The subject of Jay Owens’s new book has long been trying to kill me. Like 300 million or so people around the world, I am asthmatic; what’s more, I am allergic to dust mites. As such, I have long considered dust an enemy, to be eradicated with the help of a vacuum cleaner or a swift wipe with a jiffy cloth. But Owens is out to broaden our perspective on what we might have thought of up to now as a mere nuisance. Dust contains multitudes, from minerals to the black carbon emitted by cars and industry, to “skin flakes, pet dander, hair, textile fibres … the dust under your sofa contains the world”.
Owens had chronicled her own obsession with dust in a newsletter, Disturbances, before writing this book, and brings to the subject a microscopist’s eye and an infectious zeal. Dust, we learn, is “always sub-millimetre in scale, and very often a hundred or thousand times smaller than that”. But as a result of its near invisibility, she says, nobody thinks about “what it might be doing or where it should go: it is so tiny, so totally, absolutely mundane, that is slips beneath the limits of vision”.
We should all learn to look closer. While each particle of dust may be tiny, together they have outsized consequences. Approximately 2bn tonnes of dust are lifted into the Earth’s atmosphere each year, Owens tells us, both absorbing and reflecting the sun’s energy and seeding clouds – therefore directly affecting global temperatures and climate. Dust from the Sahara, whipped up by the Harmattan winds, crosses the Atlantic to fertilise the Amazon; interplanetary dust, having made its way across the galaxy and survived entry into our atmosphere, is sprinkled over polar ice caps, giving climatologists a glimpse of distant parts of the universe. Like water, dust is part of an intricate and essential ecological cycle. “World-traversing dust flows melt ice on mountain glaciers, fertilise forests, and feed plankton blooms in the ocean.” Dust’s impact on the climate alone, we learn, so confounds meteorologists that one of the great uncertainties in our forecasts of global heating is the role and impact of these minuscule objects.
Owens’s own fascination with dust started as a student in 2008, when she contemplated the sisyphean task of housekeeping. (“I was neither balding nor scrofulous … where was this material come from?”) But her journey doesn’t actually begin until 2015, with a road trip through California. Owens is transfixed and outraged by the story of Los Angeles, whose growth and modern existence was only possible through the systematic and outrageous theft of water and the creation of a dust desert to the east.
This desert, coincidentally named the Owens valley, was for a long time the dustiest place in America. There, the extraction of water – dust being so often a symptom of water’s absence – is both an ecological and social crisis, its once lush lands having been colonised then desecrated in order to fill Tinseltown’s pipes and its luxury outdoor pools. The result is a nearly inhospitable scar, one where the air is now thick with PM10 particulates (which have a diameter of 10 microns or less), but also toxic substances such as arsenic and cadmium, blown into inhabitants’ houses on the wind.
The story is not dissimilar to that of the Dust Bowl, in which poorly managed farming across the midwest during the 1930s created another ecological crisis, and forced 3 million residents to flee. Owens brings this period to life vividly, mining diaries and contemporaneous accounts to reconstruct the lives of Great Plains families. On 12 May 1934, for example, a single dust storm moved 350m tonnes of dirt. “A nice spring day in Chicago turned chilly as dust blocked the sun; in New York, streetlights had to be turned on in the middle of the day because of the darkness.” These were tragedies with profound consequences: “To watch five inches of soil blow away from your farm is to watch thousands of years of geological labour disappear.”
Dust, in Owens’s view, is “intensely political”. Early in the book, for example, she unpacks (all too briefly) the history of hygiene, exploring how dirt and our relation to it has changed over centuries, and cleanliness – or the pursuit of it – defines our modern lives. After the Industrial Revolution, emerging ideas about the relationship between dirt and disease made dust something to be fought against – a responsibility that inevitably fell on women and minorities. The poorest people tended to have the least time and money to clean a house; often, their jobs were to clean the houses of others. “The history of 20th-century cleanliness is, thus, a history not only of the making of gender and class distinctions, but racialised inequalities.”
Perhaps the most haunting chapter in the book is that in which Owens retells the story of the nuclear age not through mushroom clouds, but through the radioactive dust they left behind. One study by International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War estimated that the effects of atmospheric nuclear testing would eventually result in the deaths of 2.4 million people from cancer, a threat “that has gone substantially unnoticed because radioactive dust is such a diffuse and delayed killer”. Between 1945 and the signing of the test ban treaty in 1963, America was exposing “tens of thousands” of its own citizens to the direct effects of nuclear explosions. Indigenous communities were particularly affected. Extensive uranium mining was performed on Navajo land, and in 2015 a study found that dust in 85% of Navajo homes contained the radioactive metal.
Owens takes on this and many of the stories in Dust with admirable even-handedness, an impressive depth of research and a clear eye for complexities. (“[Dust’s] meaning is never black or white but grey, and somewhat fuzzy,” she writes.) Even so, not every part of it is successful. The book’s long forays into the histories of specific places, while impressively thorough, occasionally meander, and the book might have benefited from a different structure – I found myself wishing one late chapter, rich in scientific context and import, had been placed much earlier.
But there’s plenty to admire here. Owens makes the argument that this most minuscule of subjects can be used to tell big-picture stories about our planet: about the damage we’ve done to it and the inadequacy of many of our solutions. One reason to think about dust, Owens writes, is “to challenge ourselves to try to see the world at scales beyond our easy imaginings”. That’s the thing: we will all end up as dust, eventually, our remains becoming smaller and smaller particles, still existing on the Earth and changing it even after we’re gone. Dust is a reminder, as Owens puts it, that “every last one of us … [is] enmeshed with the world from the molecular scale right on up”.
• Dust by Jay Owens is published by Hodder & Stoughton (£25). To support The Guardian and Observer, order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.