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Dust: The Modern World in a Trillion Particles

Small particles, big problems. 

Read an excerpt in the Guardian's The Long Read:

'Empire of dust: what the tiniest specks reveal about the world


US edition, Abrams Books

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UK edition, Hodder & Stoughton

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'Dust is a book with an extraordinary global story to tell, but - and - also with an ethical argument to advance.'

Robert Macfarlane

The story

Dust may seem inconsequential, so tiny and mundane as to slip below the threshold of thought. Yet within the next one hundred years, life on Earth will be profoundly changed by heat and drought – and that means dust.

In Dust: The Modern World in a Trillion Particles, I argue that dust is a legacy of twentieth-century progress and a toxic threat to life in the twenty-first.

It tells a story of how the relentless drive for profit and power has turned the world to powder. Combining history and science, travel and nature writing, I show how the modern world was made through environmental devastation – and then brushed the consequences under the carpet. From particle air pollution and nuclear fallout to desertification, dried-up seas and melting glaciers, we’ve profoundly altered the planet we live on. The cost to human health – and to the natural world – proves immense.

From the California desert and the Dust Bowl in Oklahoma to the desiccated remains of the Aral Sea and the edge of the Greenland ice sheet, we are shown that some of the planet’s most remote and forgotten places are central to the modern world.


With clarity and insight, Dust: The Modern World in a Trillion Particles helps us see the big ideas found within the smallest particles.



‘Owens is a serious writer: impassioned but intelligent, powerful but subtle ... [a] first-class writer and deep-thinking environmentalist. This book is original and exciting.’

‘Eye-opening . . . impressive.’

‘The author tells the story beautifully, weaving together the strands of environmental justice, water rights and public health . . . a broad and insightful picture of how tiny partices influence our environment, our health and our relationship with the world around us.’

‘She's 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.’

Further coverage

  1. The Blissfully Slow World of Internet Newsletters |  Clive Thompson column in WIRED, 2016

  2. Dust Is So Much More Than You Realize | Q&A with Matt Simon in WIRED, 2023

  3. Publisher's Weekly | 'a competent and persuasive study of the big impact of small particles'.

  4. Geographical magazine | Bryony Cottam, 2023

  5. New York Review of Books | Verlyn Klinkenborg on 'the cost of our debris', 2024

Dust your shelves!

Add DUST to your 2024 reading plans or share a review on Goodreads.


Radio & Podcasts

'Jay Owens argues that dust is a lot more interesting than we think and people should pay more attention to it.' (2017)

'Author Jay Owens, architect Marianna Janowicz and New Generation Thinker Sam Johnson Schlee discuss dust from cleaning routines in the home to changing weather in dry landscapes.' (January 2024)

'Much like dust itself, Jay’s book travels the globe, looking at the impacts that these microscopic particles are having on the world, our health and environment, as well as exploring the role that humanity has played in creating them.' (November 2023)

' As Jay Owens tells Eleanor Penny, dust might seem like nothing much at all, but only by paying attention to the tiniest particles can we really understand the scale of our impact on the planet and our own health.' (October 2023)

Further listening

  1. BBC Radio 4, Inside Science: 'Jay talks to Gaia about why we should we be as fascinated as she is by tiny airborne particles.'

  2. WNPR, The Colin McEnroe Show: 'After We Die, Our Dust Will Live Forever'

  3. ABC Australia, Late Night Live: 'Humanity's long and often futile battle against dust'

  4. The Audiences Podcast: 'We speak to author Jay Owens, Head of Audience at the London Review of Books, about who exactly is interested in a book about dust.

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