How ‘Dune’ Became a Rallying Cry For the New Science of Ecology

Lambert here: One for Earth Day.

By Devin Griffiths, Associate Professor of English and Comparative Literature, USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences. Cross-posted from Alternet.

Dune,” widely considered one of the best sci-fi novels of all time, continues to influence how writers, artists and inventors envision the future

Of course, there are Denis Villeneuve’s visually stunning films, “Dune: Part One” (2021) and “Dune: Part Two” (2024).

But Frank Herbert’s masterpiece also helped Afrofuturist novelist Octavia Butler imagine a future of conflict amid environmental catastrophe; it inspired Elon Musk to build SpaceX and Tesla and push humanity toward the stars and a greener future; and it’s hard not to see parallels in George Lucas’ “Star Wars” franchise, especially their fascination with desert planets and giant worms.

And yet when Herbert sat down in 1963 to start writing “Dune,” he wasn’t thinking about how to leave Earth behind. He was thinking about how to save it.

Herbert wanted to tell a story about the environmental crisis on our own planet, a world driven to the edge of ecological catastrophe. Technologies that had been inconceivable just 50 years prior had put the world at the edge of nuclear war and the environment on the brink of collapse; massive industries were sucking wealth from the ground and spewing toxic fumes into the sky.

When the book was published, these themes were front and center for readers, too. After all, they were living in the wake of both the Cuban missile crisis and the publication of “Silent Spring,” conservationist Rachel Carson’s landmark study of pollution and its threat to the environment and human health.

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

>Indigenous wisdoms

Though the term “ecology” had been coined almost a century earlier, the first textbook on ecology was not written until 1953, and the field was rarely mentioned in newspapers or magazines at the time. Few readers had heard of the emerging science, and even fewer knew what it suggested about the future of our planet.

While studying “Dune” for a book I’m writing on the history of ecology, I was surprised to learn that Herbert didn’t learn about ecology as a student or as a journalist.

Instead, he was inspired to explore ecology by the conservation practices of the tribes of the Pacific Northwest. He learned about them from two friends in particular.

The first was Wilbur Ternyik, a descendant of Chief Coboway, the Clatsop leader who welcomed explorers Meriwether Lewis and William Clark when their expedition reached the West Coast in 1805. The second, Howard Hansen, was an art teacher and oral historian of the Quileute tribe.

Ternyik, who was also an expert field ecologist, took Herbert on a tour of Oregon’s dunes in 1958. There, he explained his work to build massive dunes of sand using beach grasses and other deep-rooted plants in order to prevent the sands from blowing into the nearby town of Florence – a terraforming technology described at length in “Dune.”

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

These structures disturbed coastal currents and created vast expanses of sand, turning stretches of the lush Pacific Northwest landscape into desert. This scenario is echoed in “Dune,” where the novel’s setting, the planet Arrakis, was similarly laid to waste by its first colonizers.

Hansen, who became the godfather to Herbert’s son, had closely studied the equally drastic impact logging had on the homelands of the Quileute people in coastal Washington. He encouraged Herbert to examine ecology carefully, giving him a copy of Paul B. Sears’ “Where There is Life,” from which Herbert gathered one of his favorite quotes: “The highest function of science is to give us an understanding of consequences.”

The Fremen of “Dune,” who live in the deserts of Arrakis and carefully manage its ecosystem and wildlife, embody these teachings. In the fight to save their world, they expertly blend ecological science and Indigenous practices.

>Treasures hidden in the sand

But the work that had the most profound impact on “Dune” was Leslie Reid’s 1962 ecological study “The Sociology of Nature.”

In it, Reid explained ecology and ecosystem science for a popular audience, illustrating the complex interdependence of all creatures within the environment.

“The more deeply ecology is studied,” Reid writes, “the clearer does it become that mutual dependence is a governing principle, that animals are bound to one another by unbreakable ties of dependence.”

In the pages of Reid’s book, Herbert found a model for the ecosystem of Arrakis in a surprising place: the guano islands of Peru. As Reid explains, the accumulated bird droppings found on these islands was an ideal fertilizer. Home to mountains of manure described as a new “white gold” and one of the most valuable substances on Earth, the guano islands became in the late 1800s ground zero for a series of resource wars between Spain and several of its former colonies, including Peru, Bolivia, Chile and Ecuador.

At the heart of the plot of “Dune” is a battle for control of the “spice,” a priceless resource. Harvested from the sands of the desert planet, it’s both a luxurious flavoring for food and a hallucinogenic drug that allows some people to bend space, making interstellar travel possible.

There is some irony in the fact that Herbert cooked up the idea of spice from bird droppings. But he was fascinated by Reid’s careful account of the unique and efficient ecosystem that produced a valuable – albeit noxious – commodity.

As the ecologist explains, frigid currents in the Pacific Ocean push nutrients to the surface of nearby waters, helping photosynthetic plankton thrive. These support an astounding population of fish that feed hordes of birds, along with whales.

In early drafts of “Dune,” Herbert combined all of these stages into the life cycle of the giant sandworms, football field-sized monsters that prowl the desert sands and devour everything in their path.

Herbert imagines each of these terrifying creatures beginning as small, photosynthetic plants that grow into larger “sand trout.” Eventually, they become immense sandworms that churn the desert sands, spewing spice onto the surface.

In both the book and “Dune: Part One,” soldier Gurney Halleck recites a cryptic verse that comments on this inversion of marine life and arid regimes of extraction: “For they shall suck of the abundance of the seas and of the treasure hid in the sand.”

>‘Dune’ revolutions

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

Herbert spoke at Philadelphia’s first Earth Day in 1970, and in the first edition of the Whole Earth Catalog – a famous DIY manual and bulletin for environmental activists – “Dune” was advertised with the tagline: “The metaphor is ecology. The theme revolution.”

In the opening of Denis Villeneuve’s first adaptation, “Dune,” Chani, an indigenous Fremen played by Zendaya, asks a question that anticipates the violent conclusion of the second film: “Who will our next oppressors be?”

The immediate cut to a sleeping Paul Atreides, the white protagonist who’s played by Timothée Chalamet, drives the pointed anti-colonial message home like a knife. In fact, both of Villeneuve’s movies expertly elaborate upon the anti-colonial themes of Herbert’s novels.

Unfortunately, the edge of their environmental critique is blunted. But Villeneuve has suggested that he might also adapt “Dune Messiah” for his next film in the series – a novel in which the ecological damage to Arrakis is glaringly obvious.

I hope Herbert’s prescient ecological warning, which resonated so powerfully with readers back in the 1960s, will be unsheathed in “Dune 3.”The Conversation

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About Lambert Strether

Readers, I have had a correspondent characterize my views as realistic cynical. Let me briefly explain them. I believe in universal programs that provide concrete material benefits, especially to the working class. Medicare for All is the prime example, but tuition-free college and a Post Office Bank also fall under this heading. So do a Jobs Guarantee and a Debt Jubilee. Clearly, neither liberal Democrats nor conservative Republicans can deliver on such programs, because the two are different flavors of neoliberalism (“Because markets”). I don’t much care about the “ism” that delivers the benefits, although whichever one does have to put common humanity first, as opposed to markets. Could be a second FDR saving capitalism, democratic socialism leashing and collaring it, or communism razing it. I don’t much care, as long as the benefits are delivered. To me, the key issue — and this is why Medicare for All is always first with me — is the tens of thousands of excess “deaths from despair,” as described by the Case-Deaton study, and other recent studies. That enormous body count makes Medicare for All, at the very least, a moral and strategic imperative. And that level of suffering and organic damage makes the concerns of identity politics — even the worthy fight to help the refugees Bush, Obama, and Clinton’s wars created — bright shiny objects by comparison. Hence my frustration with the news flow — currently in my view the swirling intersection of two, separate Shock Doctrine campaigns, one by the Administration, and the other by out-of-power liberals and their allies in the State and in the press — a news flow that constantly forces me to focus on matters that I regard as of secondary importance to the excess deaths. What kind of political economy is it that halts or even reverses the increases in life expectancy that civilized societies have achieved? I am also very hopeful that the continuing destruction of both party establishments will open the space for voices supporting programs similar to those I have listed; let’s call such voices “the left.” Volatility creates opportunity, especially if the Democrat establishment, which puts markets first and opposes all such programs, isn’t allowed to get back into the saddle. Eyes on the prize! I love the tactical level, and secretly love even the horse race, since I’ve been blogging about it daily for fourteen years, but everything I write has this perspective at the back of it.


    1. britzklieg

      Yeah but only if they are accompanied by yet another celebrated soundtrack by Hans Zimmer to make us feel emotions that are not actually there.

  1. Al

    Musk aiming for the stars. Give me a break. The whole settling Mars thing is another graft just like hyperloop. It’s a way to get government contracts and set up moon mining.

    1. Joker

      Musk is aiming for the stars, by putting “star” in the names of things. Low-earth-orbit-link just does not sound good enough, and neither does maybe-fly-to-the-moon-ship.

  2. Steve H.

    It looks like Sea Surface Temperatures just matched the all-time high (21.2’C) from March 1.

    Odum’s Thermodynamic Laws are a brilliant underpinning for understanding ecology.

    > Because designs with greater performance prevail, self-organization selects network connections that feed back transformed energy to increase inflow of resources or to use them more efficiently

    This sentence leads to understanding why ‘Reduce Reuse Recycle’ was outcompeted by ‘Moar Growth’. Why it was worth it to oil companies to fund the Gaia Hypothesis. And how international politics may drive the tropics to a facsimile of Arrakis, despite the consequences being perfectly clear.

    I’ll still say Happy Earth Day. As proscriptive, for one. And every day, the glory of blue skies and thunderstorms. And that life will prevail on this planet, and there’s nothing we can do about it.

    1. CA

      April 10, 2024

      Ocean Heat Has Shattered Records for More Than a Year. What’s Happening?
      There have been record temperatures every day for more than a year. Scientists are investigating what’s behind the extraordinary measurements.
      By Delger Erdenesanaa

      The ocean has now broken temperature records every day for more than a year. And so far, 2024 has continued 2023’s trend of beating previous records by wide margins. In fact, the whole planet has been hot for months, according to many different data sets.

      “There’s no ambiguity about the data,” said Gavin Schmidt, a climatologist and the director of the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies. “So really, it’s a question of attribution.” …

    2. CA

      April 15, 2024

      The Widest-Ever Global Coral Crisis Will Hit Within Weeks, Scientists Say
      Rising sea temperatures around the planet have caused a bleaching event that is expected to be the most extensive on record.
      By Catrin Einhorn

      The world’s coral reefs are in the throes of a global bleaching event caused by extraordinary ocean temperatures, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and international partners announced Monday.

      It is the fourth such global event on record and is expected to affect more reefs than any other. Bleaching occurs when corals become so stressed that they lose the symbiotic algae they need to survive. Bleached corals can recover, but if the water surrounding them is too hot for too long, they die…

    3. Alan Sutton

      “Oil companies funding the Gaia hypothesis”

      I have never come across that and it flies in the face of logic.

      Any evidence? Or just late night thrashing about?

  3. The Rev Kev

    I have a copy of “Dune” on my shelves though I have not read it for quite some time. But there was one line in this article that made me sit up when it said ‘This scenario is echoed in “Dune,” where the novel’s setting, the planet Arrakis, was similarly laid to waste by its first colonizers.’ Not the first time that this has happened in Earth’s history but really changes how to read this novel. This puts the story of Dune in a entirely new context for me as it would suggest that the Fremen were the surviving descendants of the original colonists. And them saving every drop of water that they can in vast reservoirs to re-green the planet seems to be their penitence.

    1. wsa

      I’ve read Dune several times over the years, and the idea that the planet was ruined by the first colonizers is not anywhere in the books written by Frank Herbert. The lifecycle of the worm causes the desertification. It’s the thoughtless, unchecked dedesertification that threatens the world and the economy of the human universe in the later books. I wonder if professor Griffiths is projecting a bit of his own ideas about deserts onto the desert planet.

      There are a bunch of themes which Herbert put into the Dune books, covering politics, linguistics (by way of General Semantics), human potential, ecology, etc. The movies really only strongly reflect Herbert’s idea that charismatic leaders are mistake amplifiers. Ecology is touched hardly at all except as a force that shapes culture.

      1. Aurelien

        And of course it’s scarcely an anti-colonial work either. Herbert was quite clear that the Fremen were “ZenSunni wanderers” and had lived on other planets before. Indeed, their very mode of survival requires a level of technology that could only have come from off-planet. The “indigenous” inhabitants of Arrakis are the sandworms. Maybe what’s needed is a speciesist reading of the novel ….

        1. Skip Intro

          I had the feeling their wanderings were more like a series of violent expulsions from homes, until they found themselves on an inhospitable desert planet, which then had the ‘luck’ to be home to a valuable mineral resource. The parallels with the trail of indigenous Americans through reservations to a desert where they were still in the way of exploitation seemed obvious. Their attempts to terraform the planet would destroy the maker-sandworm lifecycle, and the colonial exploitation by the empire. I recall no hint of a pre-fremen indigenous culture.

      2. Amfortas the Hippie

        its sort of implied in the son’s extension novels that the sandworms were introduced…but not by whom.

        ive read them all, dad and kid, many times.
        i consider dad’s six books to be one big book.
        my favorite is God Emperor.
        the little aphorisms and quotations that begin each chapter are worth reading all by themselves.
        the dune universe was not only my introduction to ecology(following, sort of, tolkien)…but to political economy….i use “hydraulic despotism” all the time at the bar to open minds and potentially rip them out of their stupors.
        i reckon dune is also where i get my long-termism…which, in the form of patience, has served me well in my endeavors…given my physical and monetary limitations.
        the ecology stuff…well, ive built upon that foundation out here for 30 years…including deliberately planting “poverty grasses” to stabilise various hills of sand that were what this place was when i got here.
        i really wish i had before-pictures of this 20 acres and environs…to compare with today.
        its really remarkable.
        and the seed crystal was those six dune books.
        (the son’s endeavors are ok, i guess…more so if youre a big fan of that universe…but he sure as hell aint his dad,lol)

        1. digi_owl

          “its sort of implied in the son’s extension novels that the sandworms were introduced…but not by whom.”

          I think that is from Frank Herbert’s own writing, specifically Children of Dune when Leto finds the sand trout.

        2. lambert strether

          The son’s novels are not canon (and every time I’ve opened one it’s been bad).

          1. Amfortas the Hippie

            they were poorly written by comparison….who was it that helped the son?
            some pulp scifi writer…
            but i was interested in the Universe, and in the continuation and fleshing out of the history of that universe.
            christopher tolkien did a better job, fer sure.(why we have the silmarillion, etc)
            but still…a tall task for anyone…and who knows what state Herbert Pere’s notes were in?
            i give the benefit of the doubt, and instead roll around in the filling out.

          2. Return of the Bride of Joe Biden


            edit: Like I really don’t care – I don’t care for his books, either – but is there a Frank Herbert Certification Society? A Dune Standards and Measurements Bureau? What body determines this? Is it internationally sanctioned?

            Sorry for interrupting the nerd navel gazing.

            1. Amfortas the Hippie

              us analog nerds will rule the world, one day…likely in tiny bits.
              i intend to be a benevolent warlord.
              so be nice, dammit.

            2. Yves Smith

              If I were you, I would not display ignorance of well-established traditions in literature, theater, and film with such pride compounded by Being an Asshole, a violation of our written site Polices.

              With an established franchise, which Dune became, its creator takes great care, as Frank Herbert did, to maintain consistency of character and the clearly articulated premises of how his realm worked. This is bog standard. Film is so obsessive over this that they have what are called continuity managers within and across films in a franchise to make sure there are no breaks, like the colors in a throne room changing with no explanation.

              The son violated many of the premises and even stated events of the father’s series.

          3. steppenwolf fetchit

            I remember having read Dune decades ago. I never remembered anything about how Arrakis became a Desert Planet to begin with. Other commenters also don’t remember anything about that in the book.

            I never read any of the follow-on books. I don’t even know how many of them were written by Frank Herbert himself. I heard about them though. In hindsight it begins to sound like a ” Star Wars” process . . . too lucrative a franchise to just let die, and also too attractive an escape-world-of-the-mind to go unthought about or unelaborated upon.

            Does anyone think any of the subsequent books written by Herbert himself were as good as Original Dune itself? If so, maybe I should read them too.

            ( By the way, I suspect the constant output of dystopian literature and movies is an effort by the brain-herders to pre-empt the fields of imagination and flood the zone with dystopia to where no one even has any brainwidth left to think about possible ecotopias or even eco semitopias or mehtopias. Maybe someone should try writing such things to create a permission structure of the mind allowing people to think about such possible outcomes.)

  4. cobetia

    See documenting Eugene Odum as the father of ecology.

    Ecology as a legitimate discipline emerged in the 50s and 60s ; perhaps “new” is fully not accurate.
    Eugene Odum, Robert MacArthur, G. Evelyn Hutchinson, Robert Paine, Charles Keeling, and Thomas Lovejoy are names familiar to ecologists. The terms of biodiversity, keystone species, biological modeling, Hutchinsonian niche, and Keeling curve are now part of the relevant lexicon and represent entities that can be measured outside of the laboratory.

    1. steppenwolf fetchit

      There was a British ( technically Scottish) ecologist named Frank Fraser Darling who labored in the vineyards of ecology even before the 50s and 60s.

      Also Aldo Leopold in America.

      and a whole bunch of Aldo Leopold images for url diving.;_ylt=AwrNOaaXKihmPgQAVXVXNyoA;_ylu=Y29sbwNiZjEEcG9zAzEEdnRpZAMEc2VjA3Nj?p=aldo+leopold&fr=sfp

    2. steppenwolf fetchit

      There was a proto-ecologist, if you will, in the late 1800s named George Perkins Marsh. He wrote some books which parts of his society were not advanced enough to accept. Actually, they were not even advanced enough to bother rejecting them. ( Parts were, of course. I don’t know if Marsh had an impact on Gifford Pinchot and Teddy Roosevelt and etc.)

  5. cobetia

    See documenting Eugene Odum as the father of ecology.

    Ecology as a legitimate discipline emerged in the 50s and 60s ; perhaps “new” is fully not accurate.
    Eugene Odum, Robert MacArthur, G. Evelyn Hutchinson, Robert Paine, Charles Keeling, and Thomas Lovejoy are names familiar to ecologists. The terms of biodiversity, keystone species, biological modeling, Hutchinsonian niche, and Keeling curve are now part of the relevant lexicon and represent features and entities that can be measured outside of the laboratory.

  6. Mark Szpakowski

    When I first read Dune way back then the key takeaway and insight was that we could have, and need to have, a “planetary ecologist”, to care for the total ecology of the planet. We still need that, along with a corresponding ecological civilization.

  7. Carolinian

    Interesting article but while the thinkers of the 1960s were good ecologists they weren’t necessarily good psychologists or at least not good enough. One thing they put much emphasis on was population control but that was quickly dropped by liberalism because it goes against the inner drive of all of us to make more of us. Or in other words how do you convince an invasive species–humans–to stop doing the thing that nature–the thing most valued by ecologists–tells us to do.

    Of course in nature many species do instinctively regulate their own population according to conditions. And world population growth is predicted to slow and maybe even stop but not necessarily in time to avoid the ecological devastation that is often the result of other invasive species–not just us.

    By contrast ecology’s enemy, capitalism, came to be because it does respond to that other aspect of nature that impels us to make as many of us as possible. “Growth” is its mantra. So to defeat the ecological menace the political menace and its attendant zeal for power would also have to be defeated and that’s where the sixties environmentalists failed, and indeed in many cases became co-opted by the very big business forces they claimed to oppose.

    Nature is beautiful but it isn’t “moral” as the warm and fuzzy ecology movement would often want us to believe. It just is. So are we.

  8. dave -- just dave

    1/I had the good fortune to read an early ecology book aimed at the general reader when I was in my early teens: The Forest and the Sea (1960), by Marston Bates. I recently found it in a used book shop and hope to re-read it.

    2/One thing neglected by Musk and others who think our species can escape degradation of our home planet by going elsewhere is something Odum emphasized – the importance of energy. This applies to biological processes, and also to technological ones. A recent book, freely available on the internet, that invites the reader/student to “do the math” – also the name of the author’s blog – is Tom Murphy’s Energy and Human Ambitions on a Finite Planet.

  9. Susan the other

    If we had eco money we wouldn’t be able to commodify anything because there is no way to separate the value of one thing from another because it’s all intrinsic. So if our current medium of exchange is actually the medium of destruction, we need to stop it.

  10. Jeremy Grimm

    I had thought Dune derived story from the Seven Pillars of Wisdom by T.E. Lawrence, Lawrence of Arabia and the myths and stories about him.

    1. Format

      T.E. Lawrences is clearly the main inspiration for Dune. The article writer is really stretching it with the other references. Elon Musk does not reference Dune, but he does pay homage to Iain M. Banks Culture novels with the naming of the Space X rockets. And Star Wars is more closely connected to Flash Gordon than Dune. And Dune is not the first time a desert planet appeared in science fiction.

      There are other novels that put ecology at the center of their story more than Dune does (e.g. Kim Stanley Robinson does this in many of his novels). Dune is more palace intrigue and sociology. Pollution, overconsumption and environmental destruction do not really make any appearance in the novel (though one could make the argument that terraforming Arrakis into a green planet is to destroy the planet’s ecology).

      Dune is of course popular right now because of the movie, but I really wouldn’t give it the acclaim that the article writer does.

      1. lambert strether

        TE Lawrence for the hero and the desert milieu, but that’s not the whole book. IIRC, Herbert grew up among anarchists in the Oregon dune country, which shaped his imagination of the planet (I linked to this, but I’m too lazy to find it).

  11. Kouros

    Has anyone noticed how the “mentats” were entirely eliminated from the new movie? One shall not speak against the new A.I. gods I guess…

    1. LifelongLib

      I haven’t seen the second part yet, but AFAIK in the first there was no mention of the Butlerian Jihad (the war against thinking machines) that gave rise to the mentats either.

    2. Alan Sutton

      The films, as usual, are not as good as the books.

      The second one especially was bad in that regard.

      Chani, in particular, is given a lot more “feminist” agency to adhere to current stereotypes than she had in the books. As written she was always loyal to Paul but not so much in the latest film.

      Also, as noted above, not much detail about mentats. A lot more on military tough stuff.

  12. 4paul

    Interesting, when I first read the first book, I guess in High School, I thought to myself the teachers’ question: “why did the author write the book?”, and I confess I didn’t have an answer.

    I later read/heard Frank Herbert say the point was: heroes always create more problems than they solve, or something like that.

    When I saw the Mad Max movie I made a post-global-holocaust-event connection; the decade of the 1980s was on the brink of nuclear war, which would be an environmental catastrophe for the survivors (survivors, LOL).

    In later years I think of Dune as ecology / environmentalism, and anti-colonial, but I would have preferred a shorter book which makes its point clearly. I can’t imagine Frank Herbert thought he would get six War And Peace length book deals (I don’t think I read all six, much less the rest); the later books, and his son’s discussions about them, explain what I didn’t get by reading Dune the first time.

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