I am currently reading Frank Herbert’s Dune. I am not an inveterate science fiction reader, despite always feeling pulled to sci-fi themes. I have been particularly affected by the death of the Imperial Majesty’s Planetolgist, & planetary ecologist of Arrakis, Liet-Kyne. The Baron Harkonnen realizing Kyne’s betrayal forces him adrift into the unforgiving density of Arrakis’s terrain, without a stillsuit, (a specialized suit designed by the native Fremen of Arrakis, which traps the body’s moisture, making it drinkable), an essential tool for survival in the waterless landscape. Exposed to the unforgiving environment, his fate is to be killed by the planet he has made it his life’s work to turn into a verdant utopia. Remind you of anyone.
In his death throes, deluded, Kyne is visited by a mental projection of his father, a memory transfigured into a tangible form, on the periphery of his life, nagging him with quotations from his childhood, on the knowledge needed to begin Arrakis’ transformation into a biosphere gravid with life; his father’s presence as figuratively obvious as his dying.
The mélange (or spice) Arrakis is rich in, means it has become the principal political-battleground of elite families vying for control of the mining rights. Why it is in the interest of this economical model of production for Arrakis to remain a desert, I am not certain. It is likely that the Harkonnen’s who had been in control & seek to control mining rights again, simply found no cause (owing to their nefarious nature) to ameliorate the native population. Before Duke Leto Atreides is betrayed & bumped-off, he makes it clear that he wishes to veer from this course & cure Arrakis.
Seeing the potential for Arrakis reveals how fortunate it is to live in an ecologically balanced environment, where natural elements buoy life, allowing it to flourish, & how chaotic life is without them. Something may survive in such insensitive environments, but there is no quality to such an existence.
The scale of complexity necessary to transform Arrakis reveals certain flaws, which lead to the breakdown of ecosystems. The planetary ecologist must foresee these flaws. Kyne has “a thought spread across his mind – clear, distinct: The real wealth of a planet is in its landscape, how we take part in that basic source of civilization – agriculture.” Our own circumstance is analogous: agriculture was an important developmental factor in the history of our planet. Agriculture is an essential civilizing factor. We don’t civilize it through cultivation, we are rather civilized by it in the same way that people in the Dune universe are manipulated by the spice; it establishes a source of currency & a subsistence on which culture can be built. If were to lose our minds & pollute all our sources of food, we would soon see how civilizing an influence crops have on us. Agriculture’s properties make it too attractive a prospect for human beings to ignore. What is farmed survives by making itself attractive, like the petals & scent of a flower attract butterflies or bees. Wheat made itself attractive by growing abundantly, being cultivated easily & providing a reciprocal crop on which to plan for the future. Agriculture brings ubiquitous sustenance, on which a large coagulation of people can flourish. Spice is harvested & the leader who controls this is most powerful. In ancient times grain was hoarded by kings & queens as a source of income & power, just like spice is. Spice is rare in the universe but abundant on Arrakis; it is a crop that makes itself attractive through its properties. The relationship is reciprocal. Something gives & in return is propagated & in its propagation a process can begin, in this case, a culture.
Arrakis is a blank slate as far as establishing an environment goes. “‘To the working planetologist, his most important tools are human beings, his father said. ‘You must cultivate ecological literacy among the people. That’s why I’ve created this entirely new form of ecological notation.’” He goes on to explain “‘We must do a thing on Arrakis never before attempted for an entire planet…We must use man as a constructive ecological force – inserting adapted terraform life: a planet here, an animal there, a man in that place – to transform the water cycle, to build a new kind of landscape.’” We can begin to see the scale of complexity emerge. There is a foundation, the ‘ecological notation’, an information conditioned into the native generations to come.
It seems an obvious point, but the individual (either being or thing) as an assemblage is essential to the creation & maintaining of an environment. Each individual item to its place, in the process to becoming part of ‘a planet’s life…a vast, tightly interwoven fabric.’ Moreover, a population that understands ecology through a short hand “notation” is less likely to fail in the upkeep of a planet. Arrakis has only pockets of hardy, scattered bands of people who know only survival. They cannot be utilized to their full potential if scattered; they are everything to a planet’s potential, which the ecologist with such bold designs must utilize. Those that misunderstand Arrakis’ natives, do not see that they all share a common goal: the flourishing of their planet.
This ‘ecological notation’ is information. Information is key to everything any conscious being does, as we are beginning to realize (as James Gleick’s The Information eruditely expounds). I take this notation Kyne’s father speaks of, to be a measuring device, allowing the planetologist & the population to undercut complexities & short cut to the snowballing of life into ever more simple, functioning & thus functional units, every member of the populace can use to their & the planet’s advantage.
Part of the conditioning must be a fusing of ‘Religion and law among our masses’ so that ‘an act of disobedience must be a sin and require religious penalties.’ which ‘will have the benefit of bringing both greater disobedience and greater bravery. We must not depend so much on the bravery of individuals, you see, as upon the bravery of a whole population.’ This is to be fused into the conditioning of the populace through the ‘ecological notation.’ In the way that church propaganda installed fear & obedience by telling people ‘God is watching, so you better behave’, keeping people attached to the church, so a tactic of Arrakis’ religion & law, will be to attach people through these same principles. There is no mention of government in this system, only religion & law, but nothing of a literature or code of ethics. This is noteworthy as I think it is evidence that the ecological notation is to be a learned trait through ancestral, mythic consciousness; an oral tradition. The sin spoken of, will, given the conditioning, not occur. Should it do so, the trigger mechanism of religion & law fused together, will step in to remedy the error.
However, Kyne’s father, it seems to me, wishes to establish a society without religion or law as phenomena in themselves, as nouns an individual or group of natives can point at, talk about & ultimately dichotomize enough to disagree upon; they cannot become anything other than what is. What feeds into & stabilizes this, is the impossibility of individuality, & out of this there will be no room for the populace to separate themselves from natural phenomena & nature as space & time. Not being able to point at nature without pointing at themselves, in that is stable kinship with the environment, which cannot lead to taking-it-for-granted. As a consequence, the slow dearth of the planet from reckless over-consumption is avoided. As Kyne’s father says, “‘Men and their works have been a disease on the surface of their planets before now,’ his father said. ‘Nature tends to compensate for diseases, to remove or encapsulate them, to incorporate them into the system in her own way.’ He continues, stating: “ ‘The historical system of mutual pillage and extortion stops here on Arrakis…You cannot go on forever stealing what you need without regard to those who come after. The physical qualities of a planet are written into its economic and political record. We have the record in front of us and our course is obvious.’”
Interestingly, Kynes father wants to, in his manipulation of Arrakis, ‘achieve the stature of a natural phenomenon’. Tacit in this, is that man is not part of nature. This is worth considering, as the indigenous Fremen of Arrakis have already evolved to survive the planet’s harsh environment. Creating a bounteous, vegetative environment, we might logically deduce, is unnatural, or rather counter-intuitive. It begs the question, if such a bare subsistence livelihood is natural, how come a more fruitful, easier standard of living, can be realized despite the scarcity of resources available? This is because of information & the will for human beings to progress from disorder into greater forms of order, to make life easier regardless of past & current hardships. We are nature’s consciousness witnessing itself. A disease is natural even if it destroys its habitat. The irony of making Arrakis bountiful, is that it will increase the population, thus requiring reflexes in the consciousness of the people, to countervail abuses of the planet. It begs the question whether a cancer is natural or unnatural? Everything that lives want its environment to work more efficiently for them.
What Kyne’s father must avoid at all cost is a populace that could one day propose a pastoral literature out of its religion, law & ecology. To write pastoral literature, as Terry Gifford outlines in Pastoral, is to propose (whether romantically or practically) a return-to, or retreat-to, a golden age —an Arcadia or Eden. If a culture is not thriving under its present circumstances, it must look backward, or take pains toward a better future. The worst of these is to admit defeat & cherish a mythic past through artifice—it has taken 2 millennia for literature to surmount this. It is suggested then, in the artifice of the pastoral, that the utopias of natural golden ages, when the world groaned with abundance, have been lost to history & memory. However the pastoral is artificial, it cannot be historical. Kyne’s & his father must surmount this hurdle before it can ever take root. It must be stamped out by conditioning, by a source of conditioned notation (or information) which incorrigibly leaves out any diversification of subject matter for a populace to consider. Can there be anything to learn for such a society? Gifford, summarizing Gary Snyder’s thinking, explains “that culture is nature, that our art is our natural way of thinking ourselves back into the natural world from which much of our previous culture has alienated us.” Kyne’s father must best hindsight, & can do so by learning from the failures of other civilizations; other civilizations we can suspect have made mistakes akin to those we ourselves are making. Synder outlines the necessary paradigm as follows: ‘Consciousness, mind, imagination and language are fundamentally wild. “Wild” as in wild ecosystems – richly interconnected, interdependent, and incredibly complex. Diverse, ancient, and full of information.’ This could have come from Kyne’s father himself. What we have is not separate disciplines in tension but ecological artifice as the existential meaning of a people’s conscience, without them having anything else, nor needing any other paradigm for being.
To establish a utopia is to contextualize repression in a way similar to religion: the people must exist within the principles of the paradigm. If the planet is the religion & law, the culture & the nature, then the consequence is harmonized living.
Everything is information, & it may be argued that it is clarifying information & finding loopholes in redundancy that not only produce greater complexity, but also greater stability. Think of rudimentary stone tools found in the Gona River of the Awash Valley, carbon dated to 2.5 million years, one of the Oldowan people using a stone crafted (if crudely) to break open bone to suck out the marrow. Here is an example of something very simple, requiring insight, to utilize an abundant material to obtain another, better source of nourishment, encouraging more complex environmental interaction & inevitably, a more complex agent within the environment. Information snowballs into greater complexity. The tool’s usefulness is in the effectiveness, which is discovered through more detailed knowledge on how to manipulate the properties of available materials. Complexity breeds simplicity & thus utility for the handler, leading to trajectories of progress.
Kyne’s father understands this, thus an additional meaning of his ‘ecological notation’. Kyne’s father needed to create an economic shorthand to propound his plans into a set of precepts that will have lasting consequences. I consider this as his effort to skip over some evolutionary points, necessary to establish a planet; such as those we see in the evolution of stone tool making. In this way Kyne’s father will create a population that limits the errors that other planets’ populations have made. We don’t need to learn to make a stone tool in order to be able to make a modern tool. There is a form of notational shorthand that is part & parcel of receiving knowledge down the assembly line of history. Kyne’s father seems to want to jump ahead of this, & he can: his people don’t need to evolve their abilities to survive or make tools, they only need to be indoctrinated into a habitual realization that being & nature are indistinguishable.
There is a criticism Kyne’s father may be overlooking: it may be essential to evolution that mistakes are made if only to be learned from. Perhaps this is the origin of God’s testing of man, & therefore the planetologist’s reason for allowing religion in society.
The climate crisis moves slowly in relation to human time spans. In geological time it is a blip. There is time, owing to the foreshadowing of certain events within the elapsing crisis, to make alterations to avert catastrophe. While it is not a given that the realizations will be noted & action taken, nor even that after action is taken & crisis averted, the population won’t simply return to old habits. Nevertheless, mistakes have unfolded, & this offers something smooth-sailing through utopian constructs, cannot offer. Of course, this is only problematic in the inception of the utopia, otherwise, should the mechanism to avoid the need for mistakes work, it will become perfunctory.
Later in the book, Jessica & Paul are shown a pool filled by wind-traps that are just one of a handful of large water reserves dotted across Arrakis. This devotion is the populace putting Kyne’s father’s work into action. Jessica soliloquizes ‘They’re in league with the future…They have their mountain to climb. This is the scientist’s dream…and these simple people, these peasants, are filled with it.’ She realizes that Paul must follow the hand of the ecologist that guided the people to this goal. The future is essential to Kyne’s father’s plan. Without a response to the necessities of future generations, the struggle to establish a populace indistinguishable from their environment, becomes increasingly difficult.
What arises from this chapter, for me, are the foundational principles for revitalizing a desert planet (or a planet becoming aware of its fragility), & the scale of complexity from a principle notation to a shared ecological consciousness & stable attitude that cannot be reckless with resources,. From the context of our planet, on the crossroads of ecological breakdown, or radical change, there is something key to be learned: an implanted information, which brings being, nature, law, science, biome, religion, literature & art under one noun, is essential. What that noun is, is immaterial. For everything to be as important as anything else, for all the things aforementioned to be experientially what is, is all that matters. One phenomena integrated into the mindset of the populace. I suppose now is as good a time as any.