Movie fans across the world will soon be treated to an epic spectacle: the billowing sands and remorseless sun of Arrakis, the desert planet at the heart of Frank Herbert’s classic science fiction novel Dune. Newly adapted to the silver screen by Denis Villeneuve, the story is set some 20,000 years in the future, but the landscape is familiar. We have seen the same endless, lifeless seas of sand in so many films, from spaghetti Westerns and Lawrence of Arabia to more recent blockbusters like Mad Max: Fury Road or No Country for Old Men.
In movies, deserts are populated by sun-bleached skulls, heroes in dire straits and a whole lot of nothing. They are defined by absence: no roads, no shelter, no water. The image of the desert that these films have inspired in popular culture is of a place inimical to human life, a landscape that is trying to kill us.
This collective shorthand is so familiar that a filmmaker can use a single shot of a desiccated tumbleweed blowing across a dusty landscape to convey a whole geography of vast, dangerous emptiness.
Deserts are classified by scientists as drylands, an environmental category that also includes grasslands, steppes and savannahs. Even though they make up 40 percent of our planet’s landmasses, drylands are increasingly threatened by public misconceptions about them. These false perceptions—perpetuated by pop culture—condemn a dry environment as a wasteland. To navigate the challenges of the 21st century, we need to understand and protect drylands as critical shared resources for humans and many other species to survive and thrive.
Unlike the homogenous deserts of Dune, Earth’s drylands are quite diverse—in fact, more diverse than some of the more temperate parts of our planet. That biological diversity is matched by geological diversity, ranging from striking canyons to spectacular mountain ranges. The seasons of drylands are dramatic and also different from mesic areas, with torrential showers in the monsoon season interrupted by prolonged droughts. These environments have engendered a number of adaptations in plants, microbes and animals.
Drylands ecosystems also account for most of the observed changes from year to year, interannual variability, in Earth’s carbon cycle, which is intimately related to the rate of climate change. Our planet’s climate is threatened by human emissions of carbon dioxide, and natural ecosystems, including drylands, partly offset those emissions. Therefore, drylands contributions to global carbon sequestration are central to achieving global sustainability.
This is far from the way drylands, and especially deserts, are represented in film and television, which inherit assumptions brought by European settlers to the geographies of the new world. If they did not know how to farm, mine or otherwise exploit a place, it was a useless wasteland to them because the space could not be used for colonial enterprise. The noble houses in Dune take much the same view, seeing Arrakis initially as a dangerous emptiness that is only worth contending with because it is the sole source of melange, or spice, a highly valued drug that extends life and vitality and can gift some with mystical capabilities like clairvoyance.
Narratives built on extraction and exoticization, from A Fistful of Dollars to Villeneuve’s own Blade Runner 2049 and Sicario, tell a story of hostility, humanity versus the desert, that buries the rich histories and relationships of ecology and culture in arid environments around the world.
Despite what movies might suggest, 30 percent of the human population live in drylands. Importantly, many of these people are extremely dependent on the conditions of their environments. Their food depends on the production of forage that supports their animals for milk, blood, meat and fiber. Unlike the Phoenix metropolitan area, which has seemingly tamed its desert environment with air conditioning and massive irrigation systems, much of the world's drylands population work with and depend on the land’s day-to-day conditions, such as herders in Africa and ranchers from Texas to Montana.
Drylands have supported human societies for millennia, and these groups developed a suite of narratives that appreciate the striking beauty, diversity and wealth of drylands. The origins of our species are associated with dryland savannas of Africa that have left an indelible imprint on humans.
In Dune, the people native to Arrakis are called the Fremen. They have inhabited the planet for thousands of years and are in constant threat of outsiders coming to start wars and take their natural resources. This is an unfortunate parallel one can draw from both reality and fiction: devaluing desert lands has resulted in countless atrocities towards Indigenous peoples of those lands. Human activities from resource extraction to testing nuclear bombs have caused widespread environmental injustices in drylands ecologies.
In order to break away from the empty myth of the desert wasteland, we need to kindle collective understanding of the deep-rooted connections between sustainable drylands and a shared sustainable future.
This is of particular interest for us as researchers at Arizona State University (ASU), one of the largest public universities in the U.S. and an example of a cultural institution thriving in the desert. In order to foster deeper appreciation of drylands, ASU’s Global Drylands Center (GDC) collaborates with scientists from around the world to develop state-of-the-art research that challenges existing paradigms. Fieldwork with large-scale field manipulations in the Chihuahuan Desert, for example, simulates future climates and yields unexpected responses that point to future changes in drylands plant communities and enable greater understanding of drylands. Creating hopeful narratives about climate futures is a key goal for ASU’s Center for Science and the Imagination. Through its Climate Imagination Fellowship, annual climate fiction contest and other initiatives, it seeks to inspire communities around the planet to imagine their own positive climate futures.
Working together, we hope to inspire new shared understandings of drylands as essential catalysts for environmental adaptation and human resilience in the face of unprecedented climate changes. We desperately need helpful, hopeful narratives about drylands as dynamic ecosystems worthy of care and conservation, making it easier to imagine futures where the desert is valued in its own right. Such narratives shed light on developing novel scientific understandings to address emerging environmental demands.
Hopefully, when moviegoers leave the theater, their lasting memory of Dune will not be one of an inhospitable desert made of spice and made for war—but instead of the planet’s Fremen: people who have adapted to the environment. Working with the landscape, not against it, is the ethos of many Indigenous peoples around the world. It’s time for Western science and pop culture to encourage that shift, so that drylands and the people who live in them might flourish in the face of uncertainty, scarcity and change.