Dune’s drug economy is not as fictional as it appears. It can be read as an allegory for many real-world events: the Scramble for Africa, the colonization of the New World and more. Indeed, Author Frank Herbert drew from many real-world experiences to build his world and create the iconic and troublesome melange, which was reportedly based on magic mushrooms. On top of that, a lot of the novel’s environmentalism comes from Herbet’s own interactions with Native American tribes advocating against unchecked industrialism.
Helen’s face launched a thousand ships, but melange enables safe interstellar space travel, wrought interplanetary warfare and led to the subjugation of the Indigenous peoples of its home planet.
Due to melange’s immense influence over the events of Dune, it is clear that Frank Herbert had quite a lot to say about the commodification of drugs. By viewing drugs as a resource or commodity, the parallels between the novel and the realities of our world become clear, giving us a fictional outlet through which we can meditate on our own practices of colonization and capitalism.
Understanding Dune’s Drug Economy
In the world of Dune, melange is something of a miracle drug. Its effects are so potent that it is essentially the main ingredient for mankind’s further evolution by the time of the events of Dune, set some 8,000-plus years in the future.
To help you understand the importance of melange, here is a breakdown of what it can do:
- Galaxy brain: melange has the ability to unlock parts of the human mind, leading to “powers” such as mind-reading, prescience and the ability to access genetic memory. These powers can be cultivated by trained individuals or individuals with the right genetic predisposition. Guild Navigators, individuals whose sole purpose is to exist in a cloud of spice inside a tank, use these powers to help merchant vessels, military vessels and imperial vessels safely navigate the treacherous paths of space.
- Medical melange: the spice can also increase life expectancy and a person’s overall health stats
- Day-to-day: Fremen use spice to make essential goods such as paper, plastics, explosives and fabrics, as well as various foodstuffs.
Melange is only found on the planet Arrakis, inhabited by a native population referred to as the Fremen and its very own kaiju-esque species known as sandworms. The sandworms are key to the production of spice as excretions of their larvae constitute the main ingredient in melange. As the first cultivators of melange, Fremen not only unlocked the entheogenic, psychotropic and hallucinogenic effects of melange, they have also come to treat it as a vital component of their daily lives, using it for many non-drug-related goods and foods. They have also come to coexist with the sandworms and have adapted to the inhospitable Arrakis.
Enter the hegemonic powers of the world, helmed by the Emperor and followed by powerful feudal houses (essentially family-run conglomerates), which began exerting colonizing forces on the planet in order to harvest the spice, in large amounts, for their own purposes.
The resulting centuries of oppression and warfare waged on the Fremen for this valuable resource is not unlike the colonization projects launched by the imperial powers of the world on the Global South and on Indigenous peoples.
Understanding Our Own Drug Economy
Dune’s drug economy gives us valuable insight into what our own drug economy might look like if we adopt the same exploitative approaches illustrated in the novel. This can be broken down into three main themes:
- The Commodification of Drugs
- The Paradox of Plenty
- The Destruction of Nature
Consider that many Indigenous communities around the world have always had long-standing, meaningful relationships with certain drugs, specifically those used in ritual practice or as healing ingredients. These practices were ostracized by early Western observers who used racist rhetoric to demonize these cultures and justify “civilizing” initiatives aimed at wiping out traditional cultures and practices.
Despite being the original stewards of the spice, the Fremen face marginalization from their colonial overlords, and their knowledge of the desert and the spice are wholly ignored. In fact, they face what we call in our world the “resource curse”. Also known as the paradox of plenty, the curse refers to the phenomenon of an abundance of natural resources correlating with oppression and poverty. Reading this through a lens of decolonization allows us to see that this poverty is specifically a result of exploitative forces wreaking havoc on the land and communities in order to control these resources. One real-world example of a country that produces coveted drugs and may be a victim of this resource curse is Afghanistan. Read more about this complex situation here.
Even as “legitimate” entities begin to dabble in drug research, they continue to be exclusionary with their approach to unlocking their potential. Indigenous groups have to fight to be included in the conversation, despite possessing long-held knowledge on the subject. Companies reap benefits and profits from psychedelic research without crediting or including Indigenous knowledge, essentially freeloading off centuries of cultural practices all while governments continue to tackle “drug problems” in Indigenous communities today via a punitive approach. Not to mention, mainstream capitalist society continues to appropriate various aspects of traditional drug cultures to significant harm.
The need for control over Arrakis’ melange eventually leads to war between the houses, further upping the death toll of this exploitation project. In fact, it wouldn’t be a stretch to liken the houses of Dune to cartels and the Empire to the overarching system of politics and economics we all exist under that make profits more valuable than human lives.
Naturally, this form of high-level resource extraction does not come without effects to the environment of Arrakis. The brutal governance of colonizers over the planet led to the depletion of scarce water sources, the permanent alteration of the landscape and the dangerous disturbance of the habitat of the sandworms, a consequence with devastating effects for the colonizers themselves. In contrast, the Fremen adopt an approach of coexistence and have long been using melange sustainably instead of exploitatively.
Dune’s drug economy serves as a handbook and warning against environmental destruction at the hands of exploitative cultivation. As an example, cannabis is a highly water-intensive plant that ironically, has a good amount of growing operations set up in water-scarce locales such as New Mexico and the northern regions of Mexico. If companies continue to pursue strictly profit-orienteered outcomes, they will conflict with the needs of these vulnerable communities as climate change continues to worsen the situation. Reports of environmental violence in Morocco as a result of a poorly-regulated system of exploitation are also a cause for concern for the growing cannabis industry.
Whether you see Dune as a prophecy, allegory or handbook, it is important to read works of literature with a critical lens in order to derive potentially transformative lessons for our real world. Herbert’s allegories can help guide us to establish a legal, sustainable and inclusive drug economy that does not rely on the free emotional and spiritual labour of Indigenous communities and people of colour and that does not assume the exploitation of people or the environment as a given. Energy alternatives are already being pursued to reduce the footprint of cannabis, and hopefully with more innovation and an increasingly environmentally-conscious society, we can avoid the future Herbert predicted.