Vince Beiser delivers talk on how he worked against the grain and uncovered the global war on sand

Multimedia journalism by Mariah Posey | Feb. 27, 2017

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Vince Beiser shows how much U.S. Sand and Gravel Production has increased over the years.

By chance, the story that would gain support from the Pulitzer Center and lead him to writing a book on the same topic was one that was only stumbled upon by the award-winning journalist. When Vince Beiser discovered his story on sand, he proved that great journalists are ones who read and follow through.

“I do a lot of international stuff so I just read a lot of off-beat publications and I just stumbled across this study about the sand mafias in India,” Beiser said. “Come to find out in India, it’s a huge story. Every single day there’s some story in the India Press about sand mafias.”

Luckily for him, the pitching process was a simple one due to his established rapport with Wired magazine and his editor.

“They know me and I know them, and it makes the whole process a lot easier,” he said. “Wired is so picky. They don’t assign many stories. I just crossed my fingers and they said yes.”

Since then, Beiser has been cracking away at his on-going project on the deadly war over sand while taking on a number of smaller freelancing jobs along the way. During his career, he has travelled to India, Dubai, China and all of the United States completing in-depth reporting and has written for esteemed publications such as Wired, The New York Times and The Atlantic.

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Photo by Vince Beiser | Sand dredgers in Poyang Lake by Hamashu village.

Sand is more than grains of rock

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Vince Beiser explains how sand is used in the construction of buildings and cities.

According to Beiser, sand is the most important solid substance in the world. It makes up our concrete, windows, computer chips, phone screens and more.

“It’s the literal foundation of modern civilization,” Beiser said.

It’s all “just sand,” but Beiser said the urban boom is depleting sand worldwide with constant growing city populations. Riverbeds are being destroyed to gather enough sand to support the infrastructure of numerous buildings. Lake Poyang for example, China’s biggest freshwater lake and the world’s biggest sand mine, has 30 times more the amount of sand being scooped out than the amount that flows in from tributary rivers.

Although there are some ways sand can be recycled, Beiser said there isn’t much to be done on a large scale to substitute its use.

“Just the sheer mass we’re talking about, there’s just nothing else on this planet we have that much of,” Beiser said.
beiser-pullBecause of the immense damage being done, governments all over the world are trying to control sand mining. But where there is law and order, there is crime. There has been a rise in illegal sand mining as well as the formation of sand mafias, leaving some unfortunate souls murdered over the valuable resource.

According to Beiser, this lifestyle is bound to be short-lived.

“This whole model of living we have in America is just not sustainable,” he said. “We’re running out of oil, we’re running out of water, we’re running out of fish. We’re just consuming too much.

“We’re just eating this whole planet.”

The American example has also rubbed off on other countries. According to Beiser, with an insanely large and increasing global population, there will never be enough to go around.

“The entire developing world is growing and becoming richer and they want to live like we do, and who can blame them?” he said. “There just isn’t enough stuff on the planet for everyone to live that way.”

The art of freelancing, writing in-depth and self-promotion

Beiser said freelancing “has never been an easy way to make a living,” especially when doing substantive journalism. But it’s still his source of income. Although he said it’s reporting the issues that concern him, he also has to look for different ways to sell it.

“Part of being a freelancer and part of being a journalist is you’ve got to self-promote,” he said. “I’ve got my own little list of radio hosts and TV bookers.”

With enterprise stories such as the ones Beiser takes on, there can sometimes be a competitive nature present. While following his story in India, he bumped into a guy from The New York Times who happened to also be working on a sand story. He knew he had to beiser-tipspick up the pace somehow if he wanted get his out first. Within about three week’s time, he was able to write the story based on the information he had compiled so far and post the story on the web two months before it was meant to be published.

“That one I actually did in a big hurry,” he said.

As a freelance journalist, Beiser explained the challenges faced when trying to determine where to start with finding sources.

“Because I kind of jump from topic to topic, I don’t really build a network of sources like a beat reporter does,” he said.

He suggested reading other stories that have been done involving a particular topic and finding the activists related to them.

“Once you poke your head into that thing, whatever it is, they know the other people to talk to,” Beiser said.

While scoping out the right people to talk to can be difficult, Beiser said that actually sitting down to write everything is typically less stressful. Though he used to overwhelm himself by going over everything before starting to write, he learned that making a bare bones draft and building from there was the best way to begin.

“By the time I’m done all my reporting, I’ve got a pretty good idea in my head of how the story’s going to go,” he said. “I literally go through all my notes and plug stuff in.”

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