Environmentalism at Swordpoint

Ecomodernism and Dune

Beyond a critical point within a finite space, freedom diminishes as numbers increase. This is as true of humans in the finite space of a planetary ecosystem as it is of gas molecules in a sealed flask. The human question is not how many can possibly survive within the system, but what kind of existence is possible for those who do survive. - Dune

Environmentalism and war purport to be polar opposites: one focuses on protecting nature, the other often ends up destroying it. But armies of environmentalists armed with lasers and spaceships? Ecology at the point of a sword?

Welcome to Dune, Frank Herbert’s classic 1965 science fiction novel.

In Dune and the many sequels he wrote, Herbert created a universe where the environment was not just a backdrop to a story—like mountains and forests in a movie—but a protagonist every bit as important as the human actors. Reflecting Herbert’s deep interest in ecology, Dune has come to be considered one of the inspirations for modern environmentalism, as well as spawning numerous novels, TV shows, video games, and movies. The Dune phenomenon (including the 18 and growing subsequent novels coauthored by Herbert’s son) will doubtless be revived by the latest film version—from director Denis Villeneuve—out in theaters now. Many fans hope the movie, which covers only the first book, will be an improvement over the famously bad 1984 take, with its endless internal monologues and zany weapons. Whether it ends up disappointing or not, though, it will certainly bring a new wave of attention to the original novel and its emphasis on ecology.

To be sure, Dune is not a story of vegan tree-huggers who worry about their carbon footprint. It is an essentially violent tale rooted in classic science fiction: a galactic empire, exotic creatures, and a cast of heroes and villains—sci-fi themes found in everything from Edgar Rice Burroughs’s John Carter of Mars books to George Lucas’s Star Wars movies. But in mixing sci-fi and ecology, Dune presented something new. As 21st-century Earth grapples with what seems an endless stream of environmental issues, from pollution to climate change, Dune raises an important question: when is violence justified in the name of ecology?

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Spice World

The Dune saga begins with humanity at war with nature and with itself. The tale follows the journey of Paul Atreides, scion of a royal house in a feudalistic galactic empire 20,000 years in the future. The Imperium and its ruling elites are riven by unceasing and bloody jockeying for power among a bewildering array of actors: the Emperor; the noble Houses of the Landsraad parliament; the Spacing Guild, which controls space travel; the East India Company-like CHOAM that controls commerce; and the Bene Gesserit, a powerful witch-like female secret society skilled in martial arts and manipulation.

At the start of the story, House Atreides is sent to rule the desert planet Arrakis, the only source of spice, a mystical narcotic that enables interstellar travel, increases longevity, and even offers some users a glimpse into the future. Until that point, Arrakis had been ruled by the Atreides’s mortal enemies and the ultimate anti-environmentalists: the brutal House Harkonnen, which had ruthlessly plundered the planet and its human inhabitants—including the Bedouin-like tribes known as the Fremen.

Fearing that Duke Leto, Paul’s father, will become too popular, the Emperor and his dreaded Sardaukar janissaries ally with House Harkonnen to kill the duke and wipe out his family and troops. Fleeing to the Arrakis desert with Jessica, Paul’s mother and the now-deceased duke’s concubine, Paul becomes the charismatic prophet-warlord Maud’Dib, who leads the Fremen in an uprising.

In these twists and turns, it becomes clear that what oil is to 21st-century Earth, spice is to the Dune universe. Remove either commodity, and the ties that bind human civilization as it exists—commerce, travel, government—are severed. And as on Old Earth, the environment, local population, and even emperors and dukes are expendable as long as spice flows.

The Failure of Technowands

So why didn’t Dune become yet another hackneyed sci-fi story of an exiled prince regaining his throne? Or a feel-good tale of the weak defeating the mighty, like the cloyingly cute Ewoks overcoming Imperial stormtroopers in Star Wars?

In part, that’s because Herbert avoided one of the genre’s biggest traps. Technology doesn’t instantly fix every problem, like the technobabble that afflicted many of the later Star Trek shows. Dune is a quasi-technological universe with the obligatory spaceships and lasers, but no computers or artificial intelligence, which were banned after some Terminator-like revolt. Thinking machines have been replaced by mentally enhanced humans who think like machines. Personal force fields have turned battles into medieval-style brawls between sword-equipped armies.

In this future, humanity cannot rely on techno-wands to provide solutions. In some ways, the books cut off the very possibility of ecomodernism; without good technological solutions to environmental challenges, humans have to rely only on their innate powers—that spark of inspiration and judgment—to shape their environment. Yet that doesn’t work so well, either: human computers in Dune prove no wiser than electronic models. The problem, as Herbert so adroitly depicts, is still predicting the results of our actions. Whether it’s following messianic leaders, damming rivers, or strip-mining mountains (or planets), humans have a poor track record of foreseeing consequences.

And what is most striking about Dune is Herbert’s painstakingly constructed ecology against which these consequences play out. Arrakis has an intricate ecosystem, a biological chain that comprises tiny underground sandtrout that consume water (which is why the planet became a desert) and secrete a substance that eventually becomes spice. A few sandtrout become sandworms, enormous and nearly indestructible creatures that travel underneath the sand like whales through water. Sandworms can wreak enormous damage, although water is lethal to them (humans are 70 percent water, so they leave an unpleasant aftertaste in sandworm mouths). In its natural state—without human intervention—the ecology of Arrakis is lethal to people. The Fremen survive only by adjusting themselves to their environment, conscious that depleting water and other resources will doom their descendants.

Where other groups fail to recognize that logic, they perish. For example, like 19th-century imperialists trusting that machine guns will subdue the natives (“whatever happens, we have got / the Maxim gun, and they have not”), the Harkonnens had tried to use violence and mining equipment to subdue the planet. But they discovered that the environment had a veto. Spice can be extracted, but the hostile climate, quarter-mile-long worms, and fierce tribesmen devour manpower and machinery.

Paul Atreides has a better idea: weaponize the environment by treating the ecology of Arrakis as an ally instead of enemy. Yet to call Atreides a heroic environmentalist is a stretch. He is a warlord, an autocrat, a killer, and a mystic who himself fears that he will end up unleashing a galactic jihad—a word that appears frequently in Dune—and one that will kill billions. But reduced to a powerless exile wandering the sandy wastelands, he finds the only resources he can obtain are from the desert. So Atreides becomes the charismatic leader of the Fremen, who are master swordsmen and know how to ride atop the sandworms. By exquisitely combining these forces, he storms the bastion of the Harkonnen and Imperial forces on the planet, captures the Emperor, and becomes the most powerful leader in the galaxy.

Such utilitarianism toward one’s environment permeates Dune. Much like Paul Atreides—an aristocrat who became a popular messiah—Herbert is an odd choice to be an environmental crusader, as he came to think of himself in later years. He was a libertarian suspicious of big government. His vision of environmentalism was not preserving nature for the sake of itself. Rather, it was to protect nature for the benefit of civilization: so that Arrakis could serve people. That may raise visions of greedy corporations looting natural wonders. But what alternative would have been better? On Earth as in Dune, practical or even selfish motivations often get more results than does idealism.

The Useful Environment

Dune has been cited by military theorists as a textbook example of asymmetric warfare, in which the weaker power successfully exploits the vulnerabilities of the stronger. The plausibility of that take depends on whether you believe that 20,000 years from now, wars will be won by whatever side can employ the best swordsmen and giant killer worms. Indeed, although Dune was published in 1965—just as US troops began active fighting in Vietnam—it revealed no great truths about warfare. Climate and terrain can negate the advantages enjoyed by a superior military force? British redcoats marching through dark New England forests, Napoleon’s Imperial Guard shivering in Russian blizzards, and French paratroopers and US Marines slogging through the Indochinese jungle could have attested to that.

More interesting examinations look to the tale’s other messages. The Dune universe suggests that Earth has become a dead world; in 1965, many feared that would literally happen. Humanity lived under the constant threat of annihilation as US and Soviet nuclear arsenals reached their peak. Authors such as Rachel Carson warned that Earth was choking to death on its pollution, while others offered dark visions of an overcrowded planet as global population soared 20 percent between 1960 and 1970. That fear of humanity on the precipice permeates the series.

Yet while Dune was clearly a product of the 1960s, its message in some ways seems more appropriate for 2021. The most troubling parallel is how much humanity depends on the environment. Despite 20,000 years of technological advances and humans endowed with superhuman powers, civilization still depends on a natural resource derived from a fragile ecosystem. If that ecosystem is disrupted—if spice does not flow—then interstellar trade and communications are severed, and civilization will lapse into barbarism.

Keeping the balance, though, requires violence, too. After all, Dune is a story of bloodshed in the name of ecology. The combatants don’t wage war out of love of nature, but rather of keen appreciation that the environment is what makes their goals possible. Without preserving their complex biological and environmental web, there is no spice, and Arrakis is just a desolate rock. Without spice, Atreides cannot succeed in his quest to restore his House and lead humanity into a new future. Without his victory, the Fremen may never achieve their dream of a green Arrakis. And none of these missions is possible without control of territory, and that means defeat the Harkonnens and their Imperial allies in battle. And so, in a quest to turn Arrakis green, the Fremen march to war shouting not “Save the trees!” but “Jihad!”

This is not conservation in the literal sense of preserving the environment. It’s a military crusade to make the environment more useful to humans. In pursuit of that goal, nothing is sacred. That may resonate today, with Earth’s ecosystem under stress, and institutions tasked with preparing for future crises are getting nervous. As with the Imperial forces preparing to defend their control of Arrakis, the US military, for example, has plans for climate change to become a major factor in future warfare. Melting icefields will create new shipping lanes and maritime flashpoints, while competition for resources such as water, arable land, and energy will intensify. A disrupted ecosystem will stress political systems—and stressed political systems often generate populist demagogues like Atreides.

On 21st-century Earth, control over the environment—and benefit from the environment—will probably belong to the strongest in some ways; yet as the Harkonnens discovered in Dune, military power still pales before the power of Earth. The ecosystem of Arrakis defines how the war is fought. Indeed, the environment itself becomes a combatant when the sandworms are unleashed against the Harkonnen-Imperial forces. The armies of today’s Earth are likewise sophisticated but fragile: stealth fighters and hypersonic missiles might not work so well in a world of extreme temperatures, frequent storms, and shortages of water, food, and fuel. Drought and hurricane may prove more powerful than the sword.

Green and Red

Dune thus raises a disturbing question: is war justified in the name of one’s environment? It’s not hard to envision a future where military force is seen as a potential—or perhaps the preferred—solution to ecological problems. What to do with nations that refuse to curb their pollution or carbon emissions, or consume too much water? Temptation there will be to use force to punish transgressors.

Already in many places, competition over water resources triggers conflict. And while the environmentalist movement has tended to be nonviolent, militant environmental groups such as the Earth Liberation Front have conducted minor arson and bomb attacks. As Earth becomes more polarized, it’s not hard to imagine more bloodshed.

Some people today would probably agree that, to save the environment, the use of force is justified. But one of Dune’s messages is that our actions often result in unintended consequences. Dune portrays a universe of militant environmentalism, but it is a brutal, violent universe where lofty goals count more than human life. Environmentalism by the sword is possible, but it may not create the world that we want to live in.