There’s something incredibly rewarding about absorbing fiction and all its fantasy. I love to dive headfirst into a novel that has nothing to do with the real world. What I love most, however, is walking away from a show, film, or book feeling even more connected to the real world. You know I love to explore climate themes in media—from Reservation Dogs to Sweet Tooth. My latest fascination is Dune, the desert-based sci-fi story about a planet under siege.
Without spoiling too much, the film touches on key themes central to The Frontline: power, colonialism, Indigenous knowledge. Some people loved the film—others hated it. While I have my criticisms, I enjoyed it all too much. Despite being over 150 minutes long, the film left me wanting even more at the end. (Part two is officially happening!)
Welcome to The Frontline, where climate and culture always converge. I’m Yessenia Funes, climate director of Atmos. Dune may take place thousands of years into the future, but it features so many parallels to the world on Earth in 2021. As we confront the climate crisis, we should look for inspiration everywhere—including on the big screen.
“Who will our next oppressors be?”
The question is asked not even three minutes into Dune, the sci-fi epic released last weekend featuring Timothée Chalamet and Zendaya that follows an intergalactic war breaking out on a desert-ridden planet called Arrakis in the year 10191. It’s a question that sets the tone for the rest of the film.
The cinematic adaptation of the 1960s sci-fi series from Frank Herbert explores themes of colonization, resource extraction, and warfare. It’s not an original premise, but it is a popular one that grandiose space stories can’t seem to ignore. That’s because, in the real world, most humans have an impeccable way of destroying nature, ignoring its intrinsic value once they’ve placed a price tag on it. Meanwhile, those who actually see and appreciate the Earth and all its gifts are abused and killed for protecting those resources. And these defenders are largely Indigenous.
Dune follows the tale of Paul Atreides (Chalamet’s character) who is forced to move to Arrakis, a dry and brutal planet with an extraordinary resource found nowhere else: spice. It’s a crimson red psychoactive powder that appears atop the desert sand. While it’s sacred to the planet’s Indigenous Fremen people, it’s also a multibillion-dollar enterprise (or multibillion-solaris, the currency used in the film). The Atreides family doesn’t go to Arrakis because they want to; the Emperor (the universe’s de facto ruler) has instructed them to go harvest the immensely valuable spice despite local opposition to outsiders.
After we meet Paul, we hear an educational video he’s watching describe the political powers at play in regards to spice: “For the Fremen, spice is the sacred hallucinogen which preserves life and brings enormous health benefits. For the Imperium, spice is used by the navigators of the Spacing Guild to find safe paths between the stars. Without spice, interstellar travel is impossible, making it by far the most valuable substance in the universe.”
Doesn’t it sound a bit familiar? Back on Earth, we have various Indigenous cultures with access to profitable resources—be it oil, gold, trees, lithium. Dune’s Fremen people bear a striking resemblance to peoples Indigenous to the Middle East, said Farhana Sultana, an associate geography and environment professor at Syracuse University. This is especially true when you consider the visuals in the film: sand dunes, face coverings, and violence. The Middle East has faced immense bloodshed in the decades since the discovery of oil in the region. That’s no coincidence; oil sits at the heart of the conflict, much like spice does in Dune.
“It does feel like there are parallels between fossil fuel wars and what they call spice wars in the film,” Sultana said. “These are the parallels I saw in terms of colonialism, the imperial occupation of the Middle East, and the ongoing endless wars that are driven by the capture of fossil fuels and other resources—like water. There’s that colonialist extraction and capitalist greed that’s a parallel for at least our last few decades, which has been a fossil fuel driven form of capitalist greed.”
Oil, however, doesn’t carry sacred properties for any Indigenous culture. The land, of course, does for many. And there’s always someone in search of what the land offers freely. In Nevada, the Fort McDermitt Paiute and Shoshone Tribes are opposing a proposed lithium mine threatening sacred grounds. In the Brazilian Amazon, the Hui Kui are fighting to defend the ancient forests they call kin. Yet reckless pursuit of wealth threatens to destroy these relationships and all they offer our global efforts to combat the various ecological crises humanity faces.
In Dune, spice’s ability to fuel space travel overpowers its spiritual potential for those not from Arrakis. Space travel itself opens the door to further colonization, inviting the expansion of the empire. This ignorance offers us all a lesson: Listen to the Earth. Let it guide us. The earth tells us what we need—we don’t tell it. For instance, spice is a psychedelic in the film that offers powerful visions to those who inhale it. We only get a taste of what spice is capable of in Dune, but perhaps the next film dives deeper.
“Our hyper-consumptive lifestyles that drive climate change come at the expense of people of color around the world, Indigenous communities around the world, in terms of their oppression, their dispossession, their lands, their resources, their poverty.”
Across the globe, cultures use plant medicines to explore themselves and the world around them. The film reminds us about the potential of these medicines and how they might help us reconnect to nature. It also forces us to question whether we have a right to such experiences without the cultural connection that made such experiences possible—rituals and ceremonies often developed by Indigenous people. The ecology of Arrakis and the enchantment spice creates is central to Dune’s storyline.
“The major impact of Dune is its taking seriously of ecology and the environment, not just as a backdrop for the story or some side detail but as a key element of what drives the plot and a key constraint for the characters’ behavior and actions,” said Gerry Canavan, the president of the Science Fiction Research Association, in an email.
Dune is a fantastical tale that underscores the urgency of autonomy and land rights. It raises concerns around white saviorism and leadership. The film is also a sobering reminder of all the real lives colonialism and war have ravaged. As Sultana said, there’s a history to climate change—and it’s a violent and racist one. It’s a history that continues today.
“How did we get to capture fossil fuels and these resources?” Sultana said. “Our hyper-consumptive lifestyles that drive climate change come at the expense of people of color around the world, Indigenous communities around the world, in terms of their oppression, their dispossession, their lands, their resources, their poverty.”
Toward the end of Dune, Paul hears a voice. It says, “When you take a life, you take your own.” It’s a message that pushes him to make a decision critical to his evolution. It asks him to kill his old self to be born anew. As we face mass extinction and science-based apocalyptic scenarios, we too must transform. The old way isn’t working anymore. Human civilization can’t keep killing others and the planet in the name of growth and development. Instead, it is time to build something new—to become someone new.
“Science fiction has the power to transform the way we understand our actually existing world,” Canavan said.
The climate crisis requires bravery. It requires radical imagination. We should look to sci-fi, art, and stories for inspiration. In Dune, giant sandworms make the desert landscape dangerous. While outsiders have learned to avoid the creatures, the Fremen have embraced them. They worship the sandworm—and the fearless can even ride them. Dune shows us survival is about adaptation. It’s about connection.
Colonialism has tarnished these ancient ways of being, but the climate crisis is pushing us to look within and ask ourselves who we want to be. There will always be a tree to cut or a buck to be made, but what good is any of it on a planet devoid of life? On a planet sucked of joy?
What will a dollar be worth when we’re left in a desert of our making?
Dune is out in theaters everywhere, as well as on HBO Max.
Update, 10/29/21, 1:50 pm EST: Though Farhana Sultana has a historical connection to Persia, she identifies as South Asian. The text has been updated to remove mention of that historical connection.