Here’s a lesson from optics that historians of science seem to have taken in with their mother’s milk: the narrower the aperture, the more focused the image. Pick a narrow something, research its story till it squeaks, and you might just end up with a twisted-but-true vision of the world as a whole. To Jared Diamond’s Guns and Germs and Steel, to Mark Kurlansky’s Salt, and Laura Martin’s Tea, can we now add geographer Jay Owens’ Dust?
Owens’ pursuit of dust (defined very broadly as particles of a certain size, however generated) sends her tripping through many fascinating and rewarding realms, but this can sometimes be at the expense of her main subject. (For instance, an awful lot of this book is less about dust than about the absence of water.) “Dust,” Owens writes, “is matter at the very limit-point of formlessness, the closest ‘stuff’ gets to nothing.” This is nicely put, but what it boils down is: Dust is slippery stuff to hang a book upon.
Owens’ view of dust is minatory, Some dust is vital to natural ecological processes (rainfall being not the least of them). Approximately 140 million tonnes of dust fall every year across the tropical Atlantic Ocean, providing nutrients to marine ecosystems. Still, dust also brings disease: “In the Caribbean,” Owens tells us, “the Saharan winds carry spores of the fungus Aspergillus, making corals and sea fans sicken and die.”
Increasing the amount of dust in the atmosphere has led and still leads to sickness and death. In Ford County, Kansas, at the very bottom of the Dust Bowl, one-third of all deaths in 1935 were from pneumonia. Today, lead and arsenic hitchhike on soot particles formed by combustion, driving some into hay-feverish discomfort, others into acute respiratory failure.
The direct health effects of dust are arresting, but Owens’ abiding interest in dust developed when she began tracing its ubiquity and systemic pervasiveness: how, for instance, electric cars, being heavier, generate extra road dust, which is rich in microplastic particles, and how these transport other environmental contaminants including 6PPD-quinone, “an antioxidant added to tyre rubber that researchers have found is producing mass die-offs of coho salmon in the Pacific Northwest.”
Set aside the temptation to run screaming into the hills, we have two ways to confront a world revealed to be this intagliated and insoluble. The first is to embrace ever vaguer suitcase language to contain its wicked problems. When Owens started talking about the “anthropocene”, — a putative new geological era triggered by [insert arbitrary technological advance here], my heart sank. Attempts to conciliate between the social sciences and geology are at best silly and at worst pompous.
The second tactic is to hold your nerve, get out of your chair and go look at stuff; observe the world as keenly as you can, and write as honestly as possible about what you see. And Owens’ success here is such as to nudge aside all earlier quibbles.
Owens is a superb travel writer, delivering with aplomb on her own idea of what geographers should be doing: “Paying attention to tangible, material realities to ground our theoretical models in the world.” (Owens, p. 326)
With Owens, we travel from saltbushed, rabbitbrushed and tumbleweeded Lake Owens in California to Aralka in Kazakhstan, and the toxic remains of what was once the fourth largest lake in the world. We visit ice core researchers in Greenland, and catch a glimpse of their “cold, arduous, multi-year detective work”. We discover through vicarious experience, and not just through rhetoric, why we can’t just admire the fruits of modernity, “the iPhones, the Teslas, the staggering abundance of consumer entertainment – but should follow that tree down to its roots.”
Dust’s journeys, interviews, and historical insights serve Owens’ purpose better than the terms of art she has brought across from social anthropology. I admit I was quite taken with the idea of “Discard Studies”, that interrogates the world through its trash; but a glimpse of Lake Owens’s current condition — a sort of cyborg woodland in place of the old lake, and a place more altered than restored — says more about our ever-more dust-choked world, than a thousand modish gestures ever could.