‘Dune,’ water scarcity, and saving our planet Arrakis

“We have a water crisis in every corner of the United States. And if we don’t act soon, it will be a disaster. What happened in Texas and Flint, Michigan, and so many other places shows us what happens when we don’t take care of our water infantry. I want to scream from the rooftop and shake America awake, safe, clean, affordable water is necessary to live without it. You will die.”  

-Congresswoman Brenda Lawrence, 

”  A man’s flesh is his own. The water  belongs to the tribe.” -Frank Herbert, Dune

 Hello, I’m the pop mythologist and welcome to this is the end, a pop mythology.com podcast. Today, we’re going to talk about dune the new movie by denis villeneuve. I hope I’m pronouncing that right, which adapts the 1965 book by Frank Herbert, which has also adapted in 1984 by David Lynch.

And there was also a TV mini series in the early two thousands, which I haven’t seen.  Before I go on, I just want to add the fair warning that even though I don’t plan on going deeply into the plot,  I might be saying some things that could be considered spoilers. So if you haven’t seen the movie or either movies and don’t want to know anything, then you should definitely see the films before listening to this episode.

Before I get into anything about dune, I just want to start by throwing an alarming statistic at you.. Both the UN and the WHO estimate that by the year 2025, 2 thirds of the world may be living in water stress conditions. I’m going to say that again, two thirds of the world may be living in water stressed conditions by the year 2025.

That’s four years away, just four years.

It’s not even a future problem either. Cause right now, 2.3 billion people in the world, like 2.3 billion live in water, stressed areas and countries. And on top of that, every year, over 3 million people die from drinking dirty or contaminated water from not having access to clean, safe water.

Now, The novel dune in the past has been interpreted as being largely about oil scarcity. And that’s a spot on reading, and Frank Herbert himself has said in interviews that the water scarcity on the planet Arrakis is a direct analogy for what he believed was the coming oil scarcity. And that was really… I mean, him writing about that and talking about it in the 1960s was just really prophetic.

 And it’s super interesting on all kinds of levels. Because now, in 2021, we’re a whole lot closer to the future that Frank Herbert was worried about. But more to the point, I think it’s interesting he said that the water scarcity on Arrakis is about oil scarcity in the real world, which made sense to say in the sixties.

But if anything, right now, I think it’s the spice on Arrakis that seems to be more symbolic of oil, and competition over oil and oil scarcity and, you know, it makes… the comparison makes sense in a lot of ways because the spice is needed for interstellar travel and the whole economy in the known universe relies on it.

It relies on the harvesting, refinery and distribution of spice, so that all makes sense. And the fact that wealthy and powerful dynasties compete over this resource. And the fact that it has addictive properties because, I mean, after all wealth and power are addictive, not that I would personally know, but they seem to be.

So for me, spice is a stand-in for oil, and water scarcity in the story pretty much just represents itself: water scarcity. In other words, water scarcity on the planet. Arrakis represents water scarcity that we have currently and will increasingly have in the real world. And, throughout this podcast, we’ll be talking about different kinds of resource scarcity, but water’s a really interesting one, especially here in the U S where I think a lot of us take water for granted, because it seems so readily available.

(image: Legendary Pictures/Warner Bros. Pictures)

You know, you just turn on the faucet it magically appears out of nowhere. Doesn’t ever seem like it’s going to. Run out and that’s how a lot of people grew up. So I grew up, I kind of grew up taking water for granted. I never, I mean, I didn’t waste it. You know, parents would say don’t use too much. And I try to be mindful.

I turned the faucet off while I’m brushing my teeth and all that kind of basic stuff, but there was never the real sort of gut feeling that we were low on it and that we could have not enough. But this is increasingly coming to the, be the case we’re heading in that direction. And not only is a significant portion of the world’s people right now, living in water insecure conditions , we will also increasingly experience water stressed conditions in coming years. And. When horrible things happen on the news, like years ago in Flint, Michigan, it’s all too easy to feel like that’s just some unique accident  that happened elsewhere. And it’s not going to happen in our own local regions.

But if we don’t begin to take this problem more seriously and to talk about it more and to address it more and to pressure our elected officials about it, it will happen. So to elucidate this I’ll be drawing from various sources that I’ll cite throughout this episode.

 So at first glance, the desert planet Iraqis seems to have little in common with planet earth. I mean, like if you just look. Visual representations of earth.

So much of it seems to be covered in water and it is, and visually and psychologically, that’s really powerful because even though we know technically that we can’t drink ocean water, the fact that there seems to be so much has this psychological effect of making us think there’s plenty of water.

  If you go to the us geological survey website, I’ll link to it in the show notes, there’s this great graphic that shows what it would look like. If you were to gather up all the available water in the world,  including salt water, as well as separate just the fresh water in the world, and then compare that to the earth itself. So imagine a three-dimensional globe and the total volume of all water is represented by a small sphere. That kind of looks like a class marble and it looks like it covers maybe like half the surface of the U S and you might think, well, wait, that’s it.  But remember, even though ocean water is all spread out and it looks like a whole lot, it’s actually not that much compared to the overall mass of the earth.

So on this graphic, it shows, yeah, you have the earth and then you have all the water on earth, which looked like this little marble. That covers part of the United States. Then the graphic also shows what the total amount of fresh water would look like and compare to the glass marble that represents all water.

It’s just like this tiny, tiny pebble. So now we’re not looking all that different from Iraqis anymore. And this is under ideal circumstances. This is without all the other problems we’re going to talk about.  Unfortunately, what we’re increasingly having is less than ideal circumstances.  On one hand, there’s increasing demand for water because of growing population and all the things that come with growing populations, such as increasing energy demands and increasing need for all the many ways that water is used besides just drinking.

So like cooking and cleaning. Agriculture is a big one. Agriculture comprises, 70% of freshwater use,  which is a whole lot. And when you combine growing agricultural needs due to population combined with highly in sustainable agricultural practices, which is the majority of agricultural practices currently, that’s a big problem.

 So increasing. Part of the picture. The other part is decreasing supply due to a combination of factors.  So one big factor causing decreasing supply is climate change, which creates certain negative feedback loops that keep further decreasing the supply. So for example, as temperatures get warmer, the atmosphere expands and this enables them as fear to hold more water in warm and dry environments like here in Southern California.

You’ll have more evaporation, which causes it to get even dryer. So the mega drought in the Western United States, which is the worst in 1200 years, is a direct result of human caused climate change. And we can expect to continue seeing an overall drawing out of areas that were already dry to begin with. Currently 16 states in the U S are categorized as being at medium to high risk of water stress, and that’s expected to get worse as climate change itself gets worse.

 On top of climate change, there are factors like bad water management, crumbling infrastructure, and contamination.  It definitive example of all those things is the Flint, Michigan disaster. And when disasters like that happen again, it’s easy to think it’s an isolated case, but that isn’t true water.

Isn’t just about access to water, but access to clean and safe water and millions of Americans drink water that comes from led pipes. The city of Chicago, for example, has more lead piping than any other us city and significant amounts of lead are found in tap water samples throughout the entire state of Illinois.

And then you have incidents like Texas, where in February of this year, 15 million people lost access to clean water. And this was a good example of how multiple systems rely on each. And when you have one system undermined, for any reason, it can cause a chain reaction that takes out multiple systems. In this case, it was an extreme weather event.

Again, due to climate change, knocking out the power grid, which then took down the water treatment plants. At the same time, there was no heat because there was no power. So people were turning on their faucets to prevent the pipes from freezing.

And then that added, added stress on the system, which then led to bacterial contaminations because people couldn’t boil the water because they had no power. 

 Both Texas and Flint, Michigan, these were good examples of disasters that partly resulted from a combination of inadequate infrastructure, budget, crises, and water mismanagement that led to the city cutting corners on safety measures.

A lot of states and thousands of us cities are struggling with crumbling infrastructure as well and budget crises, and all of this was made worse by the COVID-19 pandemic. So how long until the next Flint Michigan happens? And just like we saw with  the Flint water crisis, the people who suffer the most are always the economically disadvantaged communities, the marginalized communities, communities of color.

 Next to water. Isn’t just about drinking because we need it for so many things. It plays a big role in energy, for example, and in agriculture, which I mentioned before and these things as well, tie into what I’m going to talk about next, which is water conflict.  So let’s talk about conflict because the story of dune   a centered around conflict.

On the surface, the conflict in dune seems to be about the major houses and it seems to revolve around spice, which is true, but there’s also a water conflict at the heart of the story as well, because the rest of the universe in dune sees Iraqis as a source of spice to be exploited.

And even though the Fremen use spice, they don’t need it in the vast amounts you use for space travel. So ultimately they care a lot more about water because of its scarcity. So their dream. Is to gain autonomy so they can, Terraform Arrakis’s desert into a lush paradise with lots  of fresh water.

Well, the emperor and the great houses don’t like that because then what happens to their spice production?  So increasingly the plight of the freshmen will become one that we in the real world will. Come to know more and more as becomes harder for people to get their basic needs met and more of their focus, energy and priority becomes about just meeting those basic needs, such as water.

And meanwhile, those with power will be fine for the time being and. Rely on the current unsustainable status quo. So they’ll continue to resist changes that we need to alleviate water scarcity in numerous ways, whether it’s, um,  addressing climate change, which as mentioned is directly related to water shortage or addressing infrastructure issues, which are also important.

And by the way, water infrastructure refers to not just infrastructure that makes drinking water possible, but also things like sewage, which is not pleasant to think about, but it’s really important. And when you have a collapsing sewage infrastructure combined with increased flood, Again, due to climate change, it’s a recipe for public health disaster, and the American society of civil engineers currently gives our national wastewater infrastructure, a D minus on its report card, which isn’t very reassuring.

 So basically those who are not wealthy and powerful are eventually going to know what it’s like to be Fremen And those who are rich and powerful and especially those whose wealth and power are directly tied to industries that are the biggest contributors to climate change. They’re naturally going to resist the kinds of changes we need.

And so we’re going to see a lot of ideological conflict between people more focused on the basic human right of having access to clean and safe water and enough of it. And those who aren’t worried about themselves in terms of access to clean, safe water for the time being.

And so they’ll continue to focus more on ongoing accumulation of more and more wealth and power through spice, AKA fossil fuels like the great houses in dune  because the spice must flow. 

And then there’s also more overt conflict, not just ideology and politics, but actual physical military conflict.

So the idea of military conflict over oil is in such an alien idea anymore to a lot of. The idea of military conflict over water might be, but it’s actually not farfetched. And we’re seeing versions of it now, already throughout the world. One example is the situation between Ethiopia. Egypt and Sudan.

And in which each of these countries is highly water stressed, and each party has legitimate reasons for wanting to secure their own water, not just for drinking, but for energy and agriculture, but they’re unable to agree on how the source of water they rely on. Should be distributed. And so tensions have been amping up and experts are worried about  armed conflict,  , And less, we think this is super far away and has nothing to do with us here in the U S even, , we have examples of tension and conflict due to the fact that well, okay, so I’ll give you an example.

So the Colorado river. Which seven states rely on for their water is yet again, because of climate change, drying up. And so if current trends continue, it forced the question.  . How is the increasingly scarce water kind of get divvied up? To whom and what proportions and what all these different states, which are all experiencing extreme drought, what will they do to compensate for not enough water and, and yeah, this is probably not going to lead to armed conflict in our case, but it definitely presents a huge problem.  So now that we’ve talked. Water scarcity problems. Let’s pull back a little and look at this from a macro perspective and how it relates to the overarching theme of this podcast, which is societal decline and breakdown. And for this, I’m going to be drawing a lot from the book collapse by Jared diamond, who also wrote a popular book called  guns, germs, and.

So in the first part of this book, diamond looks at the state of Montana as a microcosm of collapse. And then in part two, he looks at numerous past societies. Where, no matter how great those societies were, for a variety of reasons collapsed over time. And then he looks at modern societies that either have already collapsed or are in the process of collapsing, such as Haiti, and then analyzes how or why societies can either prevent or fail to prevent Collapse.  According to diamond, there are five primary causes of collapse. So number one, climate change. Number two environmental problems. And yeah, I know it’s kind of weird to split those two things up, given that climate change is a form of an environmental problem, but I think diamond does this just because climate change by itself is such a huge area.

And then he divides the other category of environmental problems into other subcategories.  Like water man.  Number three is hostility from other societies. Number four is the loss of essential trading routes and or trading partners. And number five is the response, or , lack of response to the other four causes.

 Now, overall, I think this is a pretty strong paradigm. I disagree with some ad or other, I shouldn’t say I disagree. I think there’s some. Reasons missing from Diamond’s paradigm. And this doesn’t come from like my own expertise on the subject, but simply having read enough material now by other authors that discuss other reasons as well.

 I do think diamonds paradigm as strong as it is, is missing a few key components, such as political factors and economic factors, which we’ll get into in other podcasts. 

Diamond’s book in particular.

It tributes great importance to the role of water scarcity, specifically in the process of societal collapse. And one really good example of this that he gives in a, in a really fascinating chapter is the Mayans, , whose collapse was caused by a number of factors, but one of them was. Or rather not enough water due to droughts caused by deforestation, which caused a negative feedback loop and so you had a situation where the deforestation was making the drought worse and the drought then comes back and makes the deforestation worse. And just ongoing. There was actually a fascinating archeological study published in nature. , the journal nature in 2020, , this is separate from the Jared diamond book, but I felt like it was a good compliment.

And the study tells us that there was another way  in which drought caused additional weakening.   In mind society, in which, in the great city of Tikal, the drought caused the city’s super important water reservoirs to gradually get poisoned and the process by which it got poisoned.

It was really fascinating. I won’t go into the details to save time, but I’ll link to the article in the show notes in case you want to check it out. And I really think it’s worth it. Again, it’s like a really fascinating, it struck me as a kind of ancient version of Flint, Michigan.  So I’ll be talking more about Jared Diamond’s ideas throughout this podcast.

As I think they’re really good and have , , widely applicable  applications  so in the U S nationwide, our water infrastructure is ill-equipped to handle additional stressors being caused by climate change. So for example, climate change is leading the more extreme weather events, such as the Arctic freeze, earlier this year, that caused widespread power outages in Texas.

Which I mentioned earlier. So this brings us to the question of what can we do, because that’s always going to be an important part of this podcast.

It’s not just the. Analyzing and identifying problems is also about discussing potential solutions. Again, none of which are coming from me, but rather much smarter people who have spent years, our entire lifetimes researching this specific.

All right. So what can we do to make sure we can endure in the face of a worsening water crisis here on our very own planet? Arrakis well with a freshmen, their dream. As I mentioned earlier as to turn their planet into a paradise with abundant water. And for this reason, they literally fight against house harken into disrupt spice production.

With that eventual goal of gaining autonomy. Our dream is simply that all living beings can have access to enough clean, safe water as a basic. And even though we’re not going to engage in any literal warfare, obviously I hope not. We do have some figurative enemies and they are those who prioritize , power and wealth at the expense of the future and the expense of basic water rights for everyone,  because water just like any other resource can be and is exploited for profit 

and the politics of it can get really, really mad. There’s a good book that I’ll also link to in the show notes called  the end of abundance. Economic solutions to water scarcity by David Zetland. , he’s a professor of economics who specializes in the politics of all.  All right, coming back to the, and there’s a limit to how far I want to take the freshmen analogy for spoiler-y reasons related to the books that I’m not going to get into. But I do like pop culture analogies, and I do like imagining myself or ourselves as characters in stories. because I do think that when used within reason, And again, there’s some limitations to that sometimes, but when used within reason that can be empowering and in some ways, yeah, I like to imagine that in the face of increasing water scarcity, , we average people, especially those in water scarce or water stressed areas, such as California, for example, are kind of like the freshmen in some ways.

And so if we come back to the question of what we can. As you might imagine, it’s going to necessarily have a lot to do with policy.  As with climate change itself. While we need to continue doing what we can as individuals to obviously conserve and not waste water, and of course also conserving energy because the two are closely linked, ultimately it’s policy. That’s going to be able to make changes at a big enough scale to make a difference for the general population.  Unfortunately, we can’t just leave it to leaders and elected officials to give this problem, the attention it fully deserves because there are a whole lot of issues out there. And, water tends to be one of the ones that are given short shrift. So coming back to that book, I mentioned the end of abundance.

David Zetland has a chapter. Where he discusses, what people can do, and it’s divided into things that politicians and water managers and regulators can do. and what regular citizens and activists can do. , obviously most of us apply to that latter category. And basically one of the most important things that citizens can do since we don’t directly come up with or pass policies is to first try and educate ourselves as much as we can, to a reasonable degree on the topic of water, because it concerns us all.

And then to keep bringing up the subject of water with our elected officials, those who are running for office and to keep holding them accountable so that they don’t neglect this extremely and increasingly important. When we’re voting, we need to make water. One of the issues we talk about when we consider candidates for office,  when they’re on their campaign trails and are talking to people and it has to be included among the questions we ask them, because if we don’t do these things, that will surely be more Flint Michigan’s there will be more Texas’.

And  Arrakis will become. More of a reality for us, you know, it’s not going to be this abundant planet earth with so much water everywhere,  it will increasingly become the arid dry parched deserts of orcas.

Figuratively. So I think we can also try to support and amplify the voices of elected officials , who do talk about water and make it one of their key issues such as Congressperson, Brenda Lawrence, whom I quoted at the beginning of this episode,  Congresswoman Lawrence represents Michigan’s 14th district.

 Someone else who talks about water is Congressperson, Dan Kildee who represents a district that actually contains The city of Flint. , so it’s of course understandable that they, as Michigan representatives would be talking about water, but more representatives from more. Not just water stress states like California and Arizona,, or areas affected by infrastructure issues and budget issues, such as Flint, Michigan, more places need to be talking about water and we as citizens need to help normalize the talking of water issues.

Otherwise, like I said, there’s going to be more Flint Michigans and more Texas or Texas is. Because water is at once a local national and a global issue, we have to also pressure politicians at every level, local state and federal. If you , subscribe to your local papers, which everyone should do.

And if you see articles related to water, definitely try to read those. And identify who your local water generalists are and follow them on social media.

, for example, I recently read a couple of interesting articles about how the city of LA can potentially become water self-sufficient and I would never have imagined that that was even possible, but apparently it is.  And I’m finding this kind of journalism to be really educational and provides me with material that I can refer to.

When asking elected officials or those who are running for office about what they’re planning on doing about it, if they want my vote or my support. So next let’s reallocate some of the attention we give to federal politics on local politics. Getting involved in local politics can often feel the most empowering for citizens because. for those of you on social media, for example, would like to engage with politics. I’m sure you’ve all had the experience of maybe repeatedly trying to get the attention of your Congress, people or your senators to no avail. I mean, they, even if they are personally using their accounts directly and it’s not being handled by a staff member, which in most cases, I think it is, but if it’s not, then they’re not reading our comments.

Coming on there briefly to post before they log back off and go to their fundraising or whatever it is they’re doing. So, whereas local politicians can often be more responsive and accessible, be it on social media or otherwise, you know, old fashioned methods of the phone letters.  And here you can often make the biggest difference, even just as an individual, 

 Follow people also, who are at the forefront of grappling with water scarcity issues, such as Jay Famiglietti, uh, he’s the executive director of the global Institute for water security and he hosts a podcast called what about water.

 And also check out the author. I mentioned earlier, David Zetland who specializes in the politics and economy of water. He also talks a lot about solutions.  And lastly, I just want to quickly refer to the build back better act and the infrastructure, investment and jobs act.

Which would allocate funds related to water infrastructure and water safety.  So in an ideal world, both of these would get passed, but there are disagreements among Democrats about how to go about this. And at the time of this recording, there still hasn’t been a vote in the house on the infrastructure, investment and jobs bill, not to mention that for other more systemic reasons, having to do with the dysfunctional way our government works.

I’m personally, skeptical that these bills would get passed. And even if they do, there’s the question of what they get past the current Supreme court. And this is a topic we’ll be coming back to another episode is because it’s so important and it links to so many other issues and societal crises, which is the issue of how certain structural barriers make it exceedingly difficult to sufficiently address these problems.  

This brings me to the last point I want to make, which is that water needs to become more of a frontline issue. More people now understand the importance of climate change and the infrastructure, and are talking about these things more, which is great because they’re super important and they relate to water.

But water also, it just needs to be talked about more on its own as its own issue so that we don’t just continue taking it for granted as this infinite resource. That’s just always going to be there magically when we turn on our faucets. Cause it’s not. And even though the house, Harkonnens of the world continue their pursuit of power and wealth by prioritizing spice above all else.

Which has the unfortunate effectof continuing to make water scarce and add water stress throughout regions of the world. We Fremen can continue to fight in certain ways to ensure that despite all these problems, if we can only just manage it well enough, there can be enough fresh, clean, safe water  for all.

 Because water  belongs to the tribe.

 I want to thank you for joining me until next time I am the mythologist and this is the end.

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About The Pop Mythologist

The Pop Mythologist
The Pop Mythologist is the founder and editor of PopMythology.com. He has been a staff writer for the nationally distributed magazine KoreAm , the online journal of pop culture criticism Pop Matters and has written freelance for various other publications and websites.