Great Science Fiction authors manage the difficult feat of thinking both scientifically and poetically at the same time. Frank Herbert’s classic novel Dune is an ecological and religious thought experiment. “Does that which does not kill us truly make us stronger?”
He asks at perhaps the behest of Nietzsche. To quote an awesome remark a friend of mine made, that which doesn’t kill us gives us one motherfvcker of a hangover. That which didn’t kill the Fremen of Dune involved a potentially toxic gallimaufry of ecological disaster mixed with insane religious fanaticism.
It couldn’t kill Paul Maud’dib who faced and surpassed the gom jabber. It only made him stronger. They rose up. They killed the Evil Baron Vladimir Harkonnen and ran the cowardly House Corino out of power and took over a massive chunk of the galaxy. It also helped that they had a resource monopoly over the spice melange that fueled interstellar travel and made whoever controlled the supply kingmaker, if not king.
Herbert wrote this with the late 20th Century in mind. By 1970, Garrett Hardin and M. King Hubbert had both dropped their bombshells. Ecology, prior to its corruption by the Enviro-Academic Industrial Complex, told us some stark and scary truth. When men like Hubbert and David Brin put forth believable and mathematically rigorous models predicting our ineffible fvcktitude, it was hard not to take groups like The Club of Rome, at least somewhat seriously.
It was similar ecological fear that inspired Frank Herbert to model The Planet Arrakis (aka Dune) after the modern region of SW Asia. Dune was hot and dry to the point where water was precious. It was so arid that wasting moisture was considered an absolute mortal sin. Killing someone wasn’t nice. Losing the liquid water content of the cadaver was unthinkable. Arrakis would be a backwater except for one thing: they had a natural resource monopoly over the most valuable substance in the galaxy. This made people who didn’t care about the native Fremen have to care about the stuff that they could mine from the desert.
Survival in the awful climate and ecology of Dune required a very disciplined and unusually brutal lifestyle. This was best handled via religious indoctrination combined with an iron-fisted tribal system of society. This led to a powerful code of conduct that maximized the likelihood of each Fremen tribe surviving and passing on its genes and traditions to another generation.
Once, when studying the Bible, I was told to think of The Deuteronomy as a Boy Scout Fieldbook for adults stranded in a desert waste for forty years along with Moses. Moderns hate the subjugation of the individual to the commonweal and rigidity of gender and class roles that get spelled out. These Moderns have rarely spent more than two weeks without a functional HVAC and have rarely gone anywhere with fewer than two bars on their phone or GPS. The Deuteronomy teaches people how to survive on the wrong side of Hadrian’s Wall.
So Dune can be summed up as tough people under hard religious discipline can whip coach potatoes and rule the galaxy if they find the right religious ruler to lead them. Does this work in real life? If so, the closest parallel I can think of on contemporary Terra would a country that really isn’t fond of Amerika. That would be Iran and they are at least caricatured as praying “Death to America” every morning. If they would wipe out any House of Corino here on Earth, it would either be Israel or The Great Satan as they affectionately refer to us in their religious writings.
Iran has a brutal climate. It is arid and as its agricultural and hydrological policies fail; it is becoming more and more arid. They have that old time religion. The Mullahs interpret The Koran, impose Sharia Law and frequently rule by Fatwa. There is no court more Supreme than Allah. The Old Men of Quuds issue a Fatwa and all issues are settled. And, of course, Iran has a massive stockpile of oil. Thus, when Hamas gives the IDF all it wants and then an encore during Operation Protective Edge, fans of Herbert, Nietzsche or anyone who shoots at Israelis in general will nod, smile and make fatuous snark over Amerikans needing to ditch the idiot phones and knock out a few push-ups.
But what of the actual Iranians, as opposed to those that the Iranians sell weapons to? The story takes a turn that Herbert would never have seen coming for The Great Maud’dib. Iran has a population pyramid that would lead to a population ceiling of 100 million by about 2050. This would imply a gain of 15% over the next 80 or so years, assuming a low rate of venereal disease and consistent rate of fertility across generations. Which is in no way the case for contemporary Iran.
Before we wax too eloquent about the democratic aspirations of the great Iranian people, we should keep in the mind that the most probable scenario for Iran under any likely regime is a sickening spiral into poverty and depopulation. Iran has the fastest-aging population of any country in the world, indeed, the fast-aging population of any country in history. It has the highest rate of venereal disease infection and the highest rate of infertility of any country in the world. It has a youth unemployment rate of 35% (adjusted for warehousing young people in state-run diploma mills).
People are not getting tougher from the tough times in Iran. The places riots took place recently are places where food and water have run out.
Ghahdarijanâ€™s protests have been long in the making. Two years ago, an adviser to Iranâ€™s environment ministry, Issa Kalandari, warned 50 million Iranians would be left without water, due to the exhaustion of 70% of Iranâ€™s groundwater and the ill-considered diversion of rivers to compensate. Agriculture consumes 92% of Iranâ€™s water. Capital-intensive farming methods could conserve water, but they also would drive peasants off the land into cities already suffering from about 30% youth unemployment.
So where is the great and glorious Jihad that Maud’dib leads to conquer the entire galactic empire? It’s been on for forty years and it is intrinsically linked to the drying rivers. All the money that Iran could have spent on upgrading its water system and practicing ecology and conservation has been spent on arms and military adventure. Iran does field an impressive array of threats that could possibly even include nuclear arms, but they are bleeding themselves dry to keep these soldiers in the field. The Iranians have every institutional problem that we Amerikans suffer from over here in Great Satan Land.
For nearly four decades, Iran has cannibalized its physical and human capital, leaving the Islamic state with multiple crises and a deep sense of malaise. Water management is only one of several hidden deficits that the Islamic state has accumulated since the 1979 revolution. Large parts of Iranâ€™s pension system face bankruptcy in the short term, and the governmentâ€™s annual arrears to its underfunded social security system are many times the size of its official budget deficit. With the worldâ€™s fastest-aging population, Iranâ€™s demographics will make an already-critical problem much worse during the next several years. Iran is the first country to get old before it got rich, setting in motion a pension crisis more acute than any other in the world.
So what do we learn? Terrible ecological practices combined with traditional religious fundamentalism are not sufficient to produce an unbeatable warrior caste. Wasting a nation’s resources on military adventurism such as George W. Bush’s invasion of Iraq does nothing but waste resources.
Iran, North Korea and The Soviet Union towards its end have far more in common than they do with The Fremen of Paul Maud’dib on Arrakis. The romantic dream of a punisher arising from the wastes to flay the decadent rot of The Evil Empire is exactly that. It is a dream. It is a wish fulfillment. Our path out of our current decadent rot cannot be correct as simply as being conquered and put under proper Sharia by some heroic barbarian from days of yore.