Film & TV

Dune’s Prophetic Vision for the Environment

Disclaimer: Spoilers for DUNE

Seeing the rampant success of the new Dune movie puts a smile on this nerd’s face, and I’m sure it does for many others. Dune as a book, and now as a movie, often makes me reflect – it’s just one of those stories. Looking back at what original author Frank Herbert wrote and how it’s been translated into film brings me to look deeper into Herbert himself, as a man, and as a writer. Frank Herbert famously said that ‘the scarce water of Dune is an exact analogy of oil scarcity. CHOAM is OPEC.’ CHOAM, in Dune, is essentially an organisation that regulates and controls how goods, specifically spice (the drug that keeps society running) are bought and sold – much like how OPEC is a similarly built real-life organisation that manages the export of oil.

Herbert was deeply invested in ecological politics, and this shows in the story he wrote. In the first sequence of the Villeneuve movie, we learn about its main setting – the planet Arrakis. We see how its delicate balance of flora and fauna keep the planet in an environmental stasis, allowing for the production of the vital resource spice on an industrial scale. However, we soon learn that Arrakis wasn’t always like this. Liet Kynes (Sharon Duncan-Brewster) tells us that the planet was once lush and green, and could be again. However, the sheer demand for spice outweighed any wish for a return to a green environment.

“Herbert was deeply invested in ecological politics, and this shows in the story he wrote.”

The analogy of oil in the real world and spice in the Dune universe is abundantly clear, and this is even more evident when you notice that the landscape that Dune takes place in is a desert from which vital resources are extracted. This mirrors Herbert’s world in the 1960s, and our world today, with much of the world’s oil produced and refined in the desert regions of the Middle East. Further parallels can be drawn when looking at the culture of the native Fremen and the real cultures living in the Middle East today. Many of the Fremen customs, and even their language has roots in Islam, with the word Lisan al-gaib, which derives from Arabic, where, “لسان,” (Lisan) meaning “Tongue,” and “الغيب” (al Gaib) meaning “The hidden” or “unseen”. The title given to Paul at Liet Kynes’ hideout is especially interesting; he is called the Mahdi. Mahdi was also the name of a revolutionary leader in Sudan, who fought against the British in the late 1800s. The parallels between the Mahdi in real life and protagonist Paul Atreidies, who is fighting with the Fremen against their Harkonnen colonisers, is strong as well. These strong cultural and physical links between Arrakis and Frank Herbert’s Middle East are striking. They highlight the real-world links between oil and spice, giving context for how far the characters in Dune are willing to go for it – to kill for it. It also gets a whole new audience of people interested in the reality of oil politics as they had already seen its effects in fiction.

Fields of Arrakis | Sebastian Prenner via ArtStation

This all mirrors modern day politics in an important and thus harrowing way in my opinion. The fact that interstellar economic systems manipulate a deserted planet’s ability to thrive, just so that that system can make a profit, can fit so well into our modern day is frightening. The way in which the Imperial authority doesn’t stop spice production, thus ruining Arrakis, brings to mind the minimal environmental thought put in by our largest state and non-state bodies. Deforestation of large sectors of land, such as the Amazon rainforest, have seen little governmental management, let alone regulation. Large private companies are extracting the resources on huge scales, destabilizing the ecosystem.

There is so much more I want to say, but the most interesting material in this field all appears in the second half of the book, and thus you will all be seeing it in Dune Part 2, which has thankfully now been confirmed. The environmental implications of this book series are immense; it was briefly taught in universities all over the United States, and it inspired many climate activists and authors. To end this I’d like to harken back to the words of Liet-Kynes, probably the most ecologically in-touch character in the film: “The highest function of ecology is understanding consequences.”. These words seem to be prophetic. Right now, it seems that our society doesn’t understand the consequences, or worse, willfully ignores them.

Jeevan Bhogal is a second-year History and International Relations student at Leicester. He is the social secretary for the Film Society and is interested in reading (mainly science fiction and fantasy), film and media, as well as travelling. Find him on Instagram at jeevanjay7.