Power over Spice Is Power over All: Extractivism and Indigenous Knowledge in Frank Herbert’s “Dune”

By Devin GriffithsApril 5, 2024

Power over Spice Is Power over All: Extractivism and Indigenous Knowledge in Frank Herbert’s “Dune”

Dune by Frank Herbert

WHEN I WAS 10, I absorbed the sandy textures of Frank Herbert’s Dune (1965) from a weathered paperback copy on my parent’s shelves. It took a few more decades for me to see how the novel presents not an escape from this world but a confrontation with it. Dune is a novel about the history of energy extraction, especially oil extraction, and its impact on both the environment and on human well-being; it is a study of the intricate ways gender and race are wired into energy systems, and the various technologies through which these energies are brought to bear as weapons of social power; it is a study of the crisis initiated by modern genetic science, its continuities with eugenic thinking, and the threat that the decoding of DNA will massively magnify existing inequalities. Above all, Dune is a novel that was read in its own time and remains today a forceful statement of environmental protest, depicting the calamity induced when various environmental wisdoms, from Indigenous knowledges to restoration ecology, are overridden by the desire for profit and the pursuit of power.

The opening scene of Dune: Part One (2021), Denis Villeneuve’s film adaptation, shimmers with cultural and historical resonances. Guarded by armor-clad soldiers, massive, tick-like extractors roll over desert sands amid billows of fire and smoke, sucking the precious “spice” from the searing landscape. An off-screen narrator describes the scene of colonial subjection, recounting a violent ambush by freedom fighters who are trying to break the machines and end the occupation. The cinematography and effects are deeply referential, evoking various resistance movements and wars in the Middle East, from al-Thawra al-‘Arabiyya, or the Great Arab Revolt of the First World War, memorialized in David Lean’s 1962 epic Lawrence of Arabia (filmed in the same desert Villeneuve used in Jordan); to indelible images of American invasions and occupation during both Gulf Wars; to, perhaps most intriguing, Werner Herzog’s 1992 documentary Lessons of Darkness, which adopts the perspective of an alien observer to capture the work of American firefighters putting out hundreds of wells left burning in the midst of the First Gulf War, a thousand pillars of fire rising from the deserts of Kuwait.

In other words, the cinematography says the quiet part out loud: this is an allegory for Middle Eastern resource wars and the violence of extractivism—a term Naomi Klein popularized as one way to label the interlocking and world-spanning regimes of resource exploitation that characterize modernity’s ravenous appetite for new energy stocks, fresh materials, and cheap labor.

Yet Herbert first stumbled on the idea for Dune in an entirely different colonial environment: the beaches of the Pacific Northwest. In 1957, and between jobs, Herbert visited the small coastal town of Florence, Oregon, where he met a local naturalist, Wilbur Ternyik, and took a tour of the sand dunes. Ternyik brought him to a roughly 150-acre stretch of scrub and dune called Goosepasture. Today, it is designated an off-highway vehicle (OHV) park, part of a network of sandy ATV reservations that stretch along the Oregon coast. If you visit during the day or evening, you will see caged vehicles with giant sand tires and helmeted riders roaring around the dunes in apocalyptic, Mad Max–ian scenes. Scattered across the sands are small encampments of trailers and RVs, the settlements of gas-powered nomads.

But if you return early in the morning, when the engines sleep, you can hear and see flashes of what Herbert did. Dark purple shadows fan across the dipping dunes. Birdcalls thread the air—caustic crows, trilling songbirds, the occasional peeping osprey. Startled rabbits dart away. Animal tracks are scattered across the sands: a dense network of crisscrossing trails taken by mice, beetles, squirrels and chipmunks, even deer, all impressed on the sands by animals crossing between clumps of seagrass and gorse, or the roughly one-mile stretch of open sand where dune buggies prowl by day. Carpenter ants stumble clumsily over inclines and sometimes cross the long, intricate trails left by other insects. As you explore the dunes, you realize that your own tracks are now tracing the surface, falling in line and athwart the life that passed before, and that is still to come.

Herbert was impressed. Even now, the dunes flow and move as if they have a will of their own. Behind Florence’s supermarket, golden waves of sand stream off the top of a huge dune, blown onto lines of tract housing. Herbert was fascinated by what he learned about efforts to terraform the coast and stabilize the roaming dunes, saving towns like Florence from desertification and abandonment. The Florence dunes have been the scene of a pitched environmental battle for more than 100 years. Along its beaches, you are confronted by a long line of towering 30-foot foredunes, covered in nonnative seagrasses and Scotch broom, living monuments to the remarkable success of the dune stabilization efforts Herbert witnessed 60 years ago.

Today, that success is deeply controversial, as Veronika Kratz observes. Local dune enthusiasts and many ecologists deplore the spread of nonnative seagrasses, which have displaced some of the native vegetation and animal life and absorbed swathes of the coast. A “Save the Dunes” campaign now organizes groups of hikers to weed out the seagrass and Scotch broom, working to set the sands free. Camilla Mortensen points out that this campaign, in a notable twist, also includes an ATV club that organizes “trash the grass” events during which riders save the environment by plowing their roaring, gas-powered machines through invasive vegetation.

Dune is a novel fascinated by ecological science. But Herbert did not discover ecology on his own. As Daniel Immerwahr has explained, Herbert’s close friend Howard Hansen, a knowledge holder for the Quileute people of upper Washington State, first urged him to study ecology. Yet this interest had already been set in motion by Wilbur Ternyik, the guide who showed Herbert around the dunes that day in 1957. Ternyik grew up in Warrenton, at the northwestern tip of Oregon, at the mouth of the Columbia River and along the northern edge of the ancestral homelands of the Clatsop people. He was a lineal descendant of Chief Caboway, the Clatsop leader who hosted Lewis and Clark when their expedition reached the Oregon coast. And Ternyik devoted his life to addressing the impact of settlement on the Oregon coast, managing the long repercussions of the Corps of Discovery expedition.

The coastal lands of the Pacific Northwest are a filigree of river deltas that drain from the network of the 10- to 20-million-year-old Pacific mountain system and the Cascades. Dozens of rivers snake from these mountains to the Pacific. The California Gold Rush sparked a resource boom on the West Coast that stripped this geography for parts, harvesting biomass in the form of timber and salmon, clearing land for agriculture and mining. To service these extractive industries, settlers built long rock jetties out from the northern and southern banks of the rivers. So channeled, the once wayward river mouths were sutured to the sea.

The authors of a 1991 handbook published by the US Department of Agriculture, Stabilizing Coastal Sand Dunes in the Pacific Northwest, explain that the jetties of the Pacific Northwest had a massive effect on sand accumulation. Explaining the pressing need for dune stabilization, they observe that, taking the southern embankment of the Columbia River alone, the construction of these jetties created more than 3,000 acres of new sand beach between 1885 and 1940. In other words, the jetties created massive new dune systems, the very dunes that threatened to engulf towns like Florence. Read in this light, the border between land and sea becomes not simply an interface between marine and moraine, and their interleaved ecologies, but also a palimpsest on which we can read the layered histories of extractivism, and older, longer-standing relations to the littoral environment.

Ternyik was one of the authors of that stabilization handbook. When he was 16, he joined a new experiment, led by the USDA’s Soil Conservation Service (SCS), to try and stabilize the expanding dune systems around the Columbia and so help repair the harm the jetties had caused to the local ecosystem. Experimenting with a variety of windbreaks and vegetation, the SCS used contemporary ecology and its studies of dune succession to slow the movement of the rapidly growing dunes, as Joana Gaspar de Freitas has carefully explained. These techniques bound the sands and strained grains from the wind, building up taller, but more stable, dune systems.

Ternyik’s life and career illustrate the difficulty, if not the impossibility, of fully disentangling ecological management and economic activity, preservation and habitation, scientific and Indigenous modes of knowledge. Ternyik’s work on the Oregon dunes had deeper roots than the SCS. The Indigenous communities of the Pacific Northwest have long histories of cultivating various grasses, such as the strong mountain bear-grass (Xerophyllum tenax), important to basketmaking and intertribal trade; sweetgrasses, relatively common and prized by tribes across North America; and the three-square bulrush (Shoenoplectus pungens), a regionally specific sedge plant especially valued by the tribes of the Pacific Northwest. In a recent ethnobotany written with the knowledge holders of the Quinault Indian Nation, which draws also from the teachings of its Clatsop and Quileute members, Douglas Deur explains in detail the careful harvesting of these grasses and their use in managing lands over time. Long residence on the Columbia made the Clatsop acutely sensitive to the impact of settlement on the coastal environment, its nonhuman life and dune systems.

Terraforming is one name for a huge range of ways the Earth might be reshaped: from the wholesale destruction of environments in the service of resource extraction to the rational imprinting of human infrastructures to more collaborative modes of shaping, practices of “making-with” that can include human and nonhuman partners. Understanding Ternyik’s work, and its influence on Dune, as an act of care and repair requires thinking differently about the future possibilities of such places, beyond the restoration of a pristine, prehistoric nature, and about the future of the Indigenous communities that persist within them.

In the last analysis, the Fremen way of life in Dune—closely identified with a deep respect for the land and its ecology, a foundational responsibility for its sustainable management, and a collaborative engagement with ecological science—provides a specific configuration that Herbert recognized in Indigenous environmental activism in the Pacific Northwest. In this way, the Fremen, and the novel itself, offer a future-oriented remaking, not simply extraction or assimilation, and model an alternative relation to the environment and the planet.

Those complementarities are alive in the plot of Dune, a narrative of resistance that draws on different Indigenous and colonial histories. The Fremen are a littoral people adept at navigating the interface between desert and moisture, sand and water. They have an intricate knowledge of the arid web of life that sustains both the native sandworm’s life cycle and the more water-intensive communities of Earth-derived species (communities introduced to establish beachheads for more temperate oases within the desert). They show compassion when ritually killing juvenile worms for sacred practices, and when they use large worms for long journeys, they take care also to release them in deep sands where they can adequately recover. The Fremen work with a variety of grasses, shrubs, and small animals to terraform stretches of dune near their villages, cultivating ecosystems that collect and retain water.

Dune weaves together Indigenous perspectives on interdependency and responsibility with the growing recognition, opened by a new generation of ecologists, that the Earth and its many environments are fragile, closely interlinked, and imminently threatened by extractive industry. To be clear, I don’t think the Fremen are a reflection of any single people but rather a window into shared patterns of exploitation and resistance that reflect distinct Indigenous and colonial histories. To express elements of these histories is not to replicate them or their violence. Herbert, in braiding these various histories, clearly sought to expose the resonances between them while trying to draw out something new.

Villeneuve’s film adaptations of Dune winnow away much of the ecological texture of Fremen practice. But they also thicken the integrity of the culture itself, developing their native tongue, Chakobsa (only loosely sketched by Herbert), into a fully functional language; turning their sand walk into a graceful stride that echoes the quasi-Arabic characters Chakobsa is written in; and vastly expanding the aural texture of the novel, the rhythms of its desert landscapes, and the movements of its denizens.

Above all, the films powerfully magnify Dune’s critique of the white savior narrative. Chani (played by Zendaya) becomes a perceptive critic of Paul’s (Timothée Chalamet) ascendancy and the continued cycles of violence he brings. Moreover, Dune: Part Two significantly develops the factionalism and controversy that persist within Fremen society, especially in their varied perspective on the dangers and possibilities Paul offers, selectively drawing on the tribal intrigues Herbert recounted in his later Dune novels. The most satisfying thing about these films is how unsatisfying they are—the systematic way they expose Paul’s conversion from a callow youth to a blood-stippled dictator. Herbert was disappointed that so few of his first readers understood Paul as a villain. Later novels in the series drive that lesson home like a knife. It is a lesson that Villeneuve carefully examines in his two film adaptations.

The first film begins with an enigmatic message: “Dreams are messages from the deep.” The second film’s opening is far more direct: “Power over spice is power over all.” For most of the 20th century, Western science fiction was rooted in the dreams of imperial romance, projecting fantasies of frontier subjugation into space, with plots more akin to the novels of H. Rider Haggard than to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. Dune, across both novel and films, marks one endpoint to that history, and perhaps also a sinuous move toward what comes next.

LARB Contributor

Devin Griffiths is an associate professor of English and comparative literature at the University of Southern California. His work has appeared in Critical Inquiry, ELHBook HistoryVictorian Studies, and other journals. His first monograph, The Age of Analogy: Science and Literature Between the Darwins (2016), was short-listed for the book prize of the British Society of Literature and Science. He’s currently working on a study of the history of ecology and energy extraction titled “The Ecology of Power: Energy Aesthetics and the Arts of Relation.”


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