Like Sand through the Hourglass
by Dr. Gerry Turcotte, President, St. Mary’s University
“So Joseph stored up grain in such abundance—like the sand of the sea—that he stopped measuring it; it was beyond measure.” ~ Genesis 41:49 ~
One of the realities of the twenty-first century is an increased awareness that what might have once seemed infinite is in fact limited. For those of us who are older, we know this about our own passing days, a truth learned sadly through the loss of loved ones. The indestructibility of our youth gives way to a recognition of our own mortality. But it is true as well that we look to the world’s flora and fauna and see species vanishing at an alarming rate. Droughts remind us not only how precious water is as a commodity, but also how quickly it can disappear. It had never occurred to me, however, to consider one of the world’s most precious commodities, which is likewise similarly disappearing: sand.
As an article in the New York Times pointed out, “we use more of this natural resource than any other except water and air,” and goes on to remind us that sand is the basic ingredient in every road, shopping mall, and office tower that we build the world over. We stare through it every day if we remember that glass often uses liquid sand as a major component. According to a United Nations report, enough sand was used in 2012 alone to build a 30-meter wall around the equator itself!
I remember once being in a remarkably poor country and watching as sand was removed from a desperately poor communal village waterfront and transferred to the rocky detritus of a beach in front of a luxury resort. Several months later I stumbled across the rock-strewn beaches of Cannes and couldn’t help but think of the irony. The reality, of course, is that this $70 billion-dollar industry is ravaging villages, coastlines, and other sites to provide sand for the wealthy, even as it slowly disappears.
Pope Francis has reminded us of our responsibility to the environment in one of the most impassioned epistles of our times. What is so powerful about the Pope’s message, in Laudato Si, is that it reminds us how the environment is not simply about pristine waterways. In fact, it speaks to our relationship to each other, and it underlines extraordinary relationships of power. Not surprisingly, those who are without power suffer most because of a damaged human and natural ecology. As the Pope himself argues: “The world’s poor, though least responsible for climate change, are most vulnerable and already suffering its impact.” In time, however, there will be nowhere to turn. The sands will flow through our fingers and be gone. Perhaps the time for change is now.