Dune, Technogaianism, SolarPunk, and the Socio-Ecological Messiah

By Caleb Strom

I have been reading through the classic science fiction of the 20th century, and I am currently on Frank Herbert’s Dune world.  Herbert wrote six books in the series and his son co-authored seventeen more. The 2021 film adaptation and sequel due out in March of this year, as well as a 40-year-old cult classic, demonstrate its continuing cultural significance. We are 20,000 years into the future, and the galaxy is ruled by an empire that has rejected artificial intelligence, so that all computing is done by humans with the help of a mind-enhancing drug called spice. Spice is also necessary for space travel. Spice is produced as a byproduct of the reproductive cycle of giant sandworms that live on the planet Arrakis, or Dune, as it is called by its Indigenous inhabitants, the Fremen. 

The natives of Dune live in caves in the desert where they use advanced filtration to conserve water and nourish vegetation so that they can survive. The Fremen live off the land in tribal communities, very conscious that their survival depends on how well they adapt to the fragile ecology of their home planet without disturbing it. Their way of life is also shaped by their spiritual beliefs. They revere the giant sandworms as quasi-divine, a theological recognition of the key ecological role that the sandworms play on Dune. The sandworms are responsible for keeping Dune a desert planet and for the production of spice. The Fremen show respect for the desert. It is not just a stockpile of resources. It is their home. 

The Fremen are technologically advanced, with water filtration suits, powered flight, and nootropic drugs (the spice) that they put in their food to enhance their cognitive functions. Their technology helps them adapt to their planet and work within their ecological context rather than exploit the planet’s resources in a disruptive way. This contrasts with the Galactic Empire of the first book, Dune, which is a techno-feudal aristocracy only interested in using the planet Dune to mine spice for profit. The Fremen are a hunted and oppressed people on their own planet.

The situation changes when Paul Atreides, a young nobleman with extraordinary mental powers, becomes Muad’dib, the Fremen messiah, and leads a Fremen revolt against the Empire. He becomes the center of a new religion and promises to make the planet Dune into a paradise through ecological principles, while keeping part of the planet a desert so that spice can continue to be produced. The situation goes downhill in the second book, Dune Messiah, when Muad’dib becomes the new galactic emperor of a bureaucratic theocratic empire built on violence and superstition. Under Muad’dib and his immediate successors, the Fremen find their traditional way of life disappearing as their planet becomes covered in suburbs, not drastically different to the experience of many Indigenous communities here on earth.

Frank Herbert wrote the second book, Dune Messiah, because he wanted to explore and warn against the dangers of following charismatic leaders who quickly become despots. Muad’dib could have created a paradise, but instead created another empire. Dune does little to suggest that there is any way to avoid this result, but is there another way? Do technological development and social complexity always lead to centralization of power and wealth, social inequality, and exploitation of humans and nature?

This question has been addressed by many religious traditions, but because I am most familiar with the Christian tradition, I will focus on what it has to say. It’s no surprise that Muad’dib is a mirror image of the Jewish and Christian concepts of a messiah. Frank Herbert’s portrayal of the role of religion in the future is almost entirely negative. Organized religion in Dune exists only as a system to be manipulated by the powerful to control their subjects. Unlike the Christian messiah, Jesus of Nazareth, who counseled turning the other cheek to oppressors, Muad’dib responds to the violence and exploitation against Dune and the Fremen by the Empire with more violence. As French philosopher Rene Girard observes, Jesus exposed the system of violence at the heart of civilization by allowing himself to be unjustly executed by the Roman state and modeled an alternative. Instead of accumulating political power through violence, Jesus gave away his power to unleash a new power into the world, the power of self-giving love. Christian communities were meant to model this self-giving love, creating situations such as the early church community described in Acts 2, where everything is shared, and class and ethnic divisions are overturned and abolished.

What might technological development based on principles of self-giving love and ecological solidarity, rather than accumulation of power and wealth through violence and exploitation, look like?

A philosophical movement and genre that addresses this very question is solarpunk, which combines art and technology to promote an optimistic view of the future that is post-capitalist, post-hierarchical, ecologically integrated, and egalitarian. Solarpunk consciously opposes more negative depictions of the future, such as cyberpunk, which imagines technology leading to authoritarianism and alienation from nature. An early example of a book that would fit into the genre is Ursula K. Le Guin’s book The Dispossessed, about a society on the moon Anarres that has no government and is based on mutual aid mediated by computers that help coordinate the distribution of goods and volunteers. Another example is Ernest Callenbach’s Ecotopia, which depicts a future version of northern California that embraces renewable energy, decentralization, and egalitarianism. More recent examples are the novels by Becky Chambers, The Long Way to A Small Angry Planet and A Closed and Common Orbit, which depict widespread acceptance of gender fluidity, equality, and multiculturalism in a setting that includes space travel and mind uploading. Another example is her book A Psalm for the Wild Built and its sequel, which depicts a society on the moon Panga where human societies and robot societies exist independently without conflict. A common theme of these stories is the use of  technology  to promote solidarity and human and ecological well-being instead of accumulation of power.

A philosophy that is complementary to solarpunk is technogaianism. Technogaianists argue that technological advancement and ecological sustainability go together. They argue that if human civilization does not simply go extinct, it will eventually adapt to existing within the limits of a planetary system and use technology to maintain planetary systems necessary for human survival and the survival of the biosphere on which humans depend. Revive & Restore, a project by the Long Now Foundation to use biotechnology to restore ecosystems, revive extinct species, and promote biodiversity, is an example of technogaianism in action. Another example of technogaianist thought is the book Novacene by the ecologist James Lovelock, one of the originators of the Gaia hypothesis. In  Novacene, Lovelock argues that advanced post-human intelligences will take an interest in maintaining Earth’s biosphere and climate because the biosphere plays an important role in maintaining an environment friendly to technology. For example, life plays a role in the relatively narrow temperature range experienced on Earth which reduces stress on electronics and mechanical technology from temperature extremes seen on planets without life, such as Mars or Venus.

Solarpunk and technogaianism show us what it might look like to follow the example of Jesus instead of Muad’dib and pursue scientific and technological progress in a different way from the Empire. It gives us practical examples of how we can abandon empire and instead focus on making Dune less of a desert and more of an Eden. 

Caleb Strom is a PhD student studying planetary science.  He also writes about science, technology, faith, and how the intersection between them can help make a better world.

Image credit: Vanity Fair/Niko Tavernise