quaysides midway around the globe. The discarded gravel and shingle from the ballast hills had been employed in roads, buildings, and railroads, all of which underwent continent-wide enlargement within the Americas, Europe, and their colonies within the nineteenth century.
The commerce in sand and gravel as commodities in their very own proper started in earnest within the twentieth century. The efflorescence of modernist concrete structure with giant home windows and the later style for glass cladding in ever-expanding cities demanded concerted and arranged commerce in sand, somewhat than the unintended use of ballast. And with the invention and upward spiral within the utilization of electronics on the finish of the 20 th century, the seek for industrial-quality sand grew to become extra pressing.
Not all sand is created equal. The effective sand of the desert, stretching for miles throughout the arid climates, has been eroded by wind, turning into too uniform in dimension and too even in form to make good concrete. Concrete is manufactured by mixing cement with a bigger proportion of sand; erratically sized and formed grains of sand higher facilitate the adhesive impact desired of cement. The grains of water-eroded sand are irregular in form and dissimilar in dimension and thus excellent for making concrete. Because the demand for concrete has skyrocketed and applied sciences for making it have improved prior to now fifty years, the world has grown famished for sand. Residential and business buildings, agglomerations of skyscrapers, and sprawling exurbs all devour concrete. Land reclamation requires pouring dredging by-products, sand, and concrete blocks into the ocean, creating property ex nihilo. Islands corresponding to Bahrain and Singapore have pushed their landmass additional into the ocean via this course of. A 2014 Monetary Instances investigative report confirmed {that a} secretive funding automobile owned by Bahraini royals was granted deeds to undersea plots of land; after reclamation these grew to become coveted and costly floor for the event of luxurious lodges and business buildings. By some accounts China has used extra cement between 2011 and 2013 than the U.S. did in the entire twentieth century. If concrete requires no less than twice as a lot sand as cement, then the amount of sand concerned in producing billions of tons of concrete right this moment boggles the thoughts.
Over the millennia oil, naturally seeping out of the earth, has been used as gasoline for lamps and heaters and as an emollient for pores and skin illnesses. The economic exploitation of petroleum by way of hand-dug wells had begun in Russia’s Azerbaijan area a decade or so earlier than oil gushers had been drilled in mid-nineteenth-century Pennsylvania. The gradual substitute of coal by petroleum as a supply of power took almost a century and was not linear, decisive, or solely full. It was a change intimately sure up with the worldwide ambitions of the earliest oil corporations. The big-scale extraction of oil within the U.S. was concurrent with the nation’s rise as a worldwide financial energy and with its colonial enlargement, each on the American continent and within the Caribbean and the Pacific. Throughout the Atlantic, Britain’s management over huge coal reserves drove industrialization and fueled colonization of huge expanses of Asia and Africa. Although Britain didn’t attempt to management oil manufacturing at first, its business fleets had been the most important on this planet, carrying different international locations’ petroleum throughout the oceans. As manufacturing of its treasured coal regularly declined, Britain consolidated energy within the Center East via the eventual management of oil manufacturing there. For a time, utilizing oil because the gasoline for its ships additionally secured Britain’s long-standing maritime mastery.

Commerce’s proud empire hastes to swift decay.

—Oliver Goldsmith,
Exterior the US, oil was most considerable in locations the place the nice powers had already asserted claims to dominion: the southern Caribbean, contested by each the U.S. (by way of the Monroe Doctrine) and the British Empire; the Caspian basin, the place the Nice Recreation gave method to anti-Bolshevik actions by Euro-American powers; and the Persian Gulf and Southeast Asia, the place Britain (and later the U.S.) held sway. In all these locations, the exploration of oil was intimately sure up with colonial regimes of labor exploitation and a global coloration line that facilitated them.
The magisterial Cities of Salt by the late Saudi creator Abdul Rahman Munif is a petro-novel that richly describes these international hierarchies. Incorporating magical realism, satire, and folk-story tropes—and portraying a forged of lots of of Arabs, People, and Europeans—Munif mines invisible and forgotten tales of oases destroyed, dissenters assassinated, strikes damaged, and potentates and technocrats purchased by oil corporations. This can be a world of exploited staff and engineers trapped in pecking orders formed by race and geography. The People of his tales are the masters to whom even the native emirs and dignitaries pay obeisance. After them come the Europeans, and beneath them are the English-speaking expert Arabs from different lands. The boys who do the grueling menial work are the Arabs who had been previously fishermen and pastoralists and whose autonomy has grow to be hostage to wage work.
Such racial ordering of labor stays in pressure aboard the huge tankers that commerce in oil right this moment. Whereas seafaring crews hail from the worldwide south (largely from the Philippines), the officers are sometimes Russians, Ukrainians, or Jap Europeans, and officers and crews are paid radically totally different wages based mostly on their international locations of origin. The stratification of labor has been exacerbated by the emergence of “open registries,” or what the Worldwide Transport Employees’ Federation calls “flags of comfort.” Many extra tankers than container ships are flagged to open registries, partially as a result of the very historical past of flags of comfort was cast in oil commerce, and partially because of the market fragmentation of the tanker commerce, making it extra susceptible to profiteering.
When a ship flies the flag of a given nation, it has to obey the principles and laws of that nation. Open registries permit ships owned or operated by transport corporations in Europe or the U.S. to be “flagged” to Panama or Liberia (or dozens of different international locations, some even landlocked), the place the enforcement of environmental or labor legal guidelines is lax, taxes are scant, and scrutiny and accountability are almost nonexistent. The U.S. first arrange open registries after World Conflict I, principally for the good thing about U.S.-based shippers working banana boats and oil tankers, foremost amongst them the United Fruit Firm and Commonplace Oil of California. To burnish firm income, corporations paid decrease wages than the home-country commonplace, ran starvation ships, and jettisoned costly security guidelines. (B. Traven’s harrowing and thinly fictionalized 1926 novel, The Demise Ship, retells the tales of a parade of such ships.) All through the early twentieth century, the overwhelming majority of U.S. oil tankers shifted to the open registries of Panama, Liberia, and the Marshall Islands, all trustworthy shopper states.

Ivory carving of Dutch retailers in a pinnace, China, c. 1730. Rijksmuseum.

The commerce in oil below flags of comfort was thought-about such fertile floor for revenue that after the tip of World Conflict II, when Greek transport magnates cornered the market on oceanic transport, the cleverest (or most unscrupulous) of them, Aristotle Onassis, guess every part he had on oil tankers. Whereas his Greek rivals had been shopping for up bulk carriers, appropriate for transporting ore and grain, Onassis purchased decommissioned oil tankers from the wartime U.S. Transportation Command at a steep low cost, commissioned new ships with novel if considerably shady strategies of finance, and deployed all of them to move oil to international locations famished for the gasoline wanted to fireplace up postwar reconstruction and growth. Doris Lilly, one in every of his many biographers, hinted at one more reason why oil tankers had been such cut price for Onassis. Even within the earliest a long time, tanker loading and unloading was much more automated than loading dry-cargo ships. You wanted pipes to hold oil to the ship that had been able to latching to the vessel’s holding tanks, and also you wanted valves and sensors to gauge how full the maintain was, however solely a handful of staff had been wanted to handle the entire course of. Loading luggage and pallets required far too many stevedores on the docks, many unionized, demanding truthful wages and protected working situations. Decreasing the variety of staff on the docks, Onassis probably reasoned, diminished the potential for employee resistance and elevated the effectivity of loading and unloading.
Onassis’ astonishing rise via the affluent ranks of world tycoons gave him a confidence that solely one of many world’s wealthiest oil corporations may deflate. Within the 1950s, Aramco, a subsidiary of Commonplace Oil of California, had a concession from Saudi Arabia for the manufacturing of oil, however its settlement didn’t specify the phrases of export. Onassis tried to subvert Aramco’s monopoly over oil transport by lobbying the Saudi authorities for an unique concession to ship the nation’s oil. This was an excessive amount of not just for Commonplace Oil but additionally for the de facto masters of oil within the area. For a time, concern reigned that Saudi Arabia may comply with Iran’s instance and nationalize its oil: Why else would it not need an impartial tanker firm? A motley group of involved actors—from the CIA and the Dulles brothers to Her Majesty’s Authorities in London and the opposite transport mogul, Stavros Niarchos—got here collectively to defend Aramco towards such impudence. Onassis’ ships had been boycotted by all oil corporations, together with Aramco’s rivals. Diplomats and spies flew to Riyadh to foyer the king to withdraw Onassis’ concession. As a final resort, Aramco lodged a case towards Saudi Arabia (and by extension, Onassis) in a business arbitration tribunal in Europe. A strong group of European and North American jurists dominated towards Saudi Arabia and declared that its oil-production concession settlement had given some measure of sovereignty to Aramco. It was a choice that defended the rights of highly effective Western firms towards international locations from the worldwide south asserting jurisdiction over their very own oil and management over the operation and administration of their very own commerce. For a time the supremacy of the Western oil corporations was restored.
Such strong-arming was not new. Some mixture of commerce boycott, business arbitration, and violent intervention had already been utilized in makes an attempt to carry intransigent nationalizers of oil to heel. Soviet nationalization of Baku’s oil corporations (together with that of the Swedish Nobel household) in 1920 triggered a dramatic decline in Azerbaijan’s share of the worldwide oil market. Mexico’s nationalization of oil in 1938 moved Western oil corporations to stipulate that every one future concession contracts—not simply in Mexico however worldwide—needs to be arbitrated in worldwide courts (which benefited Aramco twenty years later). Iran’s nationalization of the Anglo-Iranian Oil Firm (later BP) in 1951 led to a transport boycott of Iranian oil and a violent British- and American-engineered coup d’état to switch the nationalist prime minister Mohammad Mosaddeq. A lot of the nationalization of oil corporations within the Arab oil-producing states within the 1970s was made potential solely after these states made exorbitant funds to the previous house owners and gave these overseas companies political and monetary ensures to stay main traders within the new oil industries. As soon as Center Jap oil was nationalized, a press and political marketing campaign started portraying OPEC because the villain holding the world to ransom. The previous tales of Western oil firm depredations had been forgotten, besides in these locations the place the violence that they had introduced had indelibly reshaped politics and on a regular basis lives. As Pablo Neruda wrote in his poem about Commonplace Oil almost eighty years in the past, the commerce in oil reworked indigenous lands into “a million-acre mortgage” and cast a malign visitors in “international locations, individuals, seas, / police, county councils, / distant areas.” These adjustments proved sturdy.
In late 2016, Phnom Penh Put up reporters famous a discrepancy in Cambodia’s commerce with Singapore: the latter’s customs information confirmed $750 million of sand imported from Cambodia, however the authorities of Cambodia reported exporting solely $5 million. Cambodia had banned the unregulated export of sand in 2009, and the distinction between the 2 quantities indicated the misreporting of illegally stripped sand dredged from Cambodia’s fast-depleted rivers.
The smuggling and unlawful mining of sand at seashores and rivers of the worldwide south work a bit like piracy. Folks whose livelihoods are destroyed by exploitation and debt work for a pittance to haul away sand from their very own habitations. They’re paid by firms and businessmen in air-conditioned workplaces far-off from the websites of despoliation. The revenue margins are widest when a budget sand is alchemized right into a fascinating commodity on the worldwide commerce circuits.
Nations with lengthy coastlines and wealthy riverine topographies have grow to be prey to different states and their very own profit-seeking businessmen ravening for sand. Authorized and unlawful miners have stripped the rivers of Myanmar and Cambodia of their sandy riverbeds and sandbanks, dramatically altering move patterns in rivers. The modified high quality and quantity of the sediments in such rivers make beforehand bountiful ecosystems inhospitable to agriculture and fishing. Turbulence in sand-poor rivers erodes riverbanks, destroys infrastructure, together with dikes and bridges, and submerges riverside villages. Seashores in Senegal, Sierra Leone, and Morocco have disappeared in a single day as bulldozers and vehicles load their sands to be used on different shores. Indonesia, an archipelago of between 17,500 and 18,500 islands (the precise quantity is a matter of dispute), has seen complete sand atolls disappear via unlawful mining. Environmental scientists Orrin H. Pilkey and J. Andrew G. Cooper enumerate the consequences of such mining of their e book The Final Seashore: shorelines carrying away, destruction of coastal fauna habitats, eradication of dunes and the flora that develop on them. Coastlines are extra uncovered to rising sea ranges, tsunamis, hurricanes, and the pure roiling of the seas in storms. Constructing dream palaces of capitalism in a single nook of the world leaves one other bereft of its seashores and agricultural fecundity.

Enterprise is different individuals’s cash.

—Delphine de Girardin,
Unlawful sand mining has different casualties—not solely these whose ecosystems are destroyed but additionally the activists who attempt to halt the enterprise. In Asia and Africa, farmers and fishermen turned grassroots activists have been intimidated, crushed, and shot. In Could 2017, Niranjan, Uday, and Vimlesh Yadav, three members of the identical household, had been killed by gangsters illegally lifting sand from the banks of a river close to their village of Jatpura within the japanese Indian state of Jharkhand. In June 2018 in Gambia, police opened fireplace on protesters demonstrating towards sand mining, killing two. Many different assassinated activists stay anonymous. Whether or not killed by smugglers or by the police, useless activists are a harbinger of eco-wars that may solely intensify as capitalist progress gnaws on the physique of the earth. Oil additionally stars on this story of the assault on the worldwide commons, and a few of its manufacturing now requires giant volumes of sand.
Fracking is a technique for extracting petroleum from shale rocks. Throughout fracking, high-pressure water is pumped via the rocks to fracture them; the water carries 1000’s of tons of sand into the fractured rocks to prop their fissures open. Shale oil then flows via the porous sand into extraction conduits. In contrast to the sand utilized in concrete, frac sand is uniform in dimension and spherical in form, and it may be mined solely from particular websites the place epochal geologic occasions have created homogenously hardened grains. Within the U.S., which is each the most important producer and shopper of frac sand, the most effective deposits are discovered within the Nice Lakes area. After extraction, frac sand goes via complicated cleansing, drying, and chemical remedy earlier than it’s let unfastened on shale rocks.
This new software for sand additionally indicators one other main transformation in international commerce: the rising significance of shale oil as a share of the market in petroleum. In 2017 the U.S. posted a notable improve in its oil output (690,000 barrels per day), compensating for a big decline of Saudi Arabian manufacturing (−450,000 barrels per day). The U.S. has surpassed each Saudi Arabia and Russia in its annual extraction of petroleum because of the rise in shale oil. Fracking now yields half of all oil produced within the States. Already this new technique of bringing oil to the floor is upturning lives, altering labor regimes, and endangering native ecosystems.

The Inventory Change in Tokyo, by Lars Tunbjörk, 1999. {Photograph} © CNAC / MNAM / Dist. RMN-Grand Palais / Artwork Useful resource, NY. © Galerie VU.

Upon completion, the Keystone XL Pipeline will join the oil sands of Canada to refineries on the coast of the Gulf of Mexico, selecting up oil from the shale fields of the Midwest alongside the way in which. The pipeline’s U.S. route avoids cities and as an alternative bisects Sioux tribal reservations. At each step its development has been challenged by activists and native communities. The First Nations have defied Canada’s declare to sovereignty over the unceded territories the place the pipeline originates and alongside a lot of its path to the U.S. border. The Water Protectors of Standing Rock and environmental and political activists all through North America have contested the development of the pipeline throughout the Midwest. Their motion to guard their lifeworlds towards the ecological disasters the pipeline foretells—and has already engendered—has attracted overt and hostile undercover police motion, company mercenaries, and enterprise spies who’ve tried to infiltrate, intimidate, and divide the motion from inside. The battle is towards not solely the pipeline but additionally the explosive progress of a shale-oil business that could be a bonanza for unscrupulous modern-day prospectors and a catastrophe for the indigenous communities whose lives and environs are ravaged and displaced.
Establishing pipelines via home landscapes calls for adjustments in titles to property or generally even expropriation of personal or frequent lands. Routes crossing nationwide borders grow to be hostage to worldwide battle and should even generate such battle themselves. Aramco’s Trans-Arabian Pipeline (TAPLine) was on the time of its completion the largest pipeline on this planet. It was constructed by Bechtel within the late 1940s between the oil fields of japanese Saudi Arabia and a Mediterranean terminus at Sidon in Lebanon. When the federal government of Syria resisted the passage of the pipeline throughout its territories, the CIA facilitated a handy coup d’état by the Syrian military chief of employees Husni al-Zaim. The pipeline was then constructed via Syrian territory, even because the coup set in movement fifteen years of upheaval, coups, and countercoups within the nation. Zaim was himself deposed and executed solely 4 months after taking energy. After the Six-Day Conflict, battle over transit charges and the Israeli occupation of the Golan Heights halted the transport of oil within the TAPLine past Jordan, leaving the segments in Syria, the Golan Heights, and Lebanon inoperative. When Jordan supported Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait in 1990, the Saudis terminated the move of oil via the TAPLine altogether. By then that they had constructed a pipeline from their oil fields on the coast of the Persian Gulf to terminals on the Purple Sea, bypassing the contentious Hormuz and Bab el-Mandeb Straits. Violence has haunted not solely the maritime commerce of oil but additionally its move via pipelines.
What makes the commerce in oil so akin to the commerce in sand is that the manufacturing of both commodity in a single nook of the world shapes politics close to and much. Worldwide commerce impacts every nation otherwise, however it does have international penalties. President Donald Trump’s nationalist phrases of worldwide commerce could have laid naked the scaffolding of U.S. international financial energy, at all times defended by the nation’s coercive may, at all times supreme whether or not on protectionist or free-trade phrases. But it have to be famous that commerce has solely ever been really free for these whose economies had been giant sufficient and highly effective sufficient to have a big head begin and benefit over their rivals. The consequences of world inequalities are felt not solely between totally different international locations however inside them. As shale oil seeps into groundwater and hydraulic fracturing generates earthquakes, as shops of sand and silt and gravel gathered over millennia are expropriated for but extra electronics and but extra skyscrapers, commerce facilitates the upward distribution of social items held in frequent each regionally and globally. One measure of how contentious this purloining from the commons has grow to be is the breadth, depth, and violence of the struggles to protect our waters, our river­beds, that final seaside.