To Save California, Read “Dune”

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Andrew Leonard in Nautilus:

Fifty years ago science-fiction author Frank Herbert seized the imagination of readers with his portrayal of a planet on which it never rained. In the novel Dune, the scarcest resource is water, so much so that the mere act of shedding a tear or spitting on the floor takes on weighty cultural significance.

To survive their permanent desert climate, the indigenous Fremen of Dune employ every possible technology. They build “windtraps” and “dew collectors” to grab the slightest precipitation out of the air. They construct vast underground cisterns and canals to store and transport their painstakingly gathered water. They harvest every drop of moisture from the corpses of the newly dead. During each waking moment they dress in “stillsuits”—head-to-toe wetsuit-like body coverings that recycle sweat, urine, and feces back into drinking water.

Described by Dune’s “planetary ecologist,” Liet-Kynes, as “a micro-sandwich—a high-efficiency filter and heat exchange system”—the stillsuit is a potent metaphor for reuse, reclamation, and conservation. Powered by the wearer’s own breathing and movement, the stillsuit is the technical apotheosis of the principle of making do with what one has.

Someday, sooner than we’d like, it’s not inconceivable that residents of California will be shopping on Amazon for the latest in stillsuit tech. Dune is set thousands of years in the future, but in California in 2015, the future is now. Four years of drought have pummeled reservoirs and forced mandatory 25 percent water rationing cuts. The calendar year of 2014 was the driest (and hottest) since records started being kept in the 1800s. At the end of May, the Sierra Nevada snowpack—a crucial source of California’s water—hit its lowest point on record: zero. Climate models suggest an era of mega-droughts could be nigh.

Which brings us to Daniel Fernandez, a professor of science and environmental policy at California State University, Monterey Bay, and Peter Yolles, the co-founder of a San Francisco water startup, WaterSmart, that assists water utilities in encouraging conservation by crunching data on individual water consumption. Fernandez spends his days building and monitoring fogcatchers, remarkablyDune-like devices that have the property of converting fog into potable water. “I think about Dune a lot,” Fernandez says. “The ideas have really sat with me. In the book, they revere water, and ask, what do we do?” Similarly, Yolles says, “I remember being fascinated by the stillsuits. That was a striking technology, really poignant.” And inspiring. The fictional prospect of a dystopian future, Yolles says, “helped me see problems that we have, and where things might go.”

More here.

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