‘Dune’ at 50: Why the Groundbreaking Eco-Conscious Novel Is More Relevant Than Ever

“Men and their works have been a disease on the surface of their plane… you cannot go on forever stealing what you need without regard to those who come after.”

These are not words recently uttered at the UN headquarters, but rather by a fictional planetologist, Pardot Kynes, in Frank Herbert’s renowned sci-fi novel, Dune. With Dune, Herbert managed a rare feat: he created a gripping page-turner while building a universe every bit as intricate and believable as our own, an achievement in scope and execution that deserves comparison to Tolkien. Dune is replete with fully formed religions, philosophies, wars, and Machiavellian politics. But what was perhaps most groundbreaking when the book was published in 1965 — 50 years ago this month — was its attention to ecology.

Ecology in Dune is a vital pillar, without which the story would fall apart. It is every bit as important as a warrior’s ability in battle or a mystic’s ability to see into the future. It may seem surprising, but at the turn of the 20th century, pollution was a concern in the minds of Americans, though these fears tapered off as the Depression took hold. It wasn’t until the extraordinary rise of affluence during the postwar years that many ecological concerns were reevaluated on a large scale. With Dune, Herbert was at the start of a new wave’s swell, albeit a small one. The instigator of the first ripple was Rachel Carson, with her 1962 book, Silent Spring. It highlighted the detrimental effects of pesticides, and is credited with eventually leading to the ban on DDT. After this, the discussion of environmental issues in print increased, but not as much as you’d expect — and certainly not in a novelistic sense — until Dune.

Never focusing merely on an isolated incident, Dune was concerned with the ecology of its entire imaginary planet, and the fact that it was fictitious is almost beside the point. Here was on author who presented a complex and credible world, where actions had very real and believable consequences. This was not just a first for sci-fi, but for literature.

Dune takes place on the harsh desert planet of Arrakis, where water is scarce, making it extremely hard to sustain life. All inhabitants of Arrakis wear “stillsuits” that recapture body moisture to turn into drinking water. The majority of Arrakis’ inhabitants are part of the nomadic tribe The Fremen. They have been on Arrakis the longest and are most in touch with the land. They are also wary of the effects human hands can have on the land and advocate the teaching of “ecological literacy among the people.”

Meanwhile, teaching “ecological literacy” in the real world of the ‘50s and ‘60s was hard to do even within the scientific community. Many scientists didn’t view ecology as a serious science that could be studied rigorously. The Ecological Society of America (ESA) had been around since 1915, but it took the National Environmental Policy Act of 1969, which required the ESA to do an environmental assessment, for it to be considered with any gravity.

The Fremen in Dune are ruled over by the nefarious Harkonnens, who have come to Arrakis for one thing; its spice, or “Melange,” the most valuable commodity in the universe. The Harkonnens secretly work for the Galactic Imperium — the government of the universe — to maximize their profits and control the flow of spice. Essentially, the spice is a drug. It gives the taker an enhanced awareness of space and time, essential for pilots, or “navigators” of interstellar space ships. The only problem is obtaining it. Arrakis is inhabited by giant sandworms known to devour spice harvesters whole. The only people who can tame the worms are The Fremen. Into this scenario comes the novel’s hero, Paul Atreides, a teenager The Fremen believe to be their messiah. Their legend has it that he will lead them into making Arrakis a paradise abundant in water.

Nowadays, novels that concern life in extreme or altered climates are commonplace, and even have their own subgenre: “cli-fi.” Climate fiction has even been broached by literary darlings like Ian McEwan (Solar) and Margaret Atwood (the MaddAddam trilogy). And it’s not hard to understand the reasons for its growth as a sub-genre, spiking as it has with real life concerns about Earth’s ecological stability. This reality has shifted the timescale of traditional sci-fi works from the dystopian future (such as that in Dune) to the dystopian present. The flooding and/or desertification of major cities, leading to starvation, mass movement of people, and general catastrophe no longer seems a matter of fictitious distance. Ten years ago we got a horrific snapshot of what such devastation could look like with Hurricane Katrina. Before this, many had gotten by under the illusion that such vulnerability wasn’t possible in one of the world’s richest countries.

The champions of ecological sustainability and reason in Dune are planetologists Liet-Kynes and his father Pardot. Indeed, the Kynes’ ideas on sustainability and permaculture sparked readers’ eco-imaginations 50 years ago. It’s the Kynes men who think practically about the land and how to live in harmony with it, who believe that only a finite number of resources can exist for a given population and that, to guarantee these resources don’t dry up, people have to work in harmony with the land in order to create terraform life. It’s also telling of Herbert’s mindset that in the first draft of Dune, it was ecologist Liet-Kynes who was the hero, not Paul.

“How strange that so few ever looked up from the spice long enough to wonder at the near-ideal nitrogen-oxygen-CO2 balance being maintained here,” says Pardot Kynes, marveling at the planet. “Science is made up of so many things that appear obvious after they are explained.” It’s not that environmentalism didn’t exist in the 1960s; The Wilderness Act was signed into law in ’64, but compared to today, the environmental movement at the time of Dune’s release was miniscule.

The first Earth Day, viewed by many as year zero for the modern environmental movement, didn’t come until 1970. Four years later, English scientist James Lovelock published his controversial Gaia hypothesis, arguing that Earth (and all its biota) is itself a living thing, constantly striving to regulate its own temperature towards the optimum level for growth. Sound familiar? Pardot Kynes taught how Arrakis and its spice were part of a self-perpetuating cycle. For evidence of Gaia, Lovelock pointed to Earth’s record of sustaining life over billions of years, but at the same time he believed that the ability to self-regulate has a limit. Our dependency on fossil fuel tests those limits.

Of course, the theory of Gaia is widely challenged in the scientific community, but there’s no doubt it played a major part in raising consciousness among those who may never have contemplated the living world that surrounds us. Through both Kynes characters (ironically, two of the characters who don’t posses prescience), Herbert channeled his fears for the world if growth continued to go unabated. At one point the older Kynes spells it out for his son: “And remember that growth itself can produce unfavorable conditions unless treated with extreme care.”

The UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change meets for crucial talks in Paris this December. These meetings have become notorious for developing and developed nations failing to reach agreeable terms on cutting carbon emissions. Similar to Arrakis and the Imperium’s addiction to its spice, our world seems to be addicted to oil, and is blinded by profits in its quest for it. At the core of Dune is a sense of impending doom. The characters envision a great conflict in their futures. The honorable Fremen have grown sick and tired of the greedy ignorant Harkonnens, and this is will surely come to a head. Today, we stand at the edge of a similar (albeit less dramatic) dichotomy; there are those who willfully bury their heads in the sand and those questioning the undoubted consequences our actions are having on Earth.

Just three weeks ago President Obama announced the biggest action the US has taken against climate change yet, with regulations that will force power plants to drastically reduce their carbon emissions. All good, right? Well, in the same speech he spoke about how he was excited for his upcoming visit to the Alaskan Arctic, where he’s allowing Shell to drill for oil. Call this double-think, or a diversion tactic, or probably more accurately: politics. It could be straight from the pages of Dune, because Dune seemed to see, allegorically, straight into aspects of Earth’s own future.

With Dune, Herbert presented a planet humans had to work to make habitable. The irony lies in our current reality: we live on planet perfectly suited to life but daily do our best to make it uninhabitable. And that’s perhaps harder to swallow than even the most alarming of sci-fi stories.