Wednesday, July 1, 2015

To Save California, Read “Dune”

[ed. We might also stop promoting unsustainable developments. Las Vegas, anyone? See also: Holy Crop.] 

Fifty years ago science-fiction author Frank Herbert seized the imagination of readers with his portrayal of a planet on which it never rained. In the novel Dune, the scarcest resource is water, so much so that the mere act of shedding a tear or spitting on the floor takes on weighty cultural significance.

To survive their permanent desert climate, the indigenous Fremen of Dune employ every possible technology. They build “windtraps” and “dew collectors” to grab the slightest precipitation out of the air. They construct vast underground cisterns and canals to store and transport their painstakingly gathered water. They harvest every drop of moisture from the corpses of the newly dead. During each waking moment they dress in “stillsuits”—head-to-toe wetsuit-like body coverings that recycle sweat, urine, and feces back into drinking water.

Described by Dune’s “planetary ecologist,” Liet-Kynes, as “a micro-sandwich—a high-efficiency filter and heat exchange system”—the stillsuit is a potent metaphor for reuse, reclamation, and conservation. Powered by the wearer’s own breathing and movement, the stillsuit is the technical apotheosis of the principle of making do with what one has.

Someday, sooner than we’d like, it’s not inconceivable that residents of California will be shopping on Amazon for the latest in stillsuit tech. Dune is set thousands of years in the future, but in California in 2015, the future is now. Four years of drought have pummeled reservoirs and forced mandatory 25 percent water rationing cuts. The calendar year of 2014 was the driest (and hottest) since records started being kept in the 1800s. At the end of May, the Sierra Nevada snowpack—a crucial source of California’s water—hit its lowest point on record: zero. Climate models suggest an era of mega-droughts could be nigh.

Which brings us to Daniel Fernandez, a professor of science and environmental policy at California State University, Monterey Bay, and Peter Yolles, the co-founder of a San Francisco water startup, WaterSmart, that assists water utilities in encouraging conservation by crunching data on individual water consumption. Fernandez spends his days building and monitoring fogcatchers, remarkably Dune-like devices that have the property of converting fog into potable water. “I think about Dune a lot,” Fernandez says. “The ideas have really sat with me. In the book, they revere water, and ask, what do we do?” Similarly, Yolles says, “I remember being fascinated by the stillsuits. That was a striking technology, really poignant.” And inspiring. The fictional prospect of a dystopian future, Yolles says, “helped me see problems that we have, and where things might go.”

Science fiction boasts a long history of influencing the course of scientific and technological development. The inventors of the submarine and the helicopter credited Jules Verne for dreaming up both their inventions. Star Trek’s tricorder inspired generations of engineers to perfect the smartphone. Nobel Prize-winning economist Paul Krugman credits a character in Isaac Asimov’s Foundation trilogy for his motivation: “I grew up wanting to be Hari Seldon, using my understanding of the mathematics of human behavior to save civilization.” “Anything one man can imagine, another man can make real,” wrote Verne in Around the World in 80 Days. The future is as malleable as the written word.

So it shouldn’t be a surprise that two innovative thinkers devising means to address drought in California should be talking about Dune. As I visited with Yolles and Fernandez to learn about their work confronting drought, I realized the missions of both men embodied a deeper ecological message in Dune. The novel’s ecologist Kynes is famous for teaching that “the highest function of ecology is understanding consequences.” The implicit lesson for society, as it marshals technology to address a waterless world, is that technological fixes work only in the context of an environmentally and socially connected vision. It’s the vision that guided Herbert in creating Dune, and it owes as much to our ancient past as it is a speculation on the future.

According to a biography of Herbert, Dreamer of Dune, written by his son Brian, the genesis of the novel came when Herbert, a long-time journalist who worked for a string of Northern California newspapers, landed an assignment in 1957 to write a story about a United States Department of Agriculture project to control spreading sand dunes with European beach grasses on the coast of Oregon. Surveying the highway-encroaching dunes from a low-flying aircraft, Herbert became fascinated by the implications of this clash between human and nature. The project, he later wrote, “fed my interest in how we inflict ourselves upon our planet. I could begin to see the shape of a global problem, no part of it separated from any other—social ecology, political ecology, economic ecology.” He chose the title Dune, he said, because of its onomatopoetic similarity to the word “doom.” He hoped Dune would serve as an “ecological awareness handbook.”

His wish came true. Along with Rachel Carson’s environmental call to arms, Silent Spring, published in 1962, Dune, says Robert France, a professor of watershed management at Dalhousie University, “played a very important role in increasing global consciousness about environmental concerns in general.” France says the massively popular reaction to Dune was a key part in the events that led up to the creation of Earth Day. Herbert frequently corresponded with the founder of Earth Day, Ira Einhorn, and was a featured speaker at the first Earth Day, in 1970.

Herbert’s role in the budding environmental movement is proof science fiction can and does play a role in how we live in the present. But one of the more remarkable things about Dune is how rooted its story is in the ancient past. According to Brian Herbert, his father spent five years researching desert cultures and “dry-land ecology” before writing the novel. There’s a reason why the Fremen language looks and sounds like Arabic, and the Fremen people bear more than a passing resemblance to Bedouin nomads. Herbert did his homework. A civilization flourished in the Middle East 2,000 years ago that, by necessity, used every bit of available technology to maximize their access to water. “The closest historic parallel to the Dune Fremen,” says France, “are the Nabateans, proto-Semitic Arabs who lived at the southern end of the Dead Sea.”

by Andrew Leonard, Nautilus |  Read more:
Image: Gary Jamroz-Palma