The Cost of Our Debris

Before we get to dust itself—and to Jay Owens’s marvelous Dust: The Modern World in a Trillion Particles—it’s worth thinking about how the word is used. “Dust” in the English language seems almost as elemental and variable as dust is in the physical world—a universal metonym of sorts. In the Bible, it stands for many things: earth, a human, the grave, death itself. It can suggest abasement, humiliation, and collapse, but also the innumerable progeny of biblical patriarchs.1 Dust is the very matter of transformation: Adam is created from “the dust of the ground” and Aaron turns the dust of Egypt into lice. In the Book of Common Prayer, it’s a beginning and an ending—“dust to dust.”

Dust can be both the essence of deadness and the substance of life. To Darwin, pollen is a “fecundating dust.” To Tennyson—and to T.H. Huxley, who quotes Tennyson’s lines in his review of On the Origin of Species (1859)—life is “but dust that rises up/And is lightly laid again.” In Blake’s Europe: A Prophecy (1794), the narrator asks a fairy, “What is the material world, and is it dead?” To which the fairy responds, “Every particle of dust breathes forth its joy.” Death and life meet in dust, entwined in materiality. There’s something nearly cellular—almost transcendent—about it, as Shakespeare suggests in Measure for Measure. “Thou art not thyself,” Duke Vincentio tells Claudio, “For thou exists on many a thousand grains/That issue out of dust.” The duke is describing, I think, what a much later writer calls “a temporary agreement among atoms” or “microscopic life particles,” which cohere in the “fantastical structure” of the body, where the “I” believes it has sovereignty—thus raising the question of how and where and under what conditions dust becomes not only galaxies and planets but self and spirit.2

As Owens, a London-based writer and researcher, puts it, dust is “matter at the very limit-point of formlessness, the closest ‘stuff’ gets to nothing.” So it’s not surprising that we generally recognize it not by what it’s made of but by the form it takes—the minuteness of its particles, how evenly it lies on a polished surface, the way it plumes in the wind and motes in the sunlight.3 Do you know where your dust originates and what it contains? Dust is local—there it is on your dashboard and under your sofa—yet it’s global, too, traveling immense distances on the wind. It is ubiquitous.

Every year some five billion tons of mineral dust—completely natural, most of it—are lifted by the wind from the earth’s unvegetated, nonaqueous spots. As much as 36 million tons of it are in the air at any moment, much of it containing microscopic organisms like the diatoms found in dust samples Darwin gathered on the Beagle in 1833. The rising and settling of mineral dust is a normal planetary process. But it’s also a reminder, Owens writes, that “everything around us is falling apart,” that everything trends “toward the formlessness from whence it came.” In its “monstrous indifference,” dust marks “the absence not only of life, but the prospect of ever mattering.”

And yet dust isn’t merely negation, disintegration, the ultimate, nihilistic end of “stuff.” A world without dust would be a world without movement, without friction, without change of any sort—a world that doesn’t spin or orbit or even belong to this dusty universe. “Culturally,” Owens writes, “dust may be a metaphor for time, decay and forgottenness.” But in the flow of our planet’s systems, it’s “an element as important as oxygen, or water or ice.”

Owens’s stated purpose in this book is to “think with dust.” For her, it’s more than a subject; it’s “a method.” As a result, Dust isn’t a “natural history”—a linear chronicle of cosmogenic origins, of interstellar and interplanetary and earthly dusts. Nor is it a categorical or taxonomic study, exploring dust varieties type by type. Owens’s approach is geographical and cultural, and her interest is “human-made” dust and what it reveals—the forensic fingerprint, so to speak, that our species has left upon this planet.

But what does “human-made” mean? The word describes synthetics like road and tire dust, which produce perhaps as much as 78 percent of the microplastics found in the ocean. It can mean the dust created by almost any kind of human activity: black carbon soot from coal fires burning in Tudor houses (where Owens’s book begins), as well as woodsmoke particulates rising from recent anthropogenic wildfires all around the world. Human-made dust also includes microscopic detritus like uranium nanodust4 blowing from “unprotected mining waste piles in Laguna Pueblo, New Mexico.” Nearly every form of dust can transport environmental contaminants—pollution piggybacking on particles of dust. And in nearly every human activity and industrial process, dust is “the definitive externality”—the infinitesimal debris whose cost is never counted.

But by “human-made” Owens means something even more comprehensive. She has in mind what you might call the global meteorology of dust, the clouds and storms and blizzards of the stuff summoned up by human choices and the motivations behind them. What produces such unbounded billows of dust? The answers are many. Legislative fiat and economic planning. Misconceived agricultural practices. Socialism and capitalism. Ignorance, neglect, and greed. Human-made dust isn’t an accumulation of dust particles created ab origine by humans. It’s dust freed by the endless working of our species—a very human haboob. As it happens, we’re astonishingly good at liberating dust and creating what Owens calls “aeolian landscapes.” All it takes is removing water.

Owens examines two sources of missing-water dust, both former endorheic lakes—that is, lakes without an outlet. One is Owens Lake, in the lower Owens Valley of eastern California. The other is the Aral Sea, between Kazakhstan and the autonomous republic of Karakalpakstan, in northwestern Uzbekistan. These used to be enormous bodies of water. Owens Lake was once roughly 110 square miles in extent; the Aral Sea was nearly 250 times larger. They were ecosystems of variable plenitude, home to abundant natural resources—fish, birds, aquatic plants.

Early accounts of the Owens Valley describe a lush, verdant, biologically diverse landscape, rich in food. Before the Gold Rush, the conditions there enabled a “good life” for its inhabitants—the Northern Paiute people and a smaller community of Shoshone. They called the Owens River valley Payahuunadü (land of the flowing water) and Owens Lake Patsiata. Water from Owens Lake was famously siphoned off by aqueduct beginning in 1913, ostensibly for use by residents of Los Angeles, though it was originally routed toward the San Fernando Valley.5 And so for most of the twentieth century Owens Lake was a vast salt playa, “hundreds of square miles of bare dirt and half-dead vegetation.” It was also “the largest single dust source” in the United States.

As for the Aral Sea, it was once the fourth-largest lake on the planet—some 26,000 square miles in area—and a major fishery for many species, including endemic sturgeon. But in the mid-twentieth century, by order of the Soviet leadership, water from the Aral Sea and its sources began to be diverted to irrigate ever-increasing cotton crops. In the past sixty years, 90 percent of its water “evaporated into thin air.” These days the name “Aral Sea” conjures up images of commercial fishing boats lying rusted and askew on dry land, miles away from a distant, inconstant, and fetid shoreline.

“Close up,” Owens writes, “the Aral Sea smells like something sick.” It is now a shrunken lobe of “catastrophically saline” water—an environmental disaster of the first order and the source of dust storms that have been seen from space. Like the dust from Owens Lake, the particulates whirling skyward aren’t just superfine specks of dirt. From the dry Aral lake bed rise wind-driven clouds carrying up to 140 million tons of dust a year, dust containing cement, sand, salt, and traces of chemical toxins—“herbicides, pesticides and fertilizers”—left behind by decades of raising cotton.

In California and in Soviet Russia, a small group of powerful men decided there was a “higher” use for the water standing in these two endorheic basins. But the reason for draining them wasn’t entirely economic. It was also psychological. In 1882 a Russian climatologist named A.I. Voeikov declared that “the existence of the Aral Sea within its present limits is evidence of our backwardness.”6 The belief behind that statement is perverse but profoundly familiar: nature has no purpose or value until it’s put to use by humans. Voeikov makes it sound as though nature, in its unaltered, self-determined state, somehow mocks or diminishes the human project, which is to exert control over it.

Everything in the history of Owens Lake and the Aral Sea—everything in the recent history of the earth—makes it clear that ecosystems and their communities of interconnected species, including humans, have no inherent claim to their own integrity or, indeed, to their continuing existence. The biological world we know as nature cannot validate itself in terms that mean anything in the crush of human “progress.” It has no claim against human claims, no right to its own rights or even to its own survival. Only human usage, the argument goes, is capable of validating nature, even if that means destroying it. By altering nature, we are somehow simply affirming who we are. Dust is an end point in this process.

Voeikov was urging Russia to keep in step with Europe, to help it move from backwardness toward a modern economy. The question is whether that’s a tenable, not to say sustainable, goal. As Owens puts it, “Modernity sought to make the world measurable, predictable and controllable. Dust reveals the limits of that episteme.” As a subject of study, she explains, it is “slippery and non-singular,” and it needs examining from many different angles, by aerosol scientists, by toxicologists and meteorologists, by climatologists and health experts. And because dust is an evasive by-product—a stiff breeze and it’s gone—its sources and distribution are especially useful for tracing the fate of modernity and “the disaster of its dream of domination over nature.”

Dust’s downwind effects literally materialize decisions made upwind. The men who drained Owens Lake and the Aral Sea weren’t just choosing to divert those waters. They were choosing to leave a wasteland behind. Where there were once a lake and a sea and an endless interweaving of habitats, there were suddenly what Owens calls “sacrifice zones”—two poisonously and intentionally blank spots on a planet that’s beginning to resemble a patchwork of them. “What is the logic,” she asks, “that makes creating such a sacrifice zone apparently rational?”

As Owens notes, her book can be read as “an absent history of water.” But there are other ways of making dust. You can skin the earth—remove the vegetative cover that holds soil in place. Many forms of agriculture don’t require land-skinning, but cash crop agriculture did. The untilled American prairie was a tangled web of plant and microbial life with roots reaching deep into the earth, as alive belowground as it was above. To grow crops, rich midwestern soil had to be stripped of its tenacious ground cover, which was capable of withstanding nearly every kind of disturbance except sod-breaking by repeated applications of a steel plow. After plowing, of course, came pure stands of wheat and other crops as well as, eventually, their associated chemicals. This was monoculture by extinction, aboveground and below. Methods existed to conserve and protect fertile native soils, but almost none of them were tried until it was far too late.

Owens reminds us that there was nothing natural about the Dust Bowl of the 1930s. Deceived by a series of wet years and a temporary boom in wheat prices, farmers were encouraged to grow wheat all across the dry plains. In those days, that meant tilling and re-tilling the soil, working it down until it resembled what a 1902 agricultural manual called “dust mulch.” In essence, farmers were preparing the soil to be blown away. Yes, the rains failed, which is to say the region reverted to its historical norms—far drier than land speculators and government advisers had claimed. And yes, the winds howled over terrain that once would have remained undisturbed by wind. But now, instead of prairie grasses, there were fields of dust mulch waiting to be hurled skyward. “Dust mulch” is an oxymoron, after all. Mulch is meant to protect the soil and add nutrients. Dust flies.

Owens reminds us of something else as well, something all too easily overlooked when picturing the victims of the Dust Bowl. “Plains farmers,” she points out, “were some of the most modern people in America.” Their crops were part of a globalized market. They were heavily in debt. Winter wheat farms were well mechanized, and there were “high ratios of capital to labor.”7 With the best of intentions, and following government advice—but constrained by changing conditions—farmers were practicing a form of self-defeating agriculture. In its most extreme forms—black blizzards of dust rising a thousand feet in the air, crackling with static electricity—the Dust Bowl did come to an end. But, in fact, it merely disguised itself. A recent study concluded that midwestern farmland devoted to corn—grown on what were once some of the richest soils on the planet—has lost between 24 and 46 percent of its topsoil, which is replaceable only on a nearly geological timescale. There are only two places all that dirt could have gone: down the river as sediment or into the sky as dust.

To Owens, dust is “the shadow of modernity.” As she uses the word, “modern” isn’t a temporal or cultural term. (Examining the density of airborne particulates in sixteenth-century London—the result of burning sea coal—she notes that “our air became modern well before the economy ever did.”) Instead it registers a disconnect between our prosperity and convenience and the “dirty and dusty work” that makes it possible. Put another way, “modernity” means displacing the environmental and social consequences of our material wealth and doing our best to pretend they don’t exist.

It also means a proliferation of “sacrifice zones,” like the Trinity test site in New Mexico, which was contaminated in July 1945 when the first atomic bomb was detonated. Five years later, Owens writes, “nuclear scientists came together again at Los Alamos to choose another sacrificial landscape” where new generations of nuclear weapons could be tested. They chose a bombing range only sixty-five miles from Las Vegas.8 In the years of testing that followed, that Nevada landscape and nearly everything living nearby was sacrificed—including cattle, sheep, horses, and humans.

But a sacrifice zone is more than a spatial description of a purposive wasteland. When talking about the atmospheric tests conducted in Nevada (or anywhere else), the phrase “sacrifice zone” makes no sense unless you include the clouds of airborne dust blown upward by the explosion and then downwind with the fallout they contained. Prevailing winds, authorities assumed, would carry fallout away from Las Vegas, and they usually did. But where the fallout went—mostly north and east—it fell like radioactive snow, with long-term effects that are hard to gauge.

Nuclear fallout kills “slowly and stochastically,” Owens writes, “a random, statistical buildup of risk.” Eventually—a long-range eventually—radioactive fallout in dust from aboveground testing may kill “perhaps 2.4 million people” from illnesses caused by exposure to radiation, according to International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War.9 It’s hard to imagine these deaths because the lethality of radioactive dust is spread over time as well as space. “Half or more of them,” Owens writes, “haven’t even happened yet.” Paying attention to radioactive dust makes them discernible. “Focus on the bomb and you miss the actual disaster.”

In the Old Testament, the power of dust lies in what it is, which gives dust its metonymic if static power. But what actually matters, Owens discovers, is what dust does.10 She began to brood about dust when her graduate work stalled. Its presence in her London flat was a negative indicator of something, she concluded, because it “marked all the spaces in which my presence was absent.” It was also an “accumulation of the past.” At first its ubiquity and apparent triviality as a subject of study seemed almost to mock her. But on a road trip through the Eastern Sierra and the Great Basin, she realized that “dust was fundamentally political.” So Owens took herself out into the world, searching not for dust storms, like a tornado watcher, but for places where dust had been and where it still originates, rising into the atmospheric streams high above us, with global effect. She comes to know the Owens Valley well. She attends an international festival—a rave, really—in Moynaq, an Uzbek town just south of the former Aral Sea, on the edge of what she calls “the new Aralkum desert.” She skirts the edge of the Nevada test range and heads east into the Oklahoma Panhandle, to Cimarron, Beaver, and Texas counties, the “epicenter of the Dust Bowl.”

And what Owens does in these places is worth paying attention to. They don’t become sites of personal epiphany, nor do they evoke a sense of emotional connection with the past. They are sacrifice zones, so they’re tragic. But they’re also palimpsests, and in the shifting, overlapping layers that make a palimpsest—in this case a landscape whose history is “continuously overwritten but never quite rubbed out”—Owens makes many of her most important discoveries.

The dust Owens is most hoping to find she finds in Greenland: historic dust trapped in ice cores. In layer after layer, ice core dust reveals a sequential chronicle of climatic variation reaching back hundreds of thousands of years, offering a vivid picture of past climatic states. But present-day surface dust also matters enormously. Greenland is a settling point for dust from places as far east as the Gobi Desert, enough of it to darken the snow, which decreases the albedo of Greenland’s glaciers and ice sheets and increases their rate of melting. Dust may look static here—a dark, granular layer on the surface of the snow—but its role is dynamic. Surface dust is part of a feedback loop connected to other feedback loops in Greenland, all of them interacting in complex ways, with complex effects on the fate of Greenland’s ice sheet. Dust there isn’t merely minuscule stuff or a passive substance that comes to life only on the wind. It seems to have a power all its own, and an enormously complicated effect on almost every physical attribute of the ice sheet. In a sense Greenland exposes something fundamental about dust. It is variability itself, forever in flux, part of “a system whose behavior is intrinsically difficult to model due to the number of interactions and feedback loops between it and its environment.” And, strangely, as climatic models become more sophisticated, the way dust actually works—the way its global currents affect climate—is becoming more uncertain. There is so much more to learn.

Where is the hope in all of this? Is there any? Owens’s prose isn’t girded with stoicism, and though she can be ironic, her irony is never caustic or dismissive. She doesn’t indulge in buoyantly grim optimism, and she experiences no apocalyptic fevers, at least not within the pages of Dust. She acknowledges, as she must, the limitations of where we are now and what we can hope for. Her best word for the nature of dust is “mess,” and her operative word for the future is “salvage.” “Dust isn’t neat and tidy as an object of research,” she writes. “It’s a reminder that the world isn’t, either.” Thinking with dust turns out to mean leaving open the questions it raises.

At one point, Owens wonders if it’s possible to clean up the nuclear mess, especially the 15,000 uranium-associated locations the EPA has identified across the United States. The task seems dismayingly difficult. In response, says a member of the New Mexico Environmental Law Center, “the sense of being overwhelmed is one of the strategies that governments and corporations use to maintain the status quo.” That thought is helpful. And so is this: in April 2022 Owens attended the Owens Lake Bird Festival, an international gathering of birders to watch the spring migration, an event that would have been unimaginable in 2000. What made it possible was an enormous long-term effort to bring some water back to the lake—a complicated task involving many methods and many entities, some indigenous, some not.

Owens asks the executive director of the Owens Valley Indian Water Commission, Teri Red Owl, how to think about what’s happened to the landscape. “I wouldn’t call it ruined,” she says. “I would call it damaged. But, you know, damages can be repaired.” This is the work of ecological salvage, a rescue, as Owens puts it, “carried out in difficult conditions, a rescue that may not completely succeed but you do what you can anyway.” The best result for the future, Owens writes, is aligning “Indigenous ecological knowledge and complex systems theory.” The place to start, she concludes, is “giving control and sovereignty back to local communities and Indigenous people.”

Dust has an epilogue—if only a temporary one. After record-breaking snows last winter and heavy rainfall brought on by an atmospheric river in March 2023, Owens Lake refilled later that spring. Owens records this with a note of wonder. The water is there, she writes, always waiting to return to “the hyper-engineered landscape of Owens Lake.” And the dust is always there, always being stirred into new life by epic drought and human disregard and undetermined patterns of climate change. To read Dust is to be reminded that we always live downwind—and downstream—of ourselves.

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Verlyn Klinkenborg