(Art direction: Jean-Dominique Lavoix-Carli
Photo: John Getchel)

A movie and a thought experiment in strategic foresight

The 2021 “Dune” movie by Denis Villeneuve is a deep reflexion about the future of political and strategic power (Denis Villeneuve, Dune, 2021). This movie explores the deep connections between the source and exercise of strategic power and the state of the environment. It is both a faithful and creative adaptation of the first part of the Frank Herbert’s classic science fiction novel (Frank Herbert, Dune, 1965).

An elaborate reflexion about the political and strategic meaning of a changing environment flows through Villeneuve’s movie. Thus, it is a prospective exercise on the possible future of political power on a changing planet (Jean-Michel Valantin, Hollywood, the Pentagon and Washington: The Movies and National Security from World War II to the Present Day, 2005).

Formally, the story follows the adventures of young Paul Atreides, heir to the Duke of Caladan planet. The galactic emperor offers the governance of the planet Arrakis to his father, the Duke of Atreides.

Arrakis, also known as Dune, is an arid, desert planet, where the “Spice” is produced. It is the most important product in the universe because it allows space navigators to follow the folds of space. As such, it is a basic condition for inter-planetary exchanges, and is the material basis of the imperium.

The “regime change” implied by the arrival of the House of Atreides on Dune triggers a conflict with the Harkonnen family. That House provided the former governors and exploiters of the planet, while it is the historical bitter foe of the Atreides. The feud that follows the new appointment by the Emperor ends with the slaughter of the house Atreides. It forces the young Paul to join the “Fremen”, the indigenous people that live in the sand desert.

Power and environment

As it happens, the whole movie hinges about the way the exercise of power is rooted in the determinisms of natural environments (James C. Scott, Against the Grain, A Deep History of the Earliest States, 2017). For example, the Atreides government strives to master the “desert power”, while being originally a “sea power” government (“Sea Power”, Encyclopedia Britannica). Strategically adapting to these determinisms is a life and death issue for political authorities.

This transition from water abundance to extreme scarcity supports an important reflexion about depletion and power. So, “Dune” is about the “great depletion” of everything, especially of water and biodiversity. The film illustrates how depletion follows climate change as well as the forms of power that emerge from depletion.

Thinking the future of geopolitics on a warming planet

It follows that this movie is not “simply” Hollywood entertainment. It is also a massive “thought experiment” in communication of strategic foresight and early warning about the future of geopolitics. As such, it is exemplary of the way Hollywood continually absorbs the emerging issues of the U.S political and national security debate (Valantin, Hollywood, the Pentagon and Washington…, 2005). The “strategic warning dimension” of this movie is about the risks of political and military maladaptation to climate change and their scenarization.

In this case, the notion of communication of “strategic foresight and early warning” reveals the depth of its function. It installs the spectator as a witness of what could be the fate of humankind when, in a few months, its most basic life conditions are being taken into a spiral of fatal degradation, while unable to adapt.

The Great Shift

Power and its “natural environments”

“Dune” explores the way the Atreides governance shifts from peaceful seapower to “desert power” for war. At the beginning of the movie, the Atreides family rules upon planet Caladan.

It is a very humid planet with a vast ocean. The Atreides rules it through “sea power”. However, the transplantation of the Atreides on Dune forces them to change and to try to master “desert power”.

The movie depicts this ecological, political and strategic transition from a water cycle regime to another.

Climate and strategic transitions

Indeed, it shows the destabilization of a powerful government by a rapid “turnover” of the ecological conditions in which it is embedded. The passage from the water rich Caladan planet to the arid Dune planet allegorises the climate and political violent changes that numerous countries and their government are already undergoing.

Thus, it resonates with the current consequences of the shifting climate and water cycle on Earth. For example, a recent study establishes that the southern Siberian climate shifts rapidly into a new regime (N. Kharlamova et al.,“Present Climate Development in the Southern Siberia: a 55 year observations record”, IOP Conferences Series: Earth and Environmental Science, 2019).

This new regime accompanies the aridization of the steppe-parkland area and of the mosaic of birch-forests, while the summer season is dryer than 55 years ago. Those climate and ecological conditions are shifting very rapidly, while turning a normally humid region into one prone to mega fires.

As it happens, during the 2021 summer, Russia had to face once again historic megafires in Northern and southern Siberia. In the south-east of Nizhny Novgorod, in the depths of the deep Russian forest, a huge battle against the fire took place near the secret city of Rasov (“Russian army helicopters join battle against Siberian wildfires”, Reuters, 14 July 2021).

Starting during the Soviet Union era, Rasov has been the city where Soviet then Russian weapons nuclear were developed. Containing the huge wildfire there was thus of strategic importance, hence the use of civil security and military forces (“Russian planes seed clouds as raging wildfires near power plant”, Reuters, July 19, 2021).

From a “Burning World” to an “Arid World”

This example reveals how, on a (very) rapidly warming planet, some extreme weather events such as megafires are multiplying and expanding in a region where, in summer, the climate used to be mild and humid.

In other words, Siberia integrates the planetary archipelago of places where, each summer, there are surges of tsunamis of fire. Those emerge in North America, Russia, Africa, South Asia, and Europe. Each year, they break former records and spread wider, while becoming much more intense.

These fires define the parts of the world that are going to become a place apart, i.e the “Burning World” (Jean-Michel Valantin, “Adapting to the Burning World”, The Red Team Analysis Society, November 9, 2020). These mega wildfires are already pushing modern emergency services to the limits of their response capabilities (Ed Struzik, “The Age of Megafires: The World Hits a Climate Tipping Point”, Yale 360, September 17, 2020).

This means that the governance of the Drying and Burning world turns into a new political regime. In this “New World” a singular continuity between civil and military capabilities establishes itself.

This happens in order to manage the suit of “improbable” crises that becomes the new reality. Following this line of thought one may say that “Dune” exemplifies what happens during the the “post-Burning world”. That is to say when humanity settles into the “Arid World”.

However, “Dune” also raises the question of the real ability of government to adapt if bioclimatic conditions shift rapidly and radically. In the case of the Atreides family in spite of their awareness, the change from one planet to another is so rapid that it lethally weakens them.

Maladaptation as a strategic weakness

Indeed  its members lack the time necessary to adapt to their new bioclimatic conditions and to turn it into a source of power. That is when their worst enemies, the blood thirsty and revengeful family Harkonnen defeats them through a sneak attack.

The Atreides are all slaughtered with the exception of the young heir Paul and his mother. They seek refuge in the desert. There, they will learn the ways and means of desert power with the “Fremen”, the indigenous nomadic warrior people.

Desert power rules

The movie lays down the basics of “desert power” for the spectator. In order to turn the desert into a base and a means of strategic power, it is necessary to understand it as a dominant and hostile environment.

Indeed, the defining features of the desert are the fundamental danger of aridity, and the impracticability of an infinite landscape of sand, dunes and rocks.

The presence of hostile semi-nomadic tribes and of giant sand-adapted predators (the “worms”) exacerbates those features. Thus, the desert puts de facto “under siege” the modern cities from where “migrant elites” try to rule.

Cities under siege

So, the movie shows how the urban world may poorly fare in regions where climate is quickly aridizing the environment. In the meantime, cities become literal strategic trap because of their exposition to “desert power”.

In other terms, while nowadays urban development is a massive driver of the “Great acceleration” of the current planetary change, cities are the main losers of the “desert power” emergence (J.R McNeil, Peter Engelke, The Great Acceleration, An Environmental History of The Anthropocene since 1945, Belknap Press, 2016).

So, “Dune” literally shows how desert power derives from the perspective of the strategic actors looking at the cities from the desert. Desert power comes from the ability to “follow the sand”, thus being semi-nomadic and able to live with very limited resources, especially water.

Depletion power

This tightly controlled sobriety confers a tremendous advantage upon those dependent on urban infrastructures and on complex technologies. Indeed, the latter have to carry the expensive and ponderous resources to project themselves in the desert. Thus, “desert power” is also the ability to develop long duration strategies in a world of very limited resources.

In other words, the movie, as well as the novel, proposes a scenario regarding possible ways for a polity to gain the strategic high ground in an arid world. This strategic approach entails self-discipline, hard sobriety and endurance in a time of rapidly changing climate and depleting resources.

Controlling Spice and depletion power

Finally, the ultimate strategic advantage of “desert power” is the weaponization of resources depletion and the threat to use it. Indeed, “Dune” is the only planet in the known universe where the desert sandworms produce “The Spice”.

This singular product allows space pilots to find their way through the “folds” of space. Thus, without spice, the galactic empire disappears. Each and every planet would be left to its own resources, cut off from the routes of the interstellar commonwealth.

From a “Dune” point of view, controlling the Spice is the same thing as dominating the Empire. However, Spice production is inherently a segment of the planetary ecology. So, organizing a shortage, or even the final depletion of the Spice through the ecological destruction of the planet is an extreme form of “desert power”.

In this acceptance, “desert power” becomes “depletion power” and the most formidable tool for deterrence and domination.

Weaponizing depletion

From this perspective, it is possible to change the depletion of basic resources by “channeling” it. In this regard, the movie is a thought experiment about the evolution of contemporary strategies based upon the weaponization of resource depletion.

It is the case, for example, of the “dam wars” waged by Turkey upon Syria and Iraq. Turkey is the upstream country of the Euphrates and Tigris rivers, which cross downstream Syria and Iraq. Those rivers, that define antique “Mesopotamia”, are the main sources of surface water in a largely water poor region.

Thus, the Turkish political authorities master the water cycle as a form of political power and influence. It is especially true of the water management of the Euphrates and Tigris rivers. One must keep in mind the vital role of these rivers. They are going through a region where access to their water is a vital necessity for entire countries.

Channeling aridisation

In the 1960s, the Turkish political authorities developed a strategic framework for the water management and development of southern Anatolia. This project is known as the Southeast Anatolia Project, or “Guneydogu Anadolu Projesi” (GAP). It was first thought about by Ataturk, founder of the Turkish Republic, during the twenties (“History of the South Eastern Anatolia project”, South Eastern Anatolia Project Administration, March 31, 2006).

This roadmap, central to the political thinking of the successive governments, has led to the construction of 14 dams on the Euphrates River. Throughout the years, the construction of eight dams on the Tigris River has been completing the roadmap. (Joost Jongerden, “Dams and Politics in Turkey: Utilizing Water, Developing ConflictsMiddle East Policy Council, 2010).

Channeling water wars

This immense water project is used for the development of electricity production and for agricultural irrigation (South Eastern Anatolia Project Administration, ibid). In the meantime, Turkey uses its control of the upstream water. This has often led to very high levels of tensions with Syria and Iraq. It was also the case with the different Kurdish factions.

It was especially the case in 1975 and 1990, when water tensions almost led to open war between the downstream countries and the upstream country, because of the drastic decrease of the Euphrates flow during the building of a dam (Michael Klare, Resource Wars, 2002).

Furthermore, these infrastructures and their control are a tool in the long-standing conflict between Turkey and the Kurds. They literally “weaponize” rivers. This weaponization derives from control and reduction flow of water.

Since 1975, the reductions of the water flows of downstream Syria and Iraq may be respectively of 40% and 80%. (Connor Dilleen, “Turkey’s dam-building could create new Middle-East conflict”, The Maritime Executive, November 6, 2019). In other words, Turkey channels a “long depletion” to its neighbours. Thus, they impact the economic development and life conditions of the downstream regions and countries (Klare, ibid).

Since the U.S invasion of Iraq in 2003, and the start of the Syrian war in Syria, Turkey has been using its dams to lower the water flows of both those countries.

The Turkish water management is both a highly political tool of development and  a strategic weapon. As it happens, it is also used to develop South Anatolia, a poor area with an important Kurdish population.

This supports the legitimacy of Ankara’s rule among the South Anatolian Kurdish population. (Ilektra Tsakalidou, “The Great Anatolian Project: Is Water Management Panacea or Crisis Multiplier for Kurdish Turks?”, New Security Beat, August 5, 2013).

War by depletion

In other words, the Turkish authorities now have a real knowledge in wielding and using “(water) depletion power”. It has become a massive tool of international influence. As the whole Middle East is rapidly aridizing, the Turkish depletion power is all the more efficient.

For example, during the historic drought of the 2021 summer, the Turkish-backed Syrian national army (SNA) built three dams on the Kabhour river. By doing, so, they cut the water for the Kurdish downstream communities, while those were already hammered by the drought. As it happens, the Turkish military offensive in Syria accompanies the this “water depletion” offensive.

This weaponization of water depletion literally appears as a small scale and very precise use of “depletion power”. This development of a new environmental strategic management is the core of the “desert power” that the movie explores.

As it happens, “Dune-part I” allegorizes the political and strategic tendencies that are currently emerging on our warming and depleting planet. It is a thought experience that warns us about the way climate change drives an international redistribution of power between the countries that will be able to adapt… and the others.

Published by Dr Jean-Michel Valantin (PhD Paris)

Dr Jean-Michel Valantin (PhD Paris) leads the Environment and Security Department of The Red Team Analysis Society. He is specialised in strategic studies and defense sociology with a focus on environmental geostrategy. He is the author of "Menace climatique sur l’ordre mondial" (Climatic threat on the world order), "Ecologie et gouvernance mondiale" (Ecology and world governance), "Guerre et Nature, l’Amérique prépare la guerre du climat, "(War and nature: America gets ready for climate war) and of "Hollywood, the Pentagon and Washington".

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.