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Before ‘Dune,’ Frank Herbert Learned From Native Americans

In Brian Herbert’s understanding, the environmentalism of “Dune” was partly based on conversations between his Mr. Hansen and his father. Mr. Hansen himself felt that he had “contributed many of the ideas” of the novel, his widow, Joanne Hansen, told me. “They explored the idea of Dune, a planet without water,” she said. “They spent a lot of time talking about that.” Ultimately, she continued, her husband felt that “Dune” contained numerous ideas of his that Frank Herbert had “expanded on.”

Mr. Herbert’s fascination with Indigenous societies shines through in his novel. “Dune” follows Paul Atreides, a young man from another planet, as he navigates the desiccated planet of Dune. Paul’s guide is an older native-born man, Stilgar, who teaches him to live off the land, much as Henry Martin taught a young Frank Herbert. Stilgar’s people, the Fremen, shape their society around the giant sandworms that swim through Dune’s desert waves — not unlike the whales that Quileutes were still harpooning in living memory. As he learns Fremen ways, Paul comes to reject the imperial society he was born into and, in a sequel, scorns “believers in Manifest Destiny.”

Native peoples were at the cutting edge of environmentalism in Mr. Herbert’s day, and they still are. And, as Howard Hansen predicted, the scale has enlarged. It’s no longer only wilderness that needs defending, but also the delicate balance of gases in our shared atmosphere. Here, Indigenous activists have been indispensable, leading resistance to fossil fuel extraction, for example at the enormous protests against the Dakota Access Pipeline at the Standing Rock Indian Reservation.

Fossil fuels and the damage they deal matter greatly to Quileutes, who are contending with some of the worst that climate change has to offer. Rising tides, combined with a deforested landscape that no longer holds moisture in place, have left La Push at risk of catastrophic flooding. The Quileute Nation is now soliciting donations for its “Move to Higher Ground” campaign to relocate its coastal school to safety.

There is a painful irony here. Seeing what logging had done to La Push inspired Howard Hansen to warn Frank Herbert that the world might become a “wasteland.” With Mr. Hansen’s input, Mr. Herbert wrote a novel, “Dune,” imagining just that. The novel proved prescient, helping readers think about the environment not just on the level of lakes or forests but whole planets.

Today, as predicted, Earth’s climate is changing. And La Push is drowning.

Daniel Immerwahr is a professor of history at Northwestern and the author of “How to Hide an Empire: A History of the Greater United States.”

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