S. Mulling: Inner Themes - The Ecological Dilemma, 2007

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S. Mulling: Inner Themes - The Ecological Dilemma, 2007

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Inner Themes of Frank Herbert's Dune: The Ecological Dilemma
January 11, 2007 by Seth Mullins Seth Mullins

The first of an incredibly popular series, Frank Herbert's Dune is a novel that can be read and

enjoyed simply as a grand adventure and human drama. Much of the book's power lies in its ability

to provoke thought, however, and a reader's pleasure is immeasurably enriched when he or she is

able to delve into the deeper themes that are at work within the story. One of the most prominent of

these themes is ecology and the delicate balance that must be maintained in order for ecosystems to


Frank Herbert provided the perfect backdrop for ecological speculation by setting the main stage

for his story on a desert planet. Arrakis, as the world is called, holds two precious substances that

serve as anologs for the limited natural resources that exist on our own world: water, which is so

scarce that humans survive by recycling their own moisture, and the geriatric spice melange that

provides heightened awareness to the navigators of space, the priestesses of the book's central

religion, and to the protagonist, Paul Atreides (Muad'Dib). Herbert wrote in a preface to a later

volume, Heretics of Dune (when he was recounting the genesis of the original), that "water was to

be an analog for oil and also for water itself, a substance whose supply diminishes each day." He

was not content in merely drawing analogies, however.

The precarious balance of life systems on the world of Dune - and the implications for the rest of the

universe - illustrate the delicate problems that confront ecologists. They are forced to think in terms

of systems and relationships as opposed to singular elements. Within Dune, the system is very

intricately woven. On the surface, it seems simple: an ecologist, Liet Kynes, has dreamt of a

centuries-long process that would transform arid Arrakis into a lush world. His ambition is then

taken up by Paul Muad'Dib, who makes a similar promise to the planet's natives, the Fremen.

It is later revealed to Paul, however, that the spice melange - upon which all the very mechanisms of

the Empire depend - is actually created by the giant sandworms that roam Arrakis. The sandworms

require water at a very early stage in their lives; by the time they are adults, however, it is deadly

poisonous to them. They are only able to survive on Arrakis, a planet so arid that any other desert

on a world with surface water would be moist in comparison. Thus, to transform the conditions on

Arrakis with the introduction of water would lead to the extinction of the sandworms and,

consequently, no more spice.

Such a model, embedded within a story that's bracing in its own right, quite aptly sums up the

ecological dilemma of our world. Frank Herbert offers no simple solutions, but his story does

remind us to take into account the entire picture of a living system. We can serve one part,

exclusively (for example, the needs of our own species), only at great cost to the whole.
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