Fixing One Thing

Wednesday, December 25th, 2013

In 1984, around the time that the Dune movie was coming out, Frank Herbert gave an interview to Jean Marie Stine of the Los Angeles Reader:

JMS: In Dune, written in the early ’60s, you were one of the first to question the danger of modifying the ecology of a particular environment to try to “improve” human conditions.

Herbert:  Let me give you a little example on that one.  About 20 years ago the U.S. and West Germany pooled their resources — well, we put in most of the bucks and the people — and went into North Africa, and all across most of the southern veldt of the Sahara.  We dug a lot of tube wells — we drilled them, put pumps on them and brought water up.  We did a good thing and then we walked away from it, more or less.  Technologically we sure as hell walked away from it.

What happened was that they had more water and more grazing areas.  More arable land was opened up, more cattle were put on the land, and the population grew to equal the new food supply.  Then about five years ago, the rainfall, cyclic rainfall, decidedly decreased.  Three years ago it went, practically dry.  Of course the water table went down much faster because they were pumping.  Right now as we sit here talking, 2,000 people a day are dying in that area.  You can’t go in and fix one thing to make everything all right in a complex situation. It’s like an internal combustion engine.  If there is only one thing wrong you may happen on the one thing that fixes it.  But chances are much larger that by just doing one thing you create other problems you’re going to have to adjust.  And you have to keep adjusting until you create a balance.

For instance, one of the side effects of what we did in some of those North African villages was that we broke down the social system.  Women previously went to the well for water, which they carried back on their heads, and the well was where they solved all their community problems.  By piping water into the houses we cut off that link in their society and all hell broke loose.  There were family feuds, murders, all kinds of things that had never occurred in these places, in that particular way, ever before.  The Green Revolution was another, similar con game.  We went in with a technologically based system into primitive countries, and where before they had depended on manure and animals to pull their plows and that sort of thing, we made them dependent on special soil additives and special seed stock which was, by the way, very vulnerable to disease.

I’m reminded of The Logic of Failure.


  1. Bob Sykes says:

    On the other hand, without the Green Revolution we would be living in Paul Erhlich’s dystopia, or maybe worse if we had a world war.

    Herbert is perilously close to adopting the stance that we should leave the darkies to their own devices whatever the outcome. This is by and large the modern Green position.

  2. Candide III says:

    Africa cannot wage world war. Nor true mass migration, either — the few hundreds of thousands which come each year to the EU are a drop in the ocean.

    This is also one of the two options in the neoreactionary position — the other one being unabashed colonialism à la Britain in Egypt.

  3. Bruce says:

    family feuds, murders, all kinds of things that never occurred in those places

    I had no idea North Africa was so peaceful! We should put them in charge of the UN!

    Cheap sarcasm aside, I think Herbert’s obviously right about lowering the water table = BAD. I don’t know what we should have done. Underground canals, underground houses?

  4. David Foster says:

    “The leading cause of problems is solutions”

    …which doesn’t imply that there should not be solution-creating.

  5. Toddy Cat says:

    Herbert certainly has a point, but I’d be willing to bet that there was more to the social disruption he witnessed than simple availability of water. Monistic, single-issue explanations are usually just as misleading and inappropriate as monistic, single-issue solutions.

  6. Sam says:

    There is no doubt what so ever that White people are responsible for the deaths of those poor Africans. If they had not put those wells in they would have never been alive to kill. Showing the great deviousness of the White man.

  7. Sam says:

    Forgot to add. Where’s the Bureau of Sabotage when we need them. (Frank Herbert fans will understand).

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