If there was a U of T course called “The Ecology of Frank Herbert’s Dune 101,” the average would be a 60, and the final exam would take light-years to study for. The 1965 science fiction novel has baked its way into the consciousness of generations, and much of this can be attributed to its intricate world-building. 

Dune’s climate crisis

The novel’s events take place on Arrakis, a hot desert planet where water is scarce and death is plentiful. To understand Arrakis, throw everything you know about Earth in a blender with gravel and sand. The animals of Dune? Kit foxes, kangaroo mice, and desert bats. The weather? Try stormy, with a chance of electrically charged wind, sand, and dust that travel at the speed of 500 kilometres per hour. The people? The Fremen, a subclass of human warriors, are trained to fight the second they pop out of the womb. These are the elements that the main character, Paul Atreides, and his family are forced to deal with when they arrive on the planet.

Got all that? We’re not done. Now consider the interaction between all those elements. The Sandworms — 400-metre-long worms — dig burrows under the ground of Dune and stabilize the ecosystem. When the sandworms die, they produce a resource called spice, which does everything from powering intergalactic spaceflight to giving humans enhanced cognitive abilities. 

Too many people read Dune and think that the spice is the most sought-after resource on the planet. Don’t be fooled. The most sought-after resource on the putrid plains of Arrakis is water, and this fact leaks through the cracks, drip by drip, in the internal politics of the novel.

Halfway through the novel, Paul and his mother, Jessica, are invited into a cavern to take part in a funeral rite, in which the Fremen extract and redistribute the water from the bodies of their dead kin. In the process, the two uncover a secret system of caverns full of water, running deep down in the depths of Arrakis. 

The collection process to build these caverns has been going on for years, for a specific goal. Stilgar, a leader of the Fremen, proudly exclaims, “We know within a million decalitres how much we need. When we have it, we shall change the face of Arrakis.” 

What is seemingly a desolate, hopeless dry world is actually a planet on the cusp of terraforming, all thanks to the patience and restraint of the Fremen and the accuracy of their water storage system. 

The Fremen display a voracious appetite to improve the state of their planet despite the possibility of change being hundreds of years away. Why can’t we, humans on Earth, be more like this? Even though Canadians are aware of the climate crisis, research shows that few believe it requires more urgent action than other political concerns. Even fewer trust the Canadian government to adequately tackle the crisis. 

The Varsity sat down with UTSC political science Professor and Co-Director of the Environmental Governance Lab (EGL) Matthew Hoffmann to get to the bottom of this exact dilemma. 

Climate fiction at U of T 

Hoffmann noted our reluctance to adopt more sustainable initiatives that diverge from the status quo comes from the current economic system: “There’s something with the way late-stage capitalism has generated instant gratification that I think has contributed to making it hard to think beyond ourselves and our current period.”

While Hoffmann alluded to the many philosophies that think about climate action in a more long-term manner — such as Indigenous ways of knowing — he acknowledged that corporate interests, power, and individualism are “actively feeding ideas of ‘the good life’ being tied to fossil energy use,” therefore limiting our imagination about how a sustainable future can be achieved. 

Climate fiction has sought to breach that limit with books like Frank Herbert’s Dune, and more recently, Elvia Wilks’s Death by Landscape and Kim Stanley Robinson’s Ministry for the Future. Climate fiction may allow readers to fill in the gaps in the intellectual path between the current environmental climate and a more sustainable future. U of T’s EGL is trying its best to fill that gap, and Hoffmann has been a formative part of that. 

The tri-campus EGL is a place for graduate students and faculty to have conversations and network, but it’s also where Hoffmann worked with colleagues on the lab’s latest climate fiction magazine, We Did It!?. Set in Canada in the year 2050, the first volume features stories that take place in a hypothetical world that reached an 80 per cent reduction in fossil fuel emissions.

Hoffmann explained that the world climate fiction exists in is fictional, but the axioms of that world can be rooted in reality. “We think it’s possible to combine those… imaginative processes with the social science, the technical science that we have around climate change,” Hoffmann noted. 

Much like the planet Arrakis, a sustainable future may seem far away, so far that goals like the net-zero-by-2030 goal instituted by the Government of Canada may seem fictional. However, works of art like Dune and We Did It!? make this seemingly impossible world a little more plausible. If the goals of a sustainable future seem insurmountable to you, take a page out of Dune, and do not fear. As Bene Gesserit says, “Fear is the mind-killer. Fear is the little death that brings total obliteration.”