Frank Herbert’s Dune and How Often Should a Water Conservationist Bathe?

“To the working planetologist, his most important tool is human beings… You must cultivate ecological literacy among the people.”–Frank Herbert’s Dune

frank herbert 50th anniversary dune-coverFrank Herbert’s Dune, winner of the Nebula and Hugo Awards in 1966, is an ecological classic.   In the early 1970s, I lived for a few months with a family of professor/political activists, who, in their free time, organized a food co-op, played guitar, and read the science fiction novel DuneDune is set on Arrakis, a desert planet. Not only did I find it a compelling story, it taught me about water conservation.  Still, it was hard to see what was in front of my eyes (and occasionally my nose) during my extremely self-conscious clean teens. I had a glimmer of why my friends showered only a couple of times a week, but didn’t  make the personal connection and continued to shower daily.   “You’re the cleanest person we know,” they teased.  Their water bills undoubtedly went up with me in the house..

I recently reread Dune.  It is, to a large extent, about the politics of water. Water is the most precious commodity on the planet, though the ruling class are never dehydrated and live in luxury.  The native Fremen in the desert must wear “stillsuits” that recycle every drop of sweat and urine while they travel or work in the spice mines.  When someone dies, the water is taken from the body to be reused, because 70% of the body is water.  Plastic dew collectors save every drop of condensation for growing plants. Dangerous sand and dust storms blow up to 700 kilometers an hour and “can eat flesh off bones and etch the bones to sliver.”  There are also giant worms.  But the planetologist, who knows exactly how much water is needed to make the planet green over the next few hundred years, teaches the people how to change.

dune by frank herbert tumblr_nf6rpmXyZ01tcujuyo1_1280At the center of the book is the Atreides family, who have recently moved to Dune to rule part of the planet. During a coup,  Duke Leto Atreides is killed, but his wife,  Jessica, a trained priestess with psychic powers,  and son Paul, trained by his mother in matters of the mind, escape to the desert.   The learning and mastery of ecology is the difference between life and death.

The usurping baron kills tens of thousands of people, including Kynes, the radical planetologist, who is seen as a threat because of his ties to the Fremen.  Left in the desert to die, Kynes meditates on water and Arrakis, in a scene reminiscent of stream-of-consciousness  scenes  in Tolstoy’s War and Peace, when men wounded or dying become extra-sensitive and alert to the beauty of the world they are leaving.

Herbert’s style is usually straightforward and brisk, but here is one of his more poetic passages.

He tried to think of moisture in the air—grass covering this dune… open water somewhere beneath him, a long qanat flowing with water open to the sky except in text illustrations. Open water… irrigation water… it took five thousand cubic meters of water to irrigate one hectare of land per growing season, he remembered.”

The reader of Dune wants to become more ecologically literate, but she inevitably wonders:  HOW WOULD MY HAIR LOOK?

Herbert does not mention hair much, but he writes frequently about the odors.  At one point, a character tells the Atreides,

“There’s little to tell them from the folk of the graben and sink. They all wear those great flowing robes. And they stink to heaven in any closed space. It’s from those suits they wear—call them ‘stillsuits’—that reclaim the body’s own water.”

Ah, the unwashed smells of the early ’70s.  I  did know a few men who occasionally stank.  The women never stank:  they no doubt kept themselves cleaner, with quick dabs of the washcloth.   But here’s a fun fact:  even though radicals showered less, no one used deodorant.  Even I, the mad showerer, didn’t.  We weren’t going to support capitalists who made us feel bad about our bodies!  (And there really is no need.  We still have water.)

The climate is in a worse mess now, as was predicted, but my guess is that people use more water, not less.  According to the EPA, the average American uses 100 gallons of water a day.  Good God, that  is a lot.  In the 60s, we washed our hair once or twice a week.  By the time I was in my twenties, most washed their hair daily.  All that washing of hair increases the time of the shower or bath.

Because  I was rereading Dune, I was intrigued by a recent essay in The Guardian by Donnachadh McCarthy, with the headline,”I shower once a week. Here’s why you should too.”  McCarthy statistics about the amount of water used in daily baths and showers and the cost.  He points out that the daily bath

is terrible for the environment and our bank balances. That’s one reason I have reverted to a weekly shower, with a daily sink-wash that includes my underarms and privates. But there are health consequences too.

He writes that soap products can damage the skin and cause medical problems.  It is true:  I myself am allergic to some soaps.

We cannot all be like Donnachadh McCarthy, but are we the last generation to enjoy this luxury of daily baths? Think of the drought last summer, and the paradoxical paucity of clean drinking water during the frequent floods in the Midwest.   If only water conservation could be made to seem glamorous.  Never going to happen, I’m afraid!

13 thoughts on “Frank Herbert’s Dune and How Often Should a Water Conservationist Bathe?

  1. Fascinating post Kat! I’ve never read Dune and had no idea it had an ecological side. The article you link to was intriguing too. I’ve never washed my hair daily, and all the people I know who do have dreadful problems with greasiness – makes you think, doesn’t it?


    • Dune is great, a bit rambling, but the ideas are fascinating. It was featured in the Whole Earth Catalogue in the ’70s. Yes, I’ve weaned myself away from the daily hair wash because it was so time-consuming and needless. The daily wash does something to the hair! You’re right.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. When I was employed (for money) I washed my hair twice a week. Now, retired, I shower and wash my hair once a week. With strategic spot cleaning as needed. I don’t think I smell worse than anyone else, and it is great for your skin not to keep removing all the natural oils.


    • Washing hair every day is simply punishing! Only those who are working out probably need the daily bath. All that soap IS bad for the skin. I wonder how the daily bath became a custom? Probably someone has written a book on it.


  3. I too read Dune in the 1970s but came away with a different but lasting impression. What stayed with me was the use of tone in the voice, how certain characters had a commanding element of authoritarianism in their voice, almost compelling others to obey. This fascinated me — I think it reminded me of my father! But the issue of water usage is of course entirely relevant today. What a great scifi book to teach.


    • Yes, it’s Machiavelli meets Mata Hari and Mother Theresa! and water conservationists. Well, something like that. It’s a fascinating book, with many ideas intertwined.


  4. I enjoyed reading this. I’ve two kinds of comments. First my own taste: I wish such philosophical and political stories were not done in the science fiction mode. I suspect it makes the matter less pressing: we don’t have to believe this is going to happen at all. You can probably dramatize more if you leave the probable and reality surface but it’s less convincing. I saw a powerful move, After the rain , with Bernal even years ago based on a real incident where a company bought the water and was hiking up prices. Now we are seeing this in the US — the water in Flint Michigan was poisoned in an attempt to get peope to think gov’t can’t do the job.

    The other is showering. I do shower each day and wash my hair. I suppose I could skip the hair washing but I kid on facebook some shower I do water therapy. I need the experience in the shower each morning the way I need my glass of wine at night, maybe even more. I’ve dyed hair and the conditioner keeps is soft; Izzy has very long hair and for her it’s a way of brushing her hair each day. What I am doing is not using my dishwasher the way I used to. It was ridiculous: Izzy and I had so few dishes I’d wait for days to have enough to make the wash worth it, and we’d run out of dishes or cutlery. Plus now know it made my water bill much higher. The thing broke after it’s 22 year life and I discovered it was the dishwasher which had been flooding one third of my kitchen for years; I paid to have all the pipes rebuilt (I had a hard time finding any one who would rebuild pipes from 1947) and had a new dishwasher installed. In the meantime I was washing by hand; no more huge amounts of dishes to unload or load; no more waiting with dirty stuff in the machine. If ever Izzy and I have company (it’s happened once and once only since Jim died, the first thanksgiving a student kindly visited us with her partner) and I daresay it’ll never happen again for decades, or we have some kind of meal where we make huge and difficult to clean sets of dishes, I’ll use it. I’m glad to be untethered.

    Think of all the people who use dishwashers all the time. The amounts of water thrown away.


    • Ellen, there is some remarkable science fiction that could just as easily be shelved in the literature section! It’s like the Poldark books, sure, they’re historical novels, but they go beyond pop.

      I must admit, I concentrate on bicycling and walking rather than driving (I probably sit in a car once a month, if that) and think very little about water conservation. Reading Dune made me think about it much more! And then the Guardian article.

      I grew up bathing every day and did shower every day when I was working out of the home, as they say. I kept my hair short so I could wash it quickly. I could get away with the gamine look when I was young and thin! Now I sometimes skip a day, though of course if I am active–today I came home covered with grease because my bike chain fell off!–naturally it is into the bathroom. Our bathroom is an antique, though, and washing my thick hair is a big project here. But the texture seems different now that it is gray, coarser, so it doesn’t matter QUITE as much.

      But we do have a luxurious lifestyle with all our bathing!


      • I didn’t mean to suggest Dune is not a very good book, belonging as much to the literature section as any one of your numerous books gone over so beautifully here (and the Poldarks or the older classics I tend to go for, Gaskell most recently). It’s that I take more seriously when the furniture and setting is set in the real world and I’ve noticed that students are inclined to be less dismissive of stories which can be linked to literal truth.

        Here in Alexandria on summer days I can shower as much as three times a day if I go out a lot . Briefly the second and third times accompanied by getting in front of a fan while the water on my body starts to dry in order to bring down my body temperature. I used to do that with or for my daughters when they were young. And this is living in an air-conditioned house. I can’t bike-ride alas (too much a coward to let go) but I can walk! and swim in pools in the community centers.

        Many of us here live luxurious lifestyles compared with much of the world. We must hope very hard that the next election for president does not bring disaster.


        • Yes, I love my luxurious lifestyle! We all do what we can. With me it’s all the bicycling. We all have to decide what we can do, and that’s it. I suppose they conserve water when there’s drought in the west. Let’s hope it never comes to that.

          Oh, God, yes, the president will mean everything. We’re going to miss Obama.


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