How “Dune” became a beacon for the young environmental movement – ​​and a rallying cry for the brand new science of ecology

dune“, is widely considered one among the best science fiction novels of all timecontinues to influence how writers, artists and inventors imagine the long run.

Of course there are the visually stunning movies by Denis Villeneuve: “Dune: Part One” (2021) and “Dune: Part Two(2024).

But Frank Herbert's masterpiece also helped the Afrofuturist novelist Octavia Butler Imagine a future crammed with conflict within the midst of an environmental catastrophe. it inspired Elon Musk Building SpaceX and Tesla and propelling humanity toward the celebs and a greener future; and it's hard to not see parallels on this George Lucas' “Star Wars” franchise, particularly her fascination with desert planets and giant worms.

And yet, when Herbert set to work writing “Dune” in 1963, he wasn’t fascinated by how he could leave Earth behind. He thought of how he could put it aside.

Herbert desired to tell a story concerning the environmental crisis on our own planet, a world pushed to the brink of ecological catastrophe. Technologies unthinkable just 50 years ago had brought the world to the brink of nuclear war and the environment to collapse; Huge industries sucked wealth from the bottom and spewed toxic fumes into the sky.

When the book was published, these themes were also front and center for readers. After all, they lived within the wake of each the Cuban Missile Crisis and the publication of “Silent source“, conservationist Rachel Carson's groundbreaking study of pollution and its threat to the environment and human health.

“Dune” soon became a beacon for the young environmental movement and a rallying flag for the brand new science of ecology.

Indigenous wisdom

Although the term “ecology” was coined almost a century earlier, it was the primary textbook on ecology only written in 1953and the sphere was rarely mentioned in newspapers or magazines on the time. Few readers had heard of the emerging science and even fewer knew what it said concerning the way forward for our planet.

When I used to be studying Dune for a book I'm writing concerning the history of ecology, I used to be surprised to learn that Herbert never learned anything about ecology either as a student or as a journalist.

Instead, he was inspired to explore ecology by the conservation practices of tribes within the Pacific Northwest. He came upon about it primarily through two friends.

The first was Wilbur Ternyika descendant of Chief Coboway, the Clatsop leader who welcomed explorers Meriwether Lewis and William Clark on the time their expedition reached the west coast in 1805. The second, Howard Hansenwas an art teacher and oral historian of the Quileute tribe.

Ternyik, who was also an experienced field ecologist, took Herbert on a tour of the Oregon dunes in 1958. There he explained his work constructing huge sand dunes from beach grasses and other deep-rooted plants to stop the sand from being blown away to the nearby city of Florence – a terraforming technology described intimately in “Dune”.

Beach grasses planted in sand dunes.
Beach grasses and other plants help secure sand dunes along Oregon's coasts.
Edwin Remsburg/VW images via Getty Images

As Ternyik explains in a handbook he wrote for the U.S. Department of Agriculture, his work in Oregon was a part of an effort to heal landscapes scarred by European colonization, particularly the massive river wharves built by early settlers.

These structures disrupted coastal currents and created vast expanses of sand, turning parts of the Pacific Northwest's lush landscape into desert. This scenario is reflected in “Dune,” which is the setting of the novel the planet Arrakiswas also devastated by its first colonizers.

Hansen, who became godfather to Herbert's son, had closely examined the equally drastic effects of logging on the homelands Quileute people on the Washington coast. He encouraged Herbert to rigorously study the ecology, and gave him a replica of Paul B. Sears' “”Where there may be life,” from which Herbert gathered one among his favorite quotes: “The highest function of science is to give us an understanding of consequences.”

The Fremen of “Dune,” who live within the deserts of Arrakis and thoroughly manage the ecosystem and wildlife, embody these teachings. In the fight to avoid wasting their world, they skillfully mix ecological science and indigenous practices.

Treasures hidden within the sand

But the work that had essentially the most profound influence on Dune was Leslie Reid's 1962 ecological study “The sociology of nature.”

In it, Reid explained ecology and ecosystem science to a large audience, illustrating the complex interdependence of all living things within the environment.

“The deeper ecology is examined,” writes Reid, “the clearer it becomes that interdependence is a governing principle, that animals are bound to one another by unbreakable bonds of dependence.”

In the pages of Reid's book, Herbert found a model for the Arrakis ecosystem in a surprising place: the Guano Islands in Peru. As Reid explains, the bird droppings amassed on these islands were ideal fertilizer. Home to mountains of manure which can be described as “new”.White gold” and some of the worthwhile substances on earth, the guano islands became the positioning of a series of resource wars within the late nineteenth century between Spain and several other of its former colonies, including Peru, Bolivia, Chile and Ecuador.

The plot of “Dune” centers on the fight for control of “spice,” a useful resource. Harvested from the sands of the desert planet, it’s each an opulent flavoring for food and a hallucinogenic drug that permits some people to change space, enabling interstellar travel.

A pencil drawing of two men standing in a sea of ​​birds.
In the nineteenth century, guano from Peru was a worthwhile commodity for the production of fertilizers.
Corbis Historical/Getty Images

There is a certain irony within the incontrovertible fact that Herbert got here up with the concept for a spice created from bird droppings. But he was intrigued by Reid's careful depiction of the unique and efficient ecosystem that produced a worthwhile—if harmful—commodity.

As the ecologist explains, the cold currents within the Pacific Ocean push nutrients to the surface of nearby waters, helping photosynthetic plankton thrive. These are home to an incredible fish population that feeds not only whales but additionally hordes of birds.

In early drafts of “Dune,” Herbert combined all of those stages within the life cycle of the enormous sandworms, football field-sized monsters that roam the desert sands and devour every little thing of their path.

Herbert initially imagines each of those fearsome creatures as small, photosynthetic plants that become larger “sand trout.” Eventually they develop into giant sandworms that churn up the desert sand and spit spices to the surface.

In each the book and Dune: Part One, soldier Gurney Halleck recites a cryptic verse that comments on this reversal of sea life and dry extraction regimes: “For they will suck from the bounty of the seas and the treasure hidden therein.” Sand.”

“Dune” revolutions

After “Dune” was published in 1965, it was eagerly embraced by the environmental movement.

Herbert spoke at the primary Earth Day in Philadelphia in 1970 and in the primary edition of the Catalog of the Entire Earth – a famous DIY manual and bulletin for environmental activists – “Dune” was promoted with the slogan: “The metaphor is ecology.” The Theme Revolution.”

Black and white photo of a bearded man sitting on a chair and posing for the camera.
Frank Herbert spoke at the primary Earth Day in Philadelphia in 1970.
AP photo

At the start of Denis Villeneuve's first adaptation, “Dune,” Chani, an indigenous Fremen played by Zendaya, asks an issue that foreshadows the violent conclusion of the second film: “Who will our next oppressors be?”

The immediate cut to the sleeping Paul Atreides, the white protagonist played by Timothée Chalamet, expresses the pointed anti-colonial message like a knife. In fact, each of Villeneuve's movies skillfully explore the anti-colonial themes of Herbert's novels.

Unfortunately, the severity of their environmental criticism has weakened. But Villeneuve did it suggested that he could adapt too”Dune Messiah” for his next film within the series – a novel by which the ecological damage to Arrakis is glaringly obvious.

I hope that Herbert's prescient ecological warning, which resonated a lot with readers within the Nineteen Sixties, comes through in Dune 3.

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