Dune & The Climate Crisis

Curator's Note

Dune's unforgiving climate is an essential part of the story we see in the books and recent film. For offworlders, the planet-wide desert is a punishing obstacle.  To the Fremen, those indigenous to Dune, this environment is both a challenge and an integral part of life. From their dress, to their social customs, to their architecture, a need to preserve water sculpts the people of Dune.

Alongside impacting human life, this parched climate has resulted in the evolution of the formidable and revered giant sandworms, known to Fremen as Shai-Hulud. In the video clip above (3:40-4:55; 8:35-9:30), you can get an introduction to these behemoths. The desert is the sandworms' kingdom and anyone who encroaches does so at their own peril. Any rhythmic sound of human machinery or footsteps on the sand will summon the worms, who quickly swallow invaders whole.

Despite their fearsome place at the top of the food chain, the sandworms are far from a nuisance. These native creatures of Dune, found nowhere else in the universe, produce a substance equally rare- the spice. This compound offers myriad benefits, including equipping navigators with abilities needed for space travel. Without the spice, space travel could cease and the empire would crumble.

The promise of the main character, Paul, is that he will fulfill the prophesied role of Lisan al Gaib and lead the Fremen into a prosperous future. Part of this will involve continuing prior ecological efforts to transform Dune into a more water-rich world. While this would benefit humans, there is little discussion in the movie or the first novel about how these changes could harm other creatures. As mighty as the sandworms may be, they are vulnerable to water, which acts as a poison to them. This means that altering the environment to make it more hospitable to people could destroy the planet's most revered animal and the empire's most valuable substance. In the film, Paul is poised on the verge of taking up his destiny and Dune, by extension, stands at the brink of a long awaited transformation.  Only much later in the books do the characters grapple with the price paid for this change.

On Earth, like on Dune, many have not pursued progress with all the potential costs in mind. Although fossil fuels have played an essential role in developing the cities, lifestyles, and technologies that we have today, our exorbitant use of them has horrifically altered the planet through pollution, habitat loss, and climate change. Unlike the characters from the film, we have lived through enough of this damage to know it is not worthwhile to continue down this path. Furthermore, we have alternatives, like renewable energy, that offer a good quality of life alongside a healthier environment (for a fascinating list of available climate solutions, see Project Drawdown). 

Dune shows a world on the eve of enormous change and we view that story from the arms of an already changed planet. The questions we wrestle with connect us to the people on Dune: What exactly do we stand to lose when we change the climate? How can we improve life for humans without destroying parts of our world that we cherish? Who might we become in a changed planet and will we want to be those people?

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