Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Dune And Permaculture

First: This book is a turkey. A very long turkey. This is a story -- with appendices and a glossary -- which takes place against the background of an alien ecology. The ecology is practically a character, and yet it’s on a planet with a few scattered faunal and floral odds and ends, and zillions of predatory worms big enough to eat battle ships. Dune turns the trophic pyramid on its pointed little annelid head. Written in 1965, the characters -- the entire universe, in fact -- are addicted to a drug, maybe a stand-in for LSD, that makes them live for centuries and see the future. At a critical moment, Jessica, who gave birth to a son despite a promise to bear daughters, proclaims her word, straight-faced, as unfailing. Dune relies on inheritance of acquired characteristics (ancestral memories) as a plot device, in spite of its scientific pretensions. It’s primary theme, I think, is the unreliability of prescience. Anybody who needs that advice didn’t need to read it in sensational novels. Another theme is that heroes are bad news. They embody out-of-control history, and the Dune characters go jihadding around the universe beheading bad guys after securing their planet. Author Frank Herbert lets us know, by-the-way, that the chief female characters get a bad deal, then finishes the book with a grand summing up by one of them, telling us that even though they were only mistresses history will remember them as their men’s great loves.

Dune is probably Moammer Khaddafi’s favorite book.

And yet Dune featured ecology at a time when neither word nor concept were well known. Even if it appeared now, flawed as it is, Dune would be ahead of the curve! There is a chapter in which Liet Kynes, the Imperial Planetologist (see, I told you it was goofy!) is dying. As he waits for the ecological coup de grace, he hears his father’s voice lecturing him about -- what else? -- ecology. I’ve selected passages from Dune and from Bill Mollison’s Permaculture: A Designer’s Manual, which echo each other.

Liet thinks, “The real wealth of a planet is in its landscape, how we take part in that basic source of civilization, agriculture.”

Bill Mollison: “Permaculture (permanent agriculture) is the conscious design and maintenance of agriculturally productive ecosystems which have the diversity stability and resillience of natural ecosystems. It is the harmonious integration of landscape and people providing their food, energy, shelter, and other material and non-material needs in a sustainable way. Without permanent agriculture there is no possibility of stable social order.”

Liet’s father, speaking out of Liet’s delerium: “The more life there is within a system, the more niches there are for life.”

Bill Mollison: “...life itself cycles nutrients, giving opportunities for yield, and thus opportunities for species to occupy...niches.”

Mr. Kynes: “Life improves the capacity of the environment to sustain life.”

Mollison (referring to James Lovelock’s Gaia Hypothesis): “(Lovelock) sees the earth, and the universe, as a thought process, or as a self-regulating, self-constructed and reactive system, creating and preserving the conditions that make life possible, and and actively adjusting to regulate disturbances.”

Mr. Kynes: “You can’t draw neat lines around planet-wide problems. Ecology is a cut-and-fit science.”

Mollison: “In life and in design, we must accept that immutable rules will not apply, and instead be prepared to be guided on our continuing exploration byt flexible principles and directives.”

Mr. Kynes: “(An ecologist’s) most important tool is human beings. You must cultivate ecological literacy among the people.”

Mollison: “The only limit on the number of uses of a resource possible within a system is in the limit of information and imagination of the designer.”

Dune would make a Tralfamadorian blush, but this chapter is a gem.


GooseBreeder said...

Very interesting,I've always liked Turkeys!!
Did you read it when it came out and have just reread it, or something other?

Tom Roark said...

I guess I read it around 1970, when Dune was five years old or so. I dipped into it again because reading Bill Mollison reminded me of it. I don't believe that Mollison, Herbert, and Lovelock were influencing each other. The timing isn't right, unless you believe Mollison lifted specific and central permaculture ideas out of a space opera. Herbert was about the same age as Lovelock (Herbert b. 1920, Lovelock 1919), and Herbert was writing Dune about the time Lovelock was doing the NASA contract work that led to the Gaia Hypothesis. (How do you tell if there is life on a planet? Look for things that physics predicts wouldn't persist in the atmosphere.) There must have been something in the air back then.