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What's in the Box?

A famous scene from the book and movie Dune has young Paul Atreides tested for humanity. The test is what’s inside the box. The Box has been brought by the Reverend Mother of the Bene Gesserit, an order of women trained in body and mind to pursue a program of selective breeding to bring about a Messiah. Paul could be that Messiah, but first they must prove he’s not an animal. What’s inside the box? Pain. The test for the Atreides boy is whether he’s in charge, or his pain is.

It's a test Paul passes, fortunately, obviously. Dune would have been a much shorter novel, otherwise! We can leave aside the undoubtedly inhuman behavior of the Bene Gesserit, as they pursue what is undoubtedly a eugenics inspired goal, and focus on the troubling question of the Bene Gesserit's definition of humanity.

There's a lot of backstory to the Dune Universe, much of it having to do with the ancient dominance of Artificially Intelligent machines and their cyborg lackeys. The war against them lead the people of that empire to rebel against the use of computer technology almost entirely. Mentats learn to make calculations ultra-fast, Bene Gesserit master their bodies, minds, and voices, the Spacing Guild replaces navigation computers with mutated Guildsmen. The humanity of Dune's future would regard our reliance on computers not only to be dangerous, but even sinful. Still, the folks in the Dune universe are dependent, as you may know, on Melange, otherwise known as The Spice. The Guild itself is especially dependent on it, and the rest of the council of nobles, the Landsraad, and the Padishah Emperor as well. It extends life, it gives the Guild it's ability to navigate through folded space and the Bene Gesserit access to greater abilities. That it is addicting... well, that's a problem that society puts off with aggressive military action, and a rotating system of stewardship for the planet.

In the course of the story, of course, Paul Atreides is able to bring the entire empire to its knees, owing to this dependence.

In the course of the Frank Herbert works, and also those written by Brian Herbert (his son) and Kevin Anderson, the schemers and nobles of the Dune universe are constantly trying to manufacture this critical substance synthetically, or set up new sources off of Arrakis. It's a problem we can sympathize with, more than four decades after the original novel's first publication. The oil that comes out of the Middle East and other countries indeed is the spice that must flow.

There is, of course, a fortunate difference. We are not addicted to oil the way the folks of the Dune Universe are addicted to their spice. However, our dependence on it is poisonous in its own way. Only recently, as oil became more expensive, did people feel the pain, necessity the Gom Jabbar at our throats.

The response of some was "drill, baby, drill". A reflexive action that takes us back to the confort of reliance on fossil fuels. A natural reaction, to be sure. But if we can borrow the theme of the Bene Gesserit test, it's the animal's response. Pull your hand out of the box, your hand tells you. Do things the easy way.

The question of whether we can move to something else than the fossil fuels, is a question one could pose in terms of what you think the human thing to do is. Now we say the human thing might be taking the path of least resistance, in that we can understand a person taking that direction, even if we find it less than courageous. But is that all we can define as human? As atrocious as their methods are, the Bene Gesserit's test of humanity begs an important question: Does being human mean we have to do merely the understandable, if weak things? Of course not.

People are capable of more than just the choices of the least common denominator. We can choose to endure some degree of pain, or some threat of pain, and move past it towards a smarter, more rational approach to our problem.

The pain in the Bene Gesserit box can teach us another lesson as well, about being human. When Paul Atreides removes his hand, the pain having convinced him that his hand had been burned to a crisp, his hand is intact.

Perception of potential or actual pain is not always reality. There are those who promise that if we go ahead and begin our transition, we will see our economy destroyed, our competitiveness detracted from. But all these people are talking about is an unrealized future. There's good reason to consider fear the mind-killer, because we fear things in this world from a perspective of limited knowledge and understanding. If we were to do the uniquely human and do more thinking and less panicking, we would see some improvement in our policies and we would find that America has never lost its ability to excell and succeed. The achievements of the past need not be a bitter reminder of what we were capable of once; they can become the prelude to equal or greater achievements from this country as we cast off the shell we've been scutlling around in for the last quarter century or so. This situation around us is certainly not the best we can do; nothing says we have to accept the current state of events any longer except our own fear of the pain of change.

Redeeming the errors of the past few decades will not be easy or painless, but we have no way of knowing what we are capable of, if we put our minds to it. Either we let the fear of future pain become a mind-killer, or we can let it flow over us, and having seen it receding behind us, face our future with courage, as thinking human beings, rather than reactionary animals.

Posted by Stephen Daugherty at November 21, 2008 11:34 AM
Comments
Comment #270752

Stephen, excellent article. Having read Dune back in the late 1960’s, and again in the late 1980’s, I can appreciate your parallels drawn.

This issue of how to promote the individual growth of citizens within a society is particularly problematic in the United States given the perception that the Constitution guarantees equal protection for individual liberty as it does to the protection of the state. That perception, with all of the conflicts engendered, however, is nearly uniquely American, and at times works to our nation’s and people’s benefit, and at others to our mutual detriment.

The history of slavery and civil rights culminating to date with the election of Obama is a perfect case in point. But, I agree with the thrust of your article, that the demands of our times, require that America now grow out of its adolescence as a nation, and mature into responsible parents and stewards of our great nation.

The appeal toward that end was central to Obama’s campaign, and his election a reply from the people that the majority of them are ready for this growth. I hope that the rest of the Democratic Party office holders are capable and willing to accede to and support this clarion call to come from the Obama administration. We shall see.

The problem with political parties is that they ultimately serve only one master, power, not the people. This fact shall challenge the Obama administration mightily over the next 4 years. But, for the time being, Obama has the majority of the people behind him in meeting that challenge. If he can permit them to remain behind him, his engagement with the Democratic Congress may prove to be a fruitful one for us all. If not, our best hopes will be diminished.

These are very challenging times in which failure is not an option anymore.

Posted by: David R. Remer at November 21, 2008 4:16 PM
Comment #270756


Stephen, I agree with what you are saying except, I don’t equate spice with oil. Our spice is corporate capitalism.

Posted by: jlw at November 21, 2008 4:50 PM
Comment #270757

jlw-
The Spice is a natural resource, not a system of doing things. There’s plenty in the books to critique economic colonialism, though, and putting profits ahead of people. One of the important scenes in the book and movie adaptations occurs when Duke Leto, Paul’s father, orders the crew of a stranded harvester to leave the machine, rather than leave them to the mercy of the Sandworms.

A critique of economic colonialism, and shock doctrine tactics is found throughout the book and movies. No need to cast capitalism as the spice, as it’s only a commodity, though an important one.

Posted by: Stephen Daugherty at November 21, 2008 5:09 PM
Comment #270770

Here’s a rational approach. Why not drill the resources that are under our control while bridging the economic gap between renewable fuel and fossil fuel?

Following the anti-coal, anti-nuclear, anti-oil program put forth by extremists will result in catastrophic increases in energy costs that will make now commonplace conveniences like lights and heat beyond the range of many people.

After Katrina, energy costs rose dramatically in New Orleans due to a combination of the reduced user base, the cost of system repairs and the basic operating expenses. I know many people who were forced to live with minimal heat and a lot of dark just to keep their bills in a manageable range.

Now that is the result of a single, regionalized event. If those increases in cost were nationwide and systemic, as they would be under a sudden, radical shift to renewables with the sort of financial penalties for traditional energy consumption that have discussed, a whole lot of folks would be bundling up in the dim light of the New America.

Posted by: goodkingned at November 22, 2008 2:02 AM
Comment #270783

goodkingned-
This issue is not whether we drill, but whether it does us much good. The issue is not whether we use coal, but how much is healthy for us, climate and pollution-wise, to use. The issue is not whether we use nuclear, but whether or not we can build them fast enough, much less handle the nuclear waste.

We have the technology to make a good start generating more wind and solar power. It would be painful beyond reason to just drop everything else and go for this, but more drilling and more nuclear will not help our situation any time soon, and more coal won’t necessarily benefit us in the long run, unless we can neutralize it’s excessive carbon emissions, not to mention its sooty, often heavy-metal contaminated pollution.

Caution and prudence are advisable. Our energy plan should be constructed to create as few bumps in the road as possible. However, we’re paying for our laziness on not shifting our energy policy sooner, and we might pay more if we let fears of a more austere energy situation make us vacillate about moving forward.

Posted by: Stephen Daugherty at November 22, 2008 12:32 PM
Comment #270805

I just got Paul of Dune from the library 3 days ago. The real Dune website is at www.dunenovels.com

Here is the scene to which you were referring from the Sci Fi network version: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=g36lYOdlZ-k

Here is the same scene from the earlier David Lynch version:
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TOXa9RdeaPE

Frank Herbert was using the spice as an analogy for oil, and used Arabic terminologies because they were so unknown when he was writing. The line in all the Star Wars movies, “I have a bad feeling about this”, comes from the original Dune book. Herbert tried to get a group of Sci Fi authors together to sue George Lucas for stealing from them, but the consensus was that Star Wars helped the sale of their works and eventually moved the genre out of the pulp fiction category. Believe it or not, the writers used to get together at a Science Fiction and Pornography Convention.

There was a longer edition of David Lynch’s version which was broadcast on tv once, which Raffaella de Laurentis talked about in the reissued dvd with the scenes that were added for that tv version.

Posted by: ohrealy at November 22, 2008 4:40 PM
Comment #270826

Stephan, I agree that emission control is a valid issue, but my point is that Rome wasn’t built in a day. By not considering the impact of skyrocketing energy costs, we run the risk of removing the capital necessary to maintain our economic structure, let alone pay the tremendous costs of developing more efficient renewable green energy sources.

And I feel that the time necessary to realize resources from drilling or nuclear is often overestimated. Drilling can be escalated if there is sufficient profit to cover the costs of the needed infrastructure. The recent spike in oil prices indicated to me that it is feasible to see a real return faster than the time frame usually mentioned. I think it is too convenient to dismiss drilling for the crowd that opposes the use of fossil fuel.

Nuclear development is retarded by the oppressive regulatory environment in the United States. If the legislative barriers were reduced, we could develop nuclear sources of energy in a feasible timeframe.

But, by all means, wind, solar, biofuel and tidal resources should be explored energetically, as long as we take a realistic view of the inherent limitations of these potential sources. I don’t want to go green at the expense of feasibility as we are with corn based fuels. Our mishandling of those biofuels is an excellent example of the danger of leaping before you look.

ohrealy, I have watched the Lynch version of Dune several times. For those unfamiliar with the books, it provides alot of useful exposition. I used to have it on videotape, but alas, that medium didn’t stand the test of time.

Posted by: goodkingned at November 23, 2008 6:28 AM
Comment #270828

goodkingned-
Here are some basic problems: Even if we drilled where you wanted us to drill, we’d first have to find the resource, drill the hole to get to it, set up production, and start pumping. These things do not to happen quickly.

Additionally, many places are only feasible to drill if the expense of oil goes up high enough to justify it. But if that happens, of course, we’re back where we were before oil prices collapsed, and that’s part of what’s motivating people to seek out alternatives.

Nuclear development has a problem: it’s product is inherently lethal. So its regulated within an inch of its life, because accident with nuclear power plants are a whole other level of dangerous than other foul-ups. Nobody wants anything less than an overengineered, fail-safe, ultra-contained reactor, and that costs money.

But everybody’s worried about global warming as well, so folk’s willingness to be patient with this transition is limited.

I do agree that biofuels were mishandled. I think cellulosic ethanol is a better idea, since it gets more bang for the buck and is a net negative on carbon emissions.

I think you and I could agree on a lot. I just would caution you against thinking that the average person pushing this wants real disruption. Nobody really does. But we also don’t want to make our situation any worse, economically and ecologically. I guess the word to describe what we want is deliberate haste.

It might not have been necessary if we had started with this earlier, but for years we had people saying, it’d all be too expensive, and things are good now, and the alternatives are undeveloped… We procrastinated to the point where our problems with our current energy policy reached crisis levels.

And now the oil companies are fielding commercials all talking about how green they are, talking about seeking balance (which translates to “please don’t make us obsolete”), and my feeling is that as usual, they’re going to do what they can to slow the transition. Can’t say I blame them, but I can’t say I want them in the way either.

We still need to be calm and prudent about this, but we also need to acknowledge that there is a time pressure if we really want to remain competitive, if we really want to avoid the worst of global warming.

Posted by: Stephen Daugherty at November 23, 2008 9:35 AM
Comment #270847

Great Post Stephen. Space-Based Solar Power Beams Become Next Energy Frontier. http://www.popularmechanics.com/science/air_space/4230315.html?series=35

Posted by: Rodney Brown at November 23, 2008 6:45 PM
Comment #271027

Stephen,

Good article. I have not read Dune, but have seen both of the film versions.

The trouble with oil is that it holds us back and hems us in at the same time. The simple delivery of oil to the market costs nearly ten percent of what we get from the ground. Much, if not most of our military expenditure is really necessitated by the protection of our oil supplies around the world, making the annual cost of foreign oil well over one trillion dollars per year.

On the other hand much of our economic capital is invested in resources committed to the delivery and use of (cars, boats, everything that runs on a gas or diesel motor, etc.) oil. This means people have to be convinced to stop using things they have spent money on while they still work. This is a necessary transition, but one ordinary people will find difficult to commit themselves to.

Changes like these happen, more often than not, because of wars. Dune is full of that, too. We eventually must make the change.

I’ve got a bad feeling about this.

Posted by: Lee Jamison at November 26, 2008 5:01 PM
Comment #274235

I agree, spice in Dune seemed to be equivalent to oil. Very interesting to see the parallels being drawn between Obama and Paul…just picked up Dune in December, a book I hadn’t read in 15 years, and how relevant it is to today’s political environment in the USA!

We can prevent the happenings of a jihad, maintaining separation between church and state, thinking for oneself, investigating things oneself (vs. only reading the newspaper)..

The transition between oil and renewables: it makes sense to invest our public and private money now in renewable energy, rather than allowing money to be used in forming new corporations based on nuclear and/or coal. If we allow nuclear or coal to fill the gap now, the money invested, the jobs dependent upon that industry, will in itself be a reason to continue unclean/unsafe energy rather than making a real transition to clean/safe/natural energy. I’d prefer to see us make the leap sooner rather than later.

In personal life terms: instead of buying a normal car when the other one breaks, making the leap to a cleaner alternative, like riding the bus, or an electric car. If one were to buy a normal car, then there would be another period of waiting until that car breaks before there is another opportunity to change.

We have enough technology to carry the big energy change forward, it’s just a matter of convincing the people who have a stranglehold on the energy market to ease their grip and either switch to a cleaner energy (a spice substitute) or to stick with spice as they choose, and lose their hold on the energy market entirely.


Posted by: Kati at January 24, 2009 9:26 AM
Comment #274236

I agree, spice in Dune seemed to be equivalent to oil. Very interesting to see the parallels being drawn between Obama and Paul…just picked up Dune in December, a book I hadn’t read in 15 years, and how relevant it is to today’s political environment in the USA!

We can prevent the happenings of a jihad, maintaining separation between church and state, thinking for oneself, investigating things oneself (vs. only reading the newspaper)..

The transition between oil and renewables: it makes sense to invest our public and private money now in renewable energy, rather than allowing money to be used in forming new corporations based on nuclear and/or coal. If we allow nuclear or coal to fill the gap now, the money invested, the jobs dependent upon that industry, will in itself be a reason to continue unclean/unsafe energy rather than making a real transition to clean/safe/natural energy. I’d prefer to see us make the leap sooner rather than later.

In personal life terms: instead of buying a normal car when the other one breaks, making the leap to a cleaner alternative, like riding the bus, or an electric car. If one were to buy a normal car, then there would be another period of waiting until that car breaks before there is another opportunity to change.

We have enough technology to carry the big energy change forward, it’s just a matter of convincing the people who have a stranglehold on the energy market to ease their grip and either switch to a cleaner energy (a spice substitute) or to stick with spice as they choose, and lose their hold on the energy market entirely.


Posted by: Kati at January 24, 2009 9:26 AM
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