If you’re the sort of person who worries that Star Wars has lost some of its geeky cachet now that its trailers debut on Monday Night Football, rest assured. While counting the hours until Episode VII, The Force Awakens, you can nerd out with the help of social scientists.
The long arc in which the Republic falls, the Empire rises, and the Jedi finally return is obviously a story of political and economic struggles—the Sith conspiracy begins with a dispute over “the taxation of trade routes,” of all things. Economists have scrutinized the Empire’s administration of a far-flung territory and questioned how it built a second Death Star in only a few years. Political scientists have suggested the Old Republic collapsed due to its lack of a viable minority party. Just as on Earth, however, both the stakes and conditions of these struggles are shaped by the ecological systems in which they take place. If we take seriously the idea that Star Wars is a space epic—a story about space, place, environments, landscapes, worlds, and resources—what else might we notice?
1. Galactic Geographies of Making and Taking
Episode VII will show us the Empire in its last throes. But what made the Empire an empire, other than being controlled by an emperor? The geography of an empire is one in which a core area controls the distribution of resources gathered from a much larger tributary region. Most of the Galactic Empire’s attention, therefore, goes into deciding which products go where, rather than into promoting abstract Sith ideology. For many galactic citizens, like Han Solo, customs inspections and shipping regulations represent the day-to-day reality of Imperial power.
To obtain the valuable but dangerous products that are needed to make its military installations “fully operational,” the Empire finds and creates wasted landscapes. This is not so different from authoritarian states on Earth, which produce “catastrophe sites,” like radioactive enrichment facilities, in order to develop war material. Transforming land through destructive land-use practices also serves political goals: it marginalizes communities by pushing them into more precarious situations, where they become yet more dependent on systems of protection and patronage.
After the destruction of their homeworld, Wookiees and other species are forced into slavery at the fearful Spice Mines of Kessel, where they work in concentration camps in order to extract a precious drug for export to the imperial core. Conditions there are so brutal that the mines are a synonym for extreme punishment. Other exploited planets, like Mustafar and Geonosis, are barren wastelands yielding only raw materials and bulk equipment for a military-industrial system stretching across the galaxy. When the Empire needs something, it’s sure to get it—no matter how many wasted environments it leaves behind.
2. Not the Droids You’re Looking For: Human-Nonhuman Interactions
The crux of Darth Sidious’s military putsch that runs through the prequels is a phony conflict between humanoids (Jedi peacekeepers), robots (the droid armies), and clones (the army produced in secret on Kamino). As living, sentient entities, harnessed to the direct orders of the Emperor, clones were more flexible and adaptive than droids (whose most famous line was “uh-oh!”). They were the perfect expression of “biopower”: the creation of pliable human bodies which can be easily controlled by governments.
As the bartender at the Mos Eisley Cantina proves when he refuses to serve “their kind” (droids) in his otherwise multicultural establishment, people across the galaxy are complicit in the exclusionary practices that come with classifying different parts of the “natural” world. When an Imperial officer sees Chewbacca on the Death Star, he refuses to grant him a human pronoun, asking Han and Luke, who are disguised as stormtroopers: “Where are you taking this … thing?”
The Force itself weaves complicatedly between human consciousness, nonhuman life, and inert matter. Obi-Wan tells Luke that the Force is “created by all living things”—but it can also move rocks and even starfighters. Jedi leaders explain the Force in terms of an organic ideal of “balance” and life being “bound together.” But the thirst for life can go awry: what drives Anakin Skywalker to the Dark Side is the goal of creating everlasting life, and he attaches himself to Darth Sidious when the future emperor tells him the myth of Darth Plagueis. Later, it’s the fact that Darth Vader is “more machine now than man” that proves he is “twisted and evil”—he’s a cyborg whose menacing figure transgresses the division between the organic and inorganic worlds.
3. Between Sand and Space: Social Discontent and Ecological Vulnerability
Resentment towards the Empire festers on the marginal planets where residents struggle to scrape out a living in difficult conditions. On Tatooine, where laws against slavery go unheeded, the economy is based on salvaging waste. Jawas crawl the planet in search of discarded droids and other scrap, and in the cities, traders like Watto deal in junk mechanics and enslaved bodies.
In this land of scarcity, the control of water becomes a crucial adaptive strategy. Luke Skywalker is a peasant moisture farmer who dreams of escaping his patriarchal household and joining a violent resistance movement. Just as climate change on Earth may lead to political instability, the out-migration of young moisture farmers such as Luke and Biggs Darklighter, spurred on by environmental fragility as well as capital investment in labor-saving mechanization, helped swell the ranks of the Rebel Alliance. If Emperor Palpatine had invested in a pro-peasant policy for Tattoineans, he might have preemptively squashed the Rebellion.
Customary governance is often the de facto legal system in spaces of ecological and administrative marginality, where the efficacy of formal justice is limited. The Hutts rule Tatooine in the capricious fashion of gangsters, driving many humans to avoid the “wretched hive[s] of scum and villainy” found in provincial cities. This brings them into contact with the native pastoralists, the Tusken Raiders, who aggressively defend access to their traditional territory. These relationships are reminiscent of the dryland, resource-poor areas on Earth that are often difficult for state administrators to control due to a complexity of interests, ethics, and rules of access.
4. Rich Forests, Poor Ewoks: Landscapes Where Rebellion Thrives
On the lush forest moon of Endor, the Empire deployed a small contingent of forces to power the shield for the Second Death Star. But their ability to control the moon outside the boundaries of their shield generator was limited. Despite being “poor” by Imperial standards, the indigenous Ewoks had evolved a culture which was uniquely adapted to the forest, one centered on treehouses, slings, and an animistic religion. “High modern” authoritarian regimes like the Empire tend to flatten social and ecological complexity in order to perfect their utopian visions. By contrast, “traditional” communities like the Ewoks often have the upper hand when their local knowledge allows them to draw distant powers into costly, confusing wars of attrition.
Certain kinds of landscapes lend themselves to popular struggle and make governance more difficult. The Rebel’s Echo Base on the barren ice planet of Hoth in the Outer Rim was crucial to their operations until discovered by a probe droid. After the Jedi Purge, Yoda retreats to the Dagobah system, where, years later, the wetland terrain provides convenient cover for Luke’s Jedi training. “Porous” places like Dagobah, where the difference between land and water is tenuous, have long provided refuge for social outcasts.
5. Galaxy’s Metropolis: Coruscant and the Great Core
The capital of both the Old Republic and the Galactic Empire is Coruscant, a planet whose entire surface, including drained oceans, is covered in a single continuous city. Does the word “city” still apply to such a huge urbanized area—especially if there is no longer any “countryside” left to serve as a contrast? Over the past hundred years on earth, scholars have coined new terms to describe the way that cities have spread and grown together, like “conurbation,” “megalopolis,” and “ecumenopolis.” More recently, urban theorists have argued that it doesn’t make sense to talk about “cities” as a special category any more, now that Earth has become a kind of Coruscant, with urban ecological and social processes dominating the entire globe, even in places that don’t look like cities.
How do galactic administrators manage an urban environment the size of a planet? We know Coruscant must have some form of urban planning: from space, we see a tracework of radial boulevards and ring roads like those that Baron Hausmann planned for imperial Paris. But for a city that’s supposed to be the seat of power for the entire galaxy, it doesn’t seem like the government has been able to do much to stop land-grabbing private development. Coruscant apparently doesn’t have any parks or public space—even the Jedi Temple is crammed in next to a mess of other buildings!
That lack of common space contributes to a pattern of social inequity that helped to topple the Old Republic. Just because Coruscant’s one trillion residents all live in one big city doesn’t meant they all live in the same kind of city. The capital’s higher-ups live higher up: diplomats and Jedi spend their days in airy, top-floor penthouses while a grimy underworld of nightclubs and death-stick dealers lurks below at ground level. Like the vertical segregation of mortality in the 2003 Paris heat wave, Coruscant’s vertical segregation separates the privileged from the at-risk, and, in doing so, cultivates a resentful urban lumpenproletariat with connections to cloners and arms dealers. If only the Old Republic Jedi spent less time meditating in their towers and more time campaigning for a right to the city…
6. Topophilia…and Orbophilia
When Darth Vader couldn’t force Leia to confess the location of the Rebel hideout, Grand Moff Tarkin thought he had a better idea: he’d threaten to blow up her adopted homeworld of Alderaan. When the fragile blue-and-green marble swings into view in the Death Star’s window, we see Leia shaken out of her haughty disdain for her Imperial captors. “No!” she exclaims, “Alderaan is peaceful! We have no weapons! You can’t possibly…”
Hanging there in the window, Alderaan looks an awful lot like the famous Earthrise photo, taken in 1968 from the Apollo 8 capsule. That image catalyzed the environmental movement of the 1970s; it startled ordinary people into facing the reality of the “complete isolation of terrestrial life in a black, sepulchral universe.” It gave emotional urgency—even a sense of frantic immediacy—to the environmental movement, of the same kind that Leia so obviously feels when she imagines Alderaan in the Death Star’s targets. There are few feelings so elementally powerful as the love of a landscape that is identified as “home.”
7. An Empire of Ruin
We’ll soon find out where the Star Wars story goes from here, but we already know that Episode VII takes place in a galaxy where Imperial ruins and decay are the norm. That means that the trilogy-of-trilogies is following closely in the classic environmental cycle that Thomas Cole painted in his Course of Empire series: from Arcadia (imagine the Old Republic, Naboo, and Alderaan) to the Consummation of Empire (Coruscant), through to Destruction and Desolation (the scrap-heaps of Jakku). Ruins and decay are some of the most complicated entanglements of humans and nature: they can represent human creations falling back into “nature,” or else a “natural” course of history reasserting itself over human impermanence. But they also offer refuge to scavengers and outcasts—people that are asked, “Who are you?” and who ask themselves, “Who am I?” In other words, it’s these places on the edges of power where we’ll meet the main characters of The Force Awakens. Place, space, and environment are just as important as the the tropes of mythology or the colors of lightsabers in explaining what makes Star Wars such a fascinating story.
Featured image: Every Star Wars movie begins with a reference to its spatial and historical character. Screenshot.
Garrett Dash Nelson is a Ph.D. student in Geography at the University of Wisconsin–Madison who works on historical geography, landscape and community planning, and intellectual history. His dissertation research follows the search for the “unit landscape” at different geographic scales across a 150-year arc of American land planning. Website. Twitter. Contact.
Eric Nost is a Ph.D. student at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. His research describes the technologies environmental regulators, non-profit conservationists, and private sector entrepreneurs produce and utilize to confront complex, dynamic socio-environmental problems. He is currently looking at efforts to restore coastal marshes following the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. Twitter. Contact.