Frank Herbert’s 1965 novel Dune is widely considered one of the best sci-fi books ever written and one of the first to take environmental concerns seriously. In addition to changing the science fiction genre, Herbert’s novel became a touchstone for the burgeoning environmental movement of the late 1960s and 70s.

“It’s really calling attention to the need to think ecologically,” says Gerry Canavan, chair of the English department at Marquette University and co-editor of a history of science fiction. “Prior to that moment, people just weren’t thinking in that way.”

The Plot of 'Dune'

Dune tells the story of teenage nobleman Paul Atreides, who is forced to leave his bucolic home planet for the desert planet Arrakis. Though so dry its inhabitants must wear “stillsuits” that recycle body moisture, Arrakis contains all known reserves of the valuable spice “melange,” without which the cosmic empire can’t function. (Among other things, the spice facilitates space travel and prolongs life.) When his family is betrayed and his father killed, Paul flees into the sandworm-infested desert, where he consolidates power among the planet’s indigenous Fremen and plots his revenge.

In Dune and its many sequels, Herbert explores a variety of themes that have resonated through the decades, including messiah figures, religion, eugenics, colonialism, space exploration, drug use and geopolitics. Some commentators see references to the Cold War in his work, with the Atreides representing the United States, and their archrivals the Harkonnens representing the Soviet Union.

American writer Frank Herbert on June 9, 1978.
Ulf Andersen/Getty Images
Frank Herbert on June 9, 1978.

Dune Predicts Struggles Over A.I., Oil

Credited for his foresight, Herbert seemingly anticipated future power struggles over Middle Eastern oil, as well as the types of warfare that would engulf the region. Moreover, he presciently considered the rise of artificial intelligence, writing in Dune that humans revolted thousands of years prior to Paul Atreides’ birth to rid themselves of computers and thinking machines.

“It’s frightening how precise [Herbert] was,” Denis Villeneuve, director of the 2024 movie adaptation Dune: Part Two, told The New York Times.

Herbert struggled to find a publisher for Dune, receiving 23 rejections before it was finally accepted by Chilton Book Company (with an advance of only $7,500). Yet as his book gained in popularity—winning the two most prestigious prizes in science fiction and eventually selling around 20 million copies—it began to permeate pop culture.

The book was adapted into a 1984 film, a 2000 television miniseries, and, most recently, a two-part film series with the first film in 2021 and a sequel in 2024.

Herbert suggested in 1985 that George Lucas may have taken inspiration from his novel in creating Star Wars. Canavan agrees.

“The Voice [of the Bene Gesserit in Dune] looks a lot like the Force,” Canavan explains. “[Luke Skywalker’s home planet of] Tatooine looks a lot like Arrakis.”

Frank Herbert: An Early Environmentalist

Dune made a big impact on the environmental movement, which Herbert largely embraced. “I refuse to be put in the position of telling my grandchildren, ‘Sorry, there’s no more world for you. We used it up,’” Herbert said at the first Earth Day in 1970.

Herbert also helped organize environmental groups at the University of Washington, where he taught. And he was an early proponent of renewable energy, installing his own solar collector and windmill and speaking out against internal combustion engines.

Many environmentalists interpreted Dune as a critique of the oil industry, with Herbert’s friend Willis E. McNelly writing that the empire’s reliance on spice can “be construed as a thinly veiled allegory of our world’s insatiable appetite for oil and other petroleum products.” Canavan agrees, saying “it’s impossible that [Herbert} wasn’t thinking about oil.”

Deserts of Oregon Inspire Herbert

It wasn’t oil, but rather sand dunes and the science of ecology, that sparked Herbert’s idea in the first place. In 1957, Herbert visited Florence, Oregon, where the U.S. Department of Agriculture was attempting to stabilize the area’s sand dunes—and therefore prevent them from damaging roads and buildings—by planting European beachgrass and other fast-growing foliage. “For Herbert, this was inspirational,” says Veronika Kratz, a literary scholar at Queen’s University in Canada and author of a 2021 essay on Herbert’s ecological thinking.

Herbert planned to write a journalism article on Oregon’s dunes, titled “They Stopped the Moving Sands.” The piece was never finalized, but it prompted Herbert to begin researching dunes, deserts and ecology as a whole. The author later claimed to have read over 200 books as background for Dune and was particularly influenced by the ecologist Paul Sears.

“He used Sears’ language almost directly in certain portions of Dune,” says Katherine Buse, an assistant professor of cinema and media studies at the University of Chicago, who has written about this subject.

Water Scarcity as a Theme

Buse credits Herbert for being among the first writers to contemplate ecological change on a planetary scale—which, as she explains, makes him popular among certain climate scientists—and for showing “how dependent we are on the environment.” In particular, Buse says, he imagines “what extreme water scarcity would do to a society and how it would shape every aspect of that society.”

Herbert dedicated his novel to "dry-land ecologists, wherever they may be," and includes a planetary ecologist who dreams of "greening" Arrakis as one of the novel's characters.

Herbert’s environmentalism, however, had its limitations. According to Kratz, he believed that as long as humans understood the ecological consequences of their actions, they could effectively manage resource extraction. The protagonists of Dune essentially yearn to destroy the desert in favor of agriculture. Today, Kratz argues, “It’s not really a question of how we fix deserts to make it easier to live there, it’s more a question of, ‘why do we want to fix the deserts?’ Arid regions are vibrant and full of life.”

Even the sand dune stabilization project in Oregon, which Herbert found so inspirational, is now viewed negatively by environmentalists. In fact, attempts are currently underway to undo the prior work. By removing European beachgrass and other non-native species, conservationists hope to restore Oregon's coastal dune ecosystem.

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