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Earth as Dune: Water, Energy—and Politics

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“A man’s flesh is his own; the water belongs to the tribe.” ~Frank Herbert, Dune

One year ago, there were record floods on the Mississippi River. This year, barge traffic is grinding to a halt as record drought slows the once-mighty river’s flow to a mere trickle of its former self. As I write this, we have just experienced our 333rd consecutive month of global temperatures higher than the 20th-century average. Welcome to global warming and its chaotic twin, global “weirding,” where there is only too much or too little—never just enough.

Increasingly we are aware of the energy-water connection, as power plants are forced to shut down for lack of cooling water, as we are forced to choose between providing water to farms or utility companies, and as we learn that what we inject into the ground—a la fracking—can come back to haunt us in our well water. “Water is the new oil” is our new mantra, and we worry over “peak water” and engage in “water wars” openly by name. Our ongoing burning of fossil fuels and our use of fossil water (depletion of non-recharging underground aquifers) proves that our species is willing to sacrifice a livable future for today’s business-as-usual.

Frank Herbert would feel right at home: Herbert’s 1965 classic Dune, possibly the world’s best-selling science fiction novel, describes a desert-world nexus of ecology (water) and technology (energy), as well as economics, politics, religion—and the ultimate fate of humanity. Dune is a world that pits eco-friendly local “Fremen” tribes against the evils of an interstellar empire whose only interest is what can be exploited from the planet for power and profit.

But Dune offers us modern-day solutions as well as futuristic analogies. (No, I’m not calling for a messianic leader in the style of Herbert’s protagonist.) The author who understood the basics of both ecology and human nature offers us such wisdom as “The highest function of ecology is understanding consequences,” “Hope clouds observation,” and “That which submits rules. ... The willow submits to the wind and prospers until one day it is many willows — a wall against the wind.”

It won’t be blind hope in grand attempts to reverse-engineer the planet that will save us from our fossil foolishness. (The later Dune novels describe just such a massive planetary engineering accomplishment—and its disastrous side-effects.) Humanity’s future lies in Fremen-style local self-sufficiency, while bringing our global economies into ecological harmony and planetary limits. Water-intensive centralized factory farms must give way to local permaculture and other sustainable forms of agriculture. Our energy must come from today’s sun and sun-driven wind and water; not the ancient sunlight stored in the carbon bonds of fossil fuels. We must become Fremen, or go the way of all empires.

“Science is made up of so many things that appear obvious after they are explained.” ~Frank Herbert, Dune

Kyle Crider is Manager – Environmental Operations at Ecotech Institute and Education Corporation of America. The opinions expressed in this blog are those of the author and not necessarily those of Ecotech Institute or Education Corporation of America.