The question of “peak oil” or “peak spice" has always been a proxy for a paramount existential concern: whether we control anything at all.

March 27, 2022

    IN THE ABSENCE of melange, a psychedelic drug known as “the spice,” the universal order in Dune would collapse. Found only on the desert planet Arrakis, it’s a scarce and deeply valued resource, but it’s not a fuel in the literal sense despite being essential for the interstellar travel on which the Imperium depends. Rather, it allows the Navigators of the Spacing Guild to jump through space and thereby connect the diverse planets under Imperial governance to one another. In this regard, and by our own standards, we can think of the spice as a drug that “fuels” imperialism, not dissimilar to how caffeine “fuels” capitalism. Melange enables psychedelic and interstellar trips in a universe grown dependent on both. No wonder it is so addictive!

    The obvious analogy, drawn by the book’s contemporary and subsequent readers and by today’s viewers of the world Herbert conjured, is to the geopolitics of Arab oil. Plain to see are allusions to the United States’s “addiction to oil,” to an “Arab oil weapon” in the context of the 1973–’74 oil embargo, and to fears of global fuel shortages. Herbert himself was relatively well versed in the international politics of oil, having explored superpower fuel clashes a decade before publishing Dune in a lesser-known psychological thriller called The Dragon in the Sea. As one character ponders early on in the book: “Oil. War demanded the pure substance born in the sediment of rising continent. Vegetable oil wouldn’t do. War was no vegetarian. War was a carnivore.”

    The analogy between oil and melange was thus already present just beneath the surface in Herbert’s prose in the 1950s. At the time, it wasn’t just wartime necessity that held the two substances together. Oil was (and is) as crucial in peace as in war. Not only did it have a critical role in reconstructing Europe after World War II but also, relatedly, in the eventual separation of living standards in the Western and Eastern blocs. It was at play, too, in the political economies of anticolonialism and non-alignment. The inequalities wrought by mining, hoarding, and using the spice in Dune are, then, unsurprisingly shot through with Cold War–era anxieties about who was doing better, who was stronger, and where vulnerability lay. Rising oil production mirrored the growth of Western economies across the second half of the 20th century, shackling natural resource extraction and political economy more generally to the concerns of grand strategy in ways that are still with us. Increased energy production and consumption marked that half of the century, as did oft-apocalyptic warnings about the effects of the loss of oil.

    The precarities of spice mining as depicted in Dune — from the threat of sandworm attack to the implications of ecological collapse — also reflect our dual understanding of the oil economy as deadly both for those who labor within it and for everyone living with the exhaust and changing climate produced by its use. Harvesting the spice — a substance that, like oil, is itself created by an organic process involving pressure, heat, and the sedimentary excretions of sandtrout — is an intensely dangerous process. The harsh landscape of Arrakis, unforgiving weather, and sandworm attacks are all too likely to derail the enterprise, with great losses of life, treasure, and credibility. In The Dragon in the Sea, long hoses nozzle their way down into the earth’s crust under the cold Arctic waters, feeding “plastic slugs” with their mineral cargo — “like a live thing drinking at a jugular in the earth.” Such language was commonplace as perceptions of energy insecurity heightened in the United States. The 1970s energy crisis resulted in a flurry of interventionist think pieces culminating in Henry Kissinger’s public warning that the United States could not stand by and watch “the actual strangulation of the industrialized world.”

    While the exact nature of the analogy leaves room for interpretation, Cold War conflicts over resource-rich countries in the developing world have long been read as the backdrop for the battles between House Harkonnen and House Atreides that animate the 2021 film. Importantly, the spice is the stuff of geopolitics. Harkonnen, which is revealed to have stockpiled the spice before abandoning the planet, leaves Atreides with sabotaged equipment and an untrustworthy workforce. “Whoever had stockpiled melange could make a killing,” Paul says. “Others would be out in the cold.”

    Scholars have studied and debated the effect of oil production on national societies and international politics for decades. From the idea of petroleum as “resource curse” to ongoing questions about its role in motivating the 2003 invasion of Iraq, the overlapping themes of oil, militarism, and capital continue to dominate discussions of geopolitics today. A similar triad of melange, imperialism, and existence frame the drama of Dune — from the imperial bestowal of Arrakis with which it starts to the messianic visions of a universal jihad with which it ends. In both cases, anxieties about dependence are really anxieties about the future — and about the place of one’s own people, and oneself, in it. Whether it’s a question of “peak oil” or “peak spice,” concerns about our dependence on substances over which we exercise only limited control have always been a proxy for a paramount existential concern: whether we control anything at all.


    Art by Kenneth Mills.


    Christopher Dietrich is a historian of US foreign relations at Fordham University, where he also chairs the American Studies program and the O'Connell Initiative for the Global History of Capitalism. A graduate of Grinnell College and the University of Texas at Austin, he is the author of Oil Revolution (Cambridge University Press) and the editor of Diplomacy and Capitalism (University of Pennsylvania Press).


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